Welcome program partnership with diocese to serve immigrants, refugees
By DAWN PROSSER
Director of Communications
“One of the great blessings of our Diocese of Sioux City is its cultural diversity. We are enriched and encouraged by the many and varied cultural groups that make up our diocese,” said Bishop Walker Nickless. “The Catholic Church is for people of every nation and background. All are called to be a part of the body of Christ. That is why I am so proud of our new initiative, ‘Welcome.’”
The bishop said the Welcome program is a new partnership between the diocese, Catholic Charities and Revathi Vongsiprasom of Siouxland Immigration Law Firm, L.L.C., which “demonstrates the care and concern we have for immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who need help and guidance in so many ways.”
Welcome assists northwest Iowa residents of all faiths who need immigration and additional support services. The bishop explained he wanted the diocese to do more for immigrants in northwest Iowa and recognized it was clear that mental health services and assistance with legal services was paramount to bringing health and safety to the growing immigrant and refugee populations in northwest Iowa.
One stop for help
Based out of the Sioux City Catholic Charities Office, immigration attorney Vongsiprasom and Norma Garza-Ramirez, case manager, provide services throughout the diocese’s 24 counties. Welcome offers immigration legal assistance, case management and mental health counseling.
“To have something that is a combination of services is what’s so unique about it. Not only do they have access to an attorney but then have a case manager walk alongside them and connect them with community resources,” explained Amy Bloch, Catholic Charities executive director.
Bloch explained Welcome clients have someone to advise them regarding health care, housing, assist with paperwork when needed and “to say it’s okay to receive mental health care and I can help you get set up with that. It’s like a one stop shop … To have that in our diocese, in our 24 counties, is pretty special.”
“The other uniqueness is that our bishop has signaled the financial support for this so that those really in need don’t have that added burden on their shoulders of, ‘how do we pay for this?’ It’s very expensive and that often drives people into the shadow,” said Deacon Mark Prosser, chief of staff for Bishop Nickless.
Filling a need
For many months, Bloch and Deacon Prosser discussed meeting the needs of the immigrant and refugee populations and gaps in service for newcomers in the area.
“For well over a year, in our research on behalf of the bishop on how to provide additional services for our immigrant brothers and sisters, we heard recurring stories of the need for legal services and we heard recurring stories of the need for mental health services,” the deacon explained.
Deacon Prosser said advocacy groups pointed out “the amount of trauma and exposure to situations, violence, stress that so many of these individuals and their families have experienced.”
As Catholic Charities was established in offering quality mental health care, housing a new program at the agency made sense to assist area immigrants and refugees.
“It definitely fits with our mission and definitely an underserved population. There’s definitely a need in our communities for this,” Bloch said, noting that hiring Garza-Ramirez in the fall of 2022 was the next step in creating Welcome.
As legal immigration assistance is difficult to acquire, especially in rural areas, Catholic Charities and the diocese were fortunate to partner with Vongsiprasom for Welcome.
“It’s truly the work of the Holy Spirit as good immigration attorneys are hard to find around the country and not just the Midwest or Iowa,” Deacon Prosser said. “A year and a half ago, we could not have predicted having the wonderful staff of the Welcome program today and we are very blessed.”
Navigating the system
Having worked with refugees and immigrants for over 17 years, Garza-Ramirez said she understands the difficulties, including language, finances and employment for newcomers.
“When an immigrant, asylum seeker or refugee comes in for help, there’s a lot of challenges they might be struggling with,” the case worker said. “For me, it’s such a blessing to be able to connect them with other resources in the community.”
She said the clients are relieved to see that Welcome is “a friendly agency, a welcoming agency,” that understands their challenges.
Garza-Ramirez explained navigating the U.S. immigration system is complex, everyone’s situation is unique and there are misperceptions about newcomers to the area. Not everyone is able to work right away, depending upon their circumstance, a person may need to obtain a work permit to work in the U.S. This is only if their situation allows for eligibility and this can take some time, Vongsiprasom said.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘Just take them (the person in need) to the post office to get a passport.’ You can’t just go to the post office and get a work permit or a passport,” Garza-Ramirez said.
