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The Scarlet & Black

New community group works to protect immigrants


By Carter Howe

A new local group, Welcoming Communities Grinnell, has been started to ensure there is support for immigrants in Grinnell and to advocate for pro-immigrant legislation. The group held their first meeting on Oct. 16 at First Presbyterian Church and were joined by the group Immigrant Allies from Marshalltown and the Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, based in Iowa City, which helps provide persons who are detained by immigration enforcement with legal representation and money to post bond. Their next meeting, which will be a strategy session, will be held Nov. 16 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. in the basement fellowship room of the United Church of Christ at 902 Broad St.

The group’s founder, Aaron Wagner ’99, who has past experience organizing for immigrant rights, felt compelled to do something because of Trump’s handling of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the Obama-era executive action that granted relief from deportation to undocumented people brought to the country as children.

“Realizing that Trump was using DACA and impacted students as a bargaining chip to try to build the wall, that made me decide that I needed to get active and try to get people together locally, you know. I don’t think that those actions reflect Grinnell values,” Wagner said.

Though Wagner sees the group working on efforts outside of Grinnell as well, especially in nearby Marshalltown where there is a sizeable and growing Latinx population, they also emphasized that there are many immigrants here in Grinnell whom they hope the group can be a resource for.

“It was started, you know, to support immigrants generally in Marshalltown and Central Iowa, but also realizing that we do have a growing immigrant population and refugee population in Grinnell, and we want to make more concerted efforts to, you know, make sure that impacted persons, whether they’re in the community or at the College, know they’re supported,” Wagner said.

With an Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Cedar Rapids and a detention center in Marshalltown, Wagner hopes that the group can be an advocate for individuals who might have received unfair treatment from law enforcement, like Asucena Natareno Ramirez, who fled violence in her native Guatemala but was later detained and held in ICE’s office in Cedar Rapids. After members of the public staged a demonstration, she was released.

“They were able to get her released with some public pressure, but, you know, it’s part of the unfortunate circumstance that every single case has to be fought individually to get people out of detention,” Wagner said. “We also want people hopefully to know that, hey, people are being detained in your backyard in this part of Iowa.”

Though the group is still in its early planning stages, they already have a few things planned. For example, they will be handing out signs. Grinnellians may have seen around town that say that immigrants are welcome in various languages.

Additionally, local resident retired medical ethicist David Isch is also helping to organize a project called Friends for International Harmony. A partnership with First Presbyterian Church, the project helps new immigrants in Grinnell secure various things and skills, from drivers’ education to furniture to help learning English and obtaining healthcare.

“There are 21 volunteers and we are willing to help international persons integrate into the community socially as well as economically and politically so that they feel comfortable and feel welcome. It’s a very practical application of social justice,” Isch said.

Wagner is happy that they have not received any backlash yet, though they concede that the group’s organizing efforts are not yet in full swing.

“I put my name on the flyer and said contact me, and I haven’t received any hate calls or anything and I think we’re prepared for that,” Wagner said. “So far we haven’t met any friction, but we really haven’t started to rock the boat in any way either.”

Wagner hopes that undocumented people in the community will feel comfortable joining Welcoming Communities Grinnell.

“We’re hoping that those folks feel comfortable joining our group, that they know that we’re supportive, but if because of legal fears they’re not able to feel comfortable attending in person, we just want to be communicating and letting them know that there’s a group of us in town that want you to feel supported and loved as human beings in a difficult political climate.”

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