The day the ICE raids were supposed to begin, Laura Pontius spoke to a group of immigrants who were gathered in a Catholic Church to learn about their legal rights and the most recent changes to immigration law. After her presentation, a man approached her and the priest. She recalls that the man was visibly afraid, but he had a message to share. “All of my family and friends are really scared about what’s going to happen,” he told her. “It brings us a lot of peace that there are people out there thinking about how we’re feeling and about how we might need certain resources right now.” As he spoke, Laura was struck by how many times the man thanked her. Again and again, he expressed his gratitude that members of the community cared about what happened to him and his family.
The session this man attended is part of a larger program, produced by Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic and funded by the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation. Implemented in Northeast Indiana by Laura herself, who serves as the Immigration Outreach Attorney, the program is two-pronged. One of those prongs focuses on educating immigrants about the law, its history, and immigrant rights; the other prong focuses on educating non-immigrants.
“People who are concerned or have questions or just want to know more about what’s happening within the immigration world right now—we are doing Immigration 101 sessions,” says Laura. “We’ve done these in churches; we’ve done these in nonprofits and some businesses. And it’s really just supposed to be a safe space for people to be able to get facts and figures and truth. And then be able to digest it in a way that is safe.” This process includes dispelling common misconceptions. For instance, Laura says that frequently people will approach her after a presentation and say things like, “I had no idea that immigrants pay taxes.”
These non-immigrant sessions are conducted with respect for those who may think differently and Laura tells me she wants attendees to come forward with questions. She wants to “give information instead of sound bytes.” With a short time to grab your attention, she explains, the media helps to sensationalize the issues without clarifying them. “So that’s a big part of what I’m trying to do in the non-immigrant community: to just equip people with nonpartisan resources where they can go on their own, at home, get online, and do some reading.”
As this program continues to grow, Laura hopes it will help people listen to one another, to treat each other with compassion, and to recognize that most of our families were immigrants at one time as well. For this reason, Laura encourages others to discover their own immigrant story, and to engage with people who have recently immigrated to this country. “On my father’s side, my family came to this country for religious freedom,” she says. “We’re in a very different time now than when our ancestors came, but it is amazing that the United States is still a beacon of freedom.”
To learn more about our Immigrant Outreach Program, please email Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org.