You can help Austin immigrants and refugees

Jacob Palmer

These last few weeks you’ve probably seen pictures of chain-link fences and concrete floors, heard children crying and scrolled through endless outraged tweets. The scope and complexity of the border crisis may leave students feeling powerless. We aren’t. Students, especially here in Austin, can and should make an impact in the lives of immigrants and refugees through volunteer work.

The enforcement of troubling immigration policies is not new. A 2015 report by the Detention Watch Network details the growth of America’s detention system, largely through private contractors, under the Obama administration. Now, although President Trump signed an executive order ending the separation of families detained at the border, he has allowed a historically low number of refugees to enter the U.S. and recently threatened immigrants’ due process protections. The problems for immigrants and refugees aren’t going anywhere.

We can see these immigration policy issues playing out in Austin.  Sarah Valdez, supervising attorney of the children’s program for RAICES in Austin, said ICE raids were “disproportionately aimed at Travis county … because of Sheriff Hernandez’s policy of not cooperating.” Valdez said the passage of SB4 further aggravates the challenges of her clients.

People entering this country face formidable difficulties and have for some time. Students have access to information on the problems surrounding immigration, but because of limited funds, little authority and a lack of experience, have difficulty doing anything about them. This can be overwhelming. Perhaps, however, our power lies in our schedules. If we take time to volunteer, we can be a part of the change.

Chris Kelley, a spokesman for Refugee Services of Texas, encourages students to volunteer. RSTX works with populations affected by this issue, including unaccompanied children, survivors of human trafficking and asylum seekers. Kelley said volunteers with RSTX carry out variety of tasks like “helping move a family in” or “actually work(ing) with kids at our center.”

He emphasizes the importance of volunteering, saying “we can’t do what we do without volunteers. And given that UT is right in the heart of the city where we work with folks, we couldn’t do it without UT students.”

Valdez agrees. She encourages students to be informed about their rights and to be active in the community through volunteer work. Beyond that she said it creates a sense of community, recognizing students’ age not as a weakness, but a strength. “I think that there’s definitely value in our clients who are teenagers seeing people close to their age in college, being able to look up to them, being able to talk to them and forming relationships with them.”

Kelley calls Austin “a great big neon welcome sign for refugees.” But this is only true when the city’s people uphold the values of inclusion and compassion for those seeking a new life. This is being done on the ground at RAICES, RSTX and many other organizations. Through volunteering, students can ensure their resources are used efficiently and Austin’s “welcome sign” continues to glow.

Austin is home to many organizations striving to better the lives of immigrants and refugees. By offering our time, we can amplify their impact. Along the way, we can hear the stories of those we help, giving us experience to advocate in the future.

Palmer is an English senior from the Dallas area.