LA CROSSE, Wis. -
Since the 1800's, the statue of liberty embodied hope and opportunity for immigrants seeking a better life in America. The iconic statue stands as a symbol of freedom.
While many people migrate to the U.S. for freedom, every immigrant has a different story. There are currently more than 11 million immigrants without legal status living and working in the U.S. In Wisconsin, 85,000 people have illegally settled in the state. Three-fourths of them are from Mexico.
Zemecha Gora arrived to Austin, Minnesota in 2016 as a refugee from one of the largest refugee camps in Kenya. "Back home, people are more suffering in persecution, killed and arrested. But when I compare myself here, I'm not being persecuted now and I'm not being arrested or killed in the United States.”
Yessica Barrera-Santoyo was able to petition through her ex-husband. "He was trying to do the papers for me and my sons."
Gora was granted entree by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services through a form called I-94, which allows refugees like him, who are fleeing persecution and massacres, a chance at a new life. "When I compare the life, it's better than when I was home or in the refugee camps,” Gora said.
When he settled he received help from Prince of Peace Church in La Crescent. "When the Syrian crisis hit a year ago, or a year and a half ago, the congregation was wanting to find out what we can do,” said Pastor Kent Johnson of Prince of Peace.
Gora and Barrera's stories are similar to many people who migrate to the country each year in hopes of achieving the American Dream. But in reality, their process wasn't as difficult as it is for many others. "Today people need to know first of all that it's just not as simple as filling out an immigration application."
That's because immigration laws haven't changed since the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. "Congress has not taken any action on passing new laws or reforming our system,” said La Crosse Immigration Attorney Chuck Berendes.
When it comes to gaining legal status, immigration attorneys with Catholic Charities say it isn't easy and laws are specific. "You need to be an immediate relative of someone who is a citizen or legal permanent resident. It's also that you need to be maybe a qualified refugee or someone who has sought asylum in this country it's only the rare exception, or the victim of a crime or domestic violence.”
David says the laws are limited and have been for decades."We don't have laws in place that protect people who we would all agree are in danger and if they were forced to go to their home country, probably wouldn't survive and yet we don't have an application or a process for them to be here legally."
David says his immigration office in La Crosse alone serves immigrants from more than 30 countries every year. He says in Wisconsin, immigrants without legal status are working in jobs the state is still struggling to fill. And while the United States is a place for them to find safe homes and jobs, they aren't eligible for the benefits of U.S. citizens.
David answers a commonly asked question: "Are immigrants going to be a burden on our tax system or on our government? and the reality is you can't apply for anything if you're not a legal permanent resident if you're not a citizen you can't get any welfare you can't get food stamps you can't get public housing you can't get social security or any kind of general assistance, you're simply not eligible and people don't know that."
Pastor Kent at Prince of Peace Church says it's the complex system that inspired him to help people like Gora and his family. "It's making us be more intentional, and more faith, and standing up for what's right could have consequences as we determine how to work within the laws but also to change the laws."
Attorneys say while the laws have always been challenging, President Trump's recently proposed policies on immigration heightened some of the fears for both immigrants and U.S. citizens living in La Crosse. "I have schools calling me, hospitals calling me, it's not just the people themselves but people are concerned about their neighbor, they're concerned about their student in the classroom."
Because in the past, U.S. Immigration and Customs enforcement would look for people with certain criminal convictions. Those priorities now changed under the new administration.
"So what that means is where before I could tell families, the government is not looking to deport you, they are looking for people with criminal convictions or who already had a final order to leave and did not, now we don't know what's next,” David said.
For Zemecha, coming to the U.S. was a life or death situation. "If I couldn't free away, I would have been persecuted, arrested, I would have been killed by the government of Ethiopia."
He says being in the U.S. gives him a sense of relief. but he still doesn't have citizenship, which makes his story unpredictable. "I ask myself how can I stay here if I'm not a citizen, if I don't receive my green card."
For Barrera, coming here was so her sons can have a better education. However her stay is temporary and now she's waiting to gain citizenship too. "When I have been here for five years then I can apply for citizenship,” Barrera said.
David says there's no easy fix, but changes in the laws need to be made in order for the country to keep up with the conversations that are happening today. "We need to something for these families so that we haven't torn up our community."
"Our message is that Jesus was a refugee, we know that people are strangers, seeking new beginnings and we're called to love and welcome all people,” said Pastor Kent.
For more than a century, lady liberty has promised to take the tired, the poor and the huddled masses from around the world. But as times change, some people believe that message might be changing too.
"Are we still a Statue of Liberty country?" asked David.
Immigration attorneys say one of the most difficult things they're dealing with now is helping immigrants who are so engrained in our society but still don't have an ability to be here legally.
They also say one of the biggest challenges they're seeing is many immigrants without legal status, mainly women, won't report crimes or domestic abuse to the local police department because they're scared they might be deported.
However victims of domestic violence, regardless of citizenship status, are protected by law.
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