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Immigration simulation held in Dubuque

Participants learn about U.S. system of legal immigration

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

DUBUQUE — In this contentious election year, perhaps no issue has been more controversial than immigration. Should our nation “build a wall” to keep out “illegal immigrants” or provide “amnesty” for “undocumented migrants”? Should we increase the admission of the growing number of refugees fleeing war and oppression worldwide or does this pose too much risk to national security?

Whatever positions you take in this debate and whatever words you decide to use to describe the nature of it, one thing is clear — average Americans have little to no knowledge about how our current immigration system actually works. Catholic Charities of the Dubuque Archdiocese partnered recently with the Franciscan Sisters of Dubuque to help remedy this lack of awareness about the immigration process by holding an “immigration simulation.”

About 75 volunteers, many of them Catholic Charities employees or community members from around the archdiocese who are working with immigration issues, gathered at Steeple Square in Dubuque Oct. 28 to participate. Over the course of several hours, part of the group pretended to be immigrants of different types attempting to enter the country and/or receive legal status. Others played the role of immigration officials, attorneys, judges, and even human smugglers and con artists that try to take advantage of immigrants. Participants were given a backstory of who they were to portray, some money, forms and other necessities. They were then asked to go through the immigration system. The stakes were high — some could end up in jail, deported or defrauded, while others found the opportunities they needed.

Each 15-minute increment counted as four years. By the end of the exhaustive exercise, a select subset of people became citizens, others were still working at other various points in the system, and some remained in foreign countries or without legal status domestically. In one word, the system is “complex.”

“If we do a simulation and people are not confused then we’ve failed,” said Sister Shirley Fineran, OSF, a social work professor at Briar Cliff University in Sioux City who led the simulation. “Many of (the immigration forms) change and they are 20 pages long. If you don’t speak the language, it is all the more complicated. “The process is challenging and difficult and long,” she added. “When people are undocumented, it’s not necessarily that they don’t want to start the process, it’s that it takes so long and some people have no hope.”

According to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the United States admits about one million legal permanent resident immigrants a year and another roughly four million on long term legal temporary status. This makes our nation the leading country in the world when it comes to accepting immigrants legally. These figures don’t include the myriad of people who enter the nation without legal permission each year. The Pew Research Center reports that the U.S. foreign born population in 2015 was 44.9 million, a record high.

The system does work well for many, but many others suffer, including those who are victims of labor and sex trafficking and those families who are separated. Some have no hope at all of legal entry. The gathering prayed for comprehensive immigration reform. Some participants, like Father Paul Ouderkirk, had experience helping immigrants — in his case during the aftermath of the 2008 immigration raid in Postville.

In the simulation, he portrayed a young adult refugee from Africa who, with the help of two brothers and a mother, was eventually able to navigate the system to citizenship. For him, the entire simulated process from refugee camp to citizenship ceremony took 12 years.

“Doing this simulation, you realize how important it is that we have comprehensive immigration reform. A Band-Aid approach is going to fail,” said the priest.

Catholic Charities provides services to immigrants and has recently hired a full time immigration attorney after assessing the great need in the region.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Tracy Morrison, executive di­rec­tor of Catholic Charities. “We want to provide quality affordable representation.”

Mike Mbanza, who provides legal services to immigrants as part of his position with Catholic Charities, played a government official during the simulation. “I hope that they (the participants) came to realize how frustrating and challenging the process is for immigrants to get lawful status,” he said. “I’m an immigrant myself and I went through the process,” he said. “The reason I became a U.S. citizen is because I didn’t give up. I think all people should have hope and know this is a land of opportunity and not give up.”

PHOTO: Mike Mbanza (left) portrays a government official during the immigration simulation as he assists Mary Ready, who is depicting an immigrant. Both are employees of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. Sister Shirley Fineran, OSF, who organized the event, looks on. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)