RACINE — Being a stranger in a strange land can be daunting, even scary.
Being an undocumented resident in an alien country can be downright terrifying.
“I believe almost everyone who is here wants to be here legally,” said Annabell Bustillos, a member of the Racine Interfaith Coalition’s immigration task force. “No one wants to live in fear.”
For undocumented residents of Racine County, now there is help to alleviate those fears: an attorney who specializes in immigration issues will be in Racine once a week.
Barbara Graham, director of immigration legal services for Catholic Charities in Milwaukee, will be in Racine every Tuesday at the Catholic Charities office, 800 Wisconsin Ave.
Graham appeared at Cristo Rey Hall at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, 1111 Douglas Ave., on Sunday afternoon to answer questions and address concerns from interested residents.
The forum, called Know Your Rights, was sponsored by the Racine Interfaith Coalition’s immigration task force.
Graham spoke in smooth, unfaltering Spanish, trying to answer queries as best she could.
“Each person’s case is different,” explained Sister Joyce Quintana, a Racine Dominican nun who has been on the task force for four years. “Everyone has a different situation and different questions.”
Graham is one of five attorneys in the Milwaukee office and probably the most knowledgeable about immigration issues, said Don Mueller, a St. Patrick’s parish member.
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“In talking to our parish members and others in the community we found one of our biggest needs here was to get an attorney in Racine,” Mueller said. “Barbara will help people get straight answers.”
Many undocumented Racine residents are hesitant and afraid to drive to Milwaukee to see an attorney without proper identification, Mueller said.
With the number of presumed undocumented people in Racine County, the program could easily expand into five days a week, Mueller said.
Interested individuals must schedule an appointment by calling the Milwaukee office, Mueller said. The number is 414-643-8570.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society Our Lady of Guadalupe Conference, which consists of the St. Patrick, St. Richard and St. Joseph parishes, is working to fund the program, Mueller said.
Graham charges clients on a sliding scale, usually based on a client’s income and ability to pay. She also will help keep residents away from immigration scams — people who claim they can help immigrants become legal then take their money and providing nothing, Mueller said.
Legal representation is key for immigrants seeking to endure the sometimes-arduous path to become citizens, said Bustillos, who works as a bilingual advocate for Lutheran Social Service Inc. sexual assault services.
“It can be very difficult to find immigration lawyers,” said Bustillos, whose mother and father came from Mexico and became citizens in the 1980s. “Some cases have lasted 16 or 17 years. Many people are in that limbo of being in the process.”
Mexicans have always crossed the border to work in America, said Quintana, who has worked with immigrants since 1999. Many undocumented residents came here to visit relatives and simply never left, she said.
The real influx came after the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the Central America Free Trade Agreement in 2005, she said. Millions of young males from Mexican and Central American countries streamed into the United States looking for jobs, she said.
“They took the risk of coming here to find work that in many cases could pay them as much in one day than they could in one week or even one month in Mexico,” Quintana said.