An Immigrant Haven

As an organization, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) takes the rights of immigrants seriously. Based in the Quaker faith, it takes the social rights of more oppressed groups, such as immigrants, and represents them before the law.

The Iowa Immigrant Rights Program, a program within AFSC, specifically represents immigrants and helps them become adjusted within the state and community atmosphere that has developed in Iowa. According to its website, the program “works with immigrants in Central Iowa to help build a sense of community so that new immigrants will be able to participate in the political processes in their communities.” In an era where the political climate against immigration and foreigners has become more polarized, this kind of organization has become invaluable for refugees and immigrants alike.

Erica Johnson is the current director of the AFSC Iowa Immigrant Rights Program. She says the program is important because it provides a space for the immigrants to express their worries and gives them more community resources than would be available if they were left to fend for themselves.

“Through the years [the AFSC has] evolved as a peace and justice organization and [have] offices all around the world focusing on different things,” Johnson says. “But in Iowa our office has been here since about the ‘40s and for the past couple years [we] have focused exclusively on immigrant rights. To do that we have two program areas. The first one is offering legal services to about 300 immigrants and refugees per year. That includes helping people file paperwork related to bringing families together.”

Along with these other aspects, Johnson says the organization allows immigrants and refugees to become active in their new, American communities.

The AFSC allows “people to become naturalized citizens, to take the oath of citizenship,” Johnson says. “But I think perhaps the more hands-on and collaborative model of the advocacy in organizing and helping communities, immigrants and refugees, come together and identify barriers or struggles or signs of abuse in their community and come together and brainstorm some ways to solve those things.”

This kind of bonding allows other immigrants to come together and empathize with the experiences of different immigrant groups as well.

“In doing so, building community where they are and connecting with people not just that have a similar background or are from the same countries or have migrated the same way that they have,” Johnson says, “but also people who have different stories and different backgrounds and the power of kind of coming together collectively to take collective action on the issues that they are struggling with.”

In today’s climate, Johnson admits the backgrounds of many immigrants are scrutinized by people outside of those communities. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the communities is intense. This is nothing new, Johnson says, but is extreme compared to rhetoric about immigrants in the past.

“This country has always had a difficult time accepting immigrants and refugees no matter where we’re from,” Johnson says. “But it’s particularly more pronounced right now. I’ve been working in the field for about thirteen years now and the anti-immigrant rhetoric is much more intense now than I’ve seen it in the past.”

Even with this stigma surrounding immigration, Johnson says the work of the AFSC is still important.

“I think [the most important part of AFSC] is probably the fact that the organization is grounded in the belief–it’s a Quaker belief–the idea that there is, we say, ‘There is that of God in everyone,’” Johnson says. “And, essentially, the view that the work of every individual, regardless of where they come from. And [we] believe that these big systemic problems and societal issues such as the criminalization of immigrants and refugees or the sort-of bend towards nativism that we’re seeing more broadly is harmful and that the best way to fix that is by engaging those who are most directly impacted by the problem.”

For more information on the AFSC and the history of refugees and immigrants in the state of Iowa, make sure to check out the second episode of Urban Plains’ podcast “Everywhere In Between!”

Flag picture by jnn1776 via Flickr

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