Ways to Support Immigrants and Refugees in America

by Elizabeth Brettschneider

It’s now been nearly two months since the US presidential election. Since that time, immigration attorneys have been discussing among themselves what they can do to help immigrants and refugees before and during the Trump presidency. Our firm’s attorneys will certainly be doing all we can, but it’s not only those with a law degree who can help and support immigrant members of our communities.

Of course, donating money to a humanitarian or immigration-related charity such as Immigration Equality, American Immigration Council, American Civil Liberties Union, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Human Rights Campaign, or the National Immigration Law Center are certainly helpful and surely welcome. But for those who prefer to be more actively engaged, here are some small things that, when done collectively, can have a big impact. 

1. Buy from Local Immigrant Businesses

Many communities around the country have businesses owned and operated by immigrants. For instance, my parents live in an area where many Somali refugees have resettled. Members of the refugee community own a small grocery store and a gas station. My parents have made a point of shopping there whenever possible to show their support. I think this is a great idea and a great example of an easy thing for people to do that collectively can have an important effect. Even if there is no large economic impact for these business owners, the message of support will still be felt.

2. Volunteer to Be an English Language Partner

Speaking a second language is a challenge, and navigating a new culture in that language can also be difficult. For this reason English language training for non-English speaking immigrants is essential for their success in the US. Many libraries have programs for new immigrants to help them learn English. They would welcome a volunteer to simply sit and talk with their ESL participants who want to practice their English skills. These types of programs exist formally in schools, community colleges, religious institutions, and through formal literacy advocacy groups, but this is also something you could do on a very informal level with simply a member of your community looking for a language partner. People have connected on Facebook, Craigslist, or other social media sites. Volunteer Match is also a good option to find individuals who need language partners. 

3. Take an Immersive Cooking Lesson from Immigrants  

As a foodie, I think this idea is particularly wonderful. The League of Kitchens in New York City is a group that coordinates immersive cooking lessons in the home kitchens of immigrants from various cultures. Founded by Lisa Gross, who is the daughter of a Korean immigrant and a Jewish New Yorker and who was raised on one grandmother's denjang-guk and the other's matzoh ball soup, the organization was borne out of Gross’s “passion for New York City, her love of cooking, and her connection to the immigrant experience.”

Participants pick the type of food they’d like to learn to cook and sign up for a class. There are only six people to each class and all members are welcomed into their instructor’s home. The instructors are from such countries as Nepal, Japan, India, Mexico, Trinidad, Uzbekistan, Argentina, and Greece. The purpose of the group is to share cultural experiences through the love of food and cooking. I think it’s a great way to show local support for members of the immigrant community. Although only located in New York City at this time, we hope this great idea spreads throughout the country.

4. Help “Sponsor” a Refugee

Although there is no way that individual US citizens can “sponsor” refugees by leading the immigration process to get them to the US (interestingly other countries such as Canada do have a mechanism for this), once refugees go through the immigration hurdles to make it to the US, they often need assistance to acclimate to their new home. Individuals can volunteer with groups around the country that help coordinate the resetting of refugees in communities. Such groups include local organizations such as IRIS, which works in my home state of Connecticut, as well as the International Rescue Committee which has volunteer opportunities throughout the US. Many refugee resettlement organizations seek out and partner with volunteers in local religious organizations or civic groups to help ease refugee families into the day-to-day life in their new home, and so those interested in volunteering should consult with these groups as well. Volunteers assist with such activities as setting up the apartment or home with everyday items the family will need, driving the family to the grocery store, and providing assistance and tutoring in job searches. A local synagogue near my hometown in Connecticut decided to volunteer as a group to help a family of Syrian refugees, and they’ve written about the experience.

5. Call US Representatives and Senators to Ask Them to Support Immigrant-friendly Legislation

This may seem like an obvious thing every citizen can do, but it tends to be one that most people don’t actually do. The US House of Representatives has a website that allows you to simply type in your zip code to find your representative and all their contact details. To stay on top of upcoming immigration-related legislation, you can also track bills. A phone call to voice your opinion can take thirty seconds but the impact if everyone were to do it is immeasurable.  

6. Volunteer at Citizenship Day  

Here in the NYC metro area, the City University of New York (CUNY) hosts a “Citizenship Day” where lawyers and non-lawyers volunteer their time to assist Green Card holders who are applying for citizenship. The non-lawyers at this event help with the logistics of the day such as ushering attendees between areas where different stages of their application will be compiled. They also help take and print the photos that must accompany the application, help applicants address the envelope to mail the application to US Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS), help photocopy the application, and perform various other administrative tasks. In one day, volunteers can help hundreds of immigrants looking to become Americans. Opportunities can be found at Volunteer Match. Additionally, since many US cities host a “Citizenship Day,” doing a Google search for specific cities should yield actionable results.  

7. Defend Immigrants facing Discrimination or Harassment

This is one that saddens me to even have to include, but after hearing stories around the country of individuals or groups verbally or physically attacking immigrants clearly makes it necessary. One story of a man who threatened to cut the throat of a female off-duty police officer who was wearing a hijab made me think long and hard about what I would do if I were to witness such an incident. While of course it is absolutely advisable to call law enforcement in such situations—and in this case the officer who was harassed had training to deal with such an incident—I would hope that any bystanders and I would have been able to assist in de-escalating this or similar situations. If individuals witness any sort of harassment, Vox has an illustrated guide on how to intervene and de-escalate situations peacefully.     

I was listening to a recent episode of the podcast This American Life where a young Muslim woman was talking about the day after the election and how she was scared to walk around wearing her hijab. She mentioned how she appreciated that day when another woman simply smiled at her warmly from across the bus, as if it were a testament to her support. Surely we can all do this simple act of kindness.

With so much anti-immigrant rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail and also post-election, it’s important that we all take a stand to support those immigrants and refugees who have bravely come to the US to seek a better life for themselves and their families. It is up to each of us to speak loudly by our actions and show support in every way we can for our nation’s immigrant communities.