(Applying for a passport at the post office is only for U.S. citizens born in the country or successful completion of the naturalization process. A false claim of citizenship even if unintentional is an unforgivable offense by the U.S. government, the attorney explained.)
Born in the U.S. and raised in Texas, the case manager said she wasn’t fully aware of the challenges of crossing the border to live in the U.S.
“I grew up in a border town in Texas. I never knew that across that border were people who couldn’t come into the U.S. In my family they never taught us that they were different or that it was a different place,” she explained. “It touched me learning how people are seeking a better way of life, a better living to be able to provide for their families.”
Also, Garza-Ramirez’s husband is an immigrant and encountered his own challenges navigating the system and acquiring the status to work legally.
Hearing her husband’s story and others, she feels driven to help. The case manager said some clients are threatened by neighbors or landlords that they will “call immigration on you,” and stay in the shadows out of fear. She fielded a recent call where a man was suffering from a seizure but was afraid to seek medical help due to his immigration status.
“When they travel and make that trip across those borders it is not easy,” she said. “That’s why I do what I do. I wish I could do more. It’s a passion I have to be able to be that helping hand for the immigrant community and connect and help them the best I can.”
Empathy for newcomers
Vongsiprasom has been practicing immigration law since 2015 and also clerked with a Sioux Falls immigration attorney while in law school. She said her family’s history is what led her to a career helping newcomers, as her parents immigrated to the U.S. over 40 years ago from India. As a child of an immigrant, she encountered “culture clashes” growing up.
With a desire to attend medical school and also law school, Vongsiprasom first attended law school. After the immigration law clerking experience, she decided she wanted to focus on helping immigrants as an attorney.
“In a way it brings honor to my family and their story, their journey here. I get to live out the American dream every day because of my parents,” she explained. “How can I help others achieve their piece of the American dream and in a realm I know I can help with. That is what has continued to fuel my commitment to this field of work.”
The immigration attorney can relate to newcomers due to her experiences growing up and working in the legal system.
“It’s interesting that I am the only immigration attorney of color in our area, our region,” Vongsiprasom pointed out. “This is huge in representation. The ugly (part) of it is that I will go with clients to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-in and they think I am getting deported. That’s terrifying. I was born here.”
Also when representing clients in Omaha in immigration courtrooms, the judges sometimes assume she is the client and not an attorney.
“It’s so imperative people understand that people who are immigrants are any shade of color, not just brown people, not just black people. And brown people, black people have someone in this field who can advocate for them,” the attorney explained.
Due to the availability of legal help in the area and for economic reasons, some newcomers have fallen victim to people claiming they can help with immigration case paperwork. Vongsiprasom said she wants people to know that “notarios” or public notaries, are not attorneys and the results can be damaging.
“The disaster there is that any mistakes that are made on these forms is considered an intentional lie to the federal government for the benefit of immigration. That could absolutely derail somebody’s ability to be here in the U.S. permanently,” she said. “This is a prevalent issue in the Siouxland area and beyond.”
Welcome staff members will be reaching out to all areas of the diocese where there’s a need for services. They traveled to Storm Lake in January to meet with community leaders and Salud, a local outreach organization, to share information about what the program offers to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
Vongsiprasom said they are considering weekend visits in other communities in the diocese . They are also considering using local advocates who can serve as intake helpers to “funnel that information back to us in Sioux City.”
As the program is new and immigration cases generally take many years and in some cases decades to resolve, the attorney pointed out “this is going to be a slow and steady process,” taking care to maintain the program’s integrity.
The work of the Welcome program isn’t simply a benefit for the newcomers in the 24 counties of the Diocese of Sioux City, Bloch pointed out.
“It’s not just good for the individuals or families, it’s good for the community. These individuals are working in our communities, their kids are in our schools. If we can provide legal services, getting them connected with housing and things like that and also heal their trauma, that’s good for everybody,” she said.
Contact Welcome at (712) 252-4547 or email@example.com