CATHOLIC HERALD STAFF
For the immigrant and refugee community, basic information — like how to fill out claim forms or apply for citizenship — is buried under clunky legal jargon.
The complexities of immigration law make tax code look user-friendly, lawyers joke.
For Barbara Graham and her team at the Refugee and Immigration Services, Catholic Charities- Milwaukee, this is more than an inconvenience. Misunderstanding a form or not mailing a specific number of documents to the court can mean the difference between citizenship or deportation.
Last year, with this in mind, the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters Foundation approached the Refugee and Immigration Services team with a surprising request.
They wanted to fund a discreet project in a city where the Wheaton Franciscans have had a hospital, and they wanted to help Graham and her team win the funds.
“It was the sanest grant I have ever done in my life,” said Graham.
She and her team were assigned a grant mentor, and after lunch and an extended visit from the Foundation, they stayed in touch for the whole year — and were awarded funds for a full-time position and advanced equipment to build a new website.
“We have always had two stated purposes: direct legal services and trying to get information to the public,” Graham said.
The Refugee and Immigration Services team determined building a website would be the best means to dispense information: extend accessibility to legal information and clarify legal jargon. The demand for information is huge, both in scope and in distance.
“It’s really hard for four staff attorneys to cover 10 counties in five minutes. We just can’t do it,” Graham said.
In the past, the office sent out a newsletter, but that method is not as cohesive or responsive as a digital catalogue. Even parish presentations did not fully address questions and concerns social workers, school administrators or immigrants and refugees had.
A website, though, is accessible anywhere with a computer or mobile device, and includes an unlimited amount of information.
And the content — “It is not meant for providers. It’s not meant for attorneys. It is meant for the immigrant community because I couldn’t find anything that was written for the immigrant community,” Graham explained.
In January, Tara Lovdahl joined the Refugee and Immigration Services office, her position funded by the grant. For the past 10 months, she has uploaded 50 pages to the new site, organized by category and topic. The pages are punctuated with pictures of indigenous fabrics.
A manufacturing company transplant with experience in web development, “I know way more about immigration now than I had ever planned on,” Lovdahl said. “I have learned a lot; I love having the autonomy that I have had, but also working with Barbara and the other staff here has been great.”
A sticky-note brainstorm session at a staff meeting launched the content creation for the project back in the first few months of this year.
Since then, the whole office has helped proofread, ensuring the legal and grammar accuracy of the content, and the website’s readability.
“It is really purpose-driven work and it is good to give back to people who really need help, and I think that is what unites everyone in this office. Everyone is really dedicated to what they do,” said Lovdahl.
The Foundation approved another grant cycle “so we get to keep her,” Graham said of Lovdahl.
The website’s soft launch was earlier in October; the address: https://risccmke.org.
Its purpose is to offer the information refugees and immigrants need, so they can gain a general understanding of their legal needs, Graham explained, adding that the website encourages people to speak with a lawyer at every new page click.
“Our goal is to replace rumors with accurate information about immigration in the United States,” the website reads.
“We even did a section on how to go lawyer shopping,” Graham said.
Lawyers are employees of their clients, and there are certain questions immigrants and refugees can ask prospective lawyers to determine if they would be the right fit for their specific case.
The website also includes information for domestic violence victims, crime victims, family-based immigration and deportation defense.
Pages cover topics such as where to find a civic surgeon for an immigration medical examination, basic requirements for citizenship, documentation religious workers coming to the United States need and a detention preparedness kit.
Currently, the website is written in English and Spanish, with hopes to include Swahili, French and Karen — the next grant cycle includes interpretation money.
Graham also hopes to add blogs and videos. The next website, she said, will also be built to help home-bound women learn English and include free filmed citizenship classes.
Having a web platform is crucial to expanding reach of information.
“We wanted something that everybody could have access to … in the peace and privacy of their own homes,” Graham said.