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Pennsylvania's reputation as a melting pot hasn't changed much since the first Quakers followed William Penn across the Atlantic in 1682. Penn's promise of freedom and prosperity attracted waves of settlers from every corner of Western Europe, broadening the cultural spectrum as in no other colony in the New World.
The spirit of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" still draws 1.8 million newcomers to the Keystone State every year. Although the immigrants of today don't resemble the pacifist Mennonites of the 17th century, their attitudes and ideals — a society devoid of corruption, oppression and inequality — resonate within a state, even a country, defined by its legacy of immigrants.Angela A. Eveler, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center (PIRC) in York, doesn't just sympathize with the struggles immigrants face today in the United States. Since joining the PIRC in 2007, Eveler and a six-member staff coordinate hundreds of volunteers, including pro-bono attorneys, in providing legal services to immigrants facing deportation.
"It's unfortunate that immigrants have often been unfairly criminalized in our media and culture for trying to protect themselves and their families and earn the basic necessities we all need to survive," Eveler says of the stigma surrounding immigration. "If given the choice of having your family starve or taking the risk to make it to a country that would allow you to put food on the table, what would you do?"
PIRC's inception in 1996 addressed the issues of defunct immigration policies that barred 286 Chinese asylum-seekers from entering the United States three years earlier, dubbed the Golden Venture incident. As new legislation targets immigration enforcement, PIRC's role continues evolving.
"PIRC has always focused its services on the most vulnerable populations, including survivors of torture, the mentally ill and families," says Eveler. "More recently, PIRC has diversified its services and is now offering services to non-detained immigrants in the south Central PA region who are victims of domestic abuse, human trafficking and certain crimes."
The center's location one mile south of York County Prison provides strategic upsides for Eveler and her team. On a daily basis, the prison holds 600-800 immigrants, accounting for half of the detained population across Pennsylvania and ranking high on the list of the largest detention centers on the East Coast.
"While immigrants in detention may have an attorney represent them in court, they are not entitled to appointment of counsel," Eveler says of the 84 percent of detained immigrants without legal representation. "Despite being housed in a prison ... their case is a civil matter, not criminal. So although they are housed with and treated the same as individuals serving a criminal sentence, immigration detainees are not afforded the same protections under the law."
At PIRC, legal relief extends beyond individual detainees at the prison. "We go to the Berks Family Shelter twice a month to assist and educate families about immigration law and legal relief that might be available," says Eveler. "Many of the families at the shelter are seeking asylum. We've seen many cases where the families ... are attempting to escape domestic abuse or gang violence." PIRC arranges "reasonable fear interviews" with asylum officers and assigns pro-bono attorneys to help navigate the claims in immigration court.
Still, trapped beneath paperwork and complex laws, penetrating the system remains thorny — even for veteran attorneys. PIRC's resources are spread thinner as immigrants flood the borders in the wake of intensifying violence surrounding the drug cartels, and the center's limited staff can barely keep up. "In these tough economic times, many non-profits, including PIRC, are challenged with figuring out how to do more with less," Eveler says.
A network of volunteers — including individual supporters, community organizations, faith-based groups and professionals — contribute to accomplishing PIRC's mission in Central PA. "For those that have legal relief available, PIRC has had many successes," says Eveler. "We have had some high-impact cases that have made their way up through the court system and changed case law and affected other similarly situated individuals."
Although immigration is an element of many Americans' family trees, the negative connotations associated with today's system — and the victims of its inconsistencies — suggest society has crossed into new, divided territory.
"Most of the stereotypes you hear about immigrants are completely wrong," Eveler says. "Some were brought into the country by their parents when they were children and have practically lived here their entire lives. Many immigrants who are undocumented have children and families here, have jobs and pay taxes and own property here. We see many people who have entered the U.S. legally, but for whatever reason fell out of legal status because they failed to properly renew their paperwork or were convicted of a crime."
As long as these legal and cultural boundaries exist for immigrants, however, Eveler says her staff and volunteers at PIRC will continue defending non-naturalized citizens to ensure their protection and opportunity for prosperity in a country that professes, "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."
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