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Arkansas United receives federal funding for immigration integration in Arkansas


Arkansas United was recently awarded a $250,000 federal grant from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services for work on immigration integration in Arkansas. Mireya Reith is the founding executive director for Arkansas United, a nonprofit focusing on immigration advocacy for the last 13 years. Reith says she sees their work as a bridge between the immigrant community and Arkansas and the policy makers at all government levels.

Mireya Reith: But then we also are committed to what we call service navigation for the immigrant community. And when all of its all of our work, whether it's advocacy or navigators, we sent her immigrant leadership. We believe that immigrants are change agents. They have changed that they would like to see in Arkansas, and they're excited to be part of it. And so we do a lot of development of their organizing skills, their leadership skills, their information that they have about the community, but then we also help them fulfill their own dreams, looking at English, looking at the immigration process, so in fulfilling their family's potential, they can fulfill the potential of their communities.

Matthew Moore: What do we know about immigrant populations in Arkansas and what might surprise our audience about this community? 

MR: Well,we're really proud that Arkansas has the fourth fastest growing immigrant population in the country. And that has been now for two decades, and that over 60% of the community lives in rural communities of 8,000 or less so our immigrant communities everywhere in Arkansas, and we actually are largely transforming the face of rural Arkansas, both the communities and the economy, but our immigrant community because we are a few decades into this boom, the majority of immigrants have lived here at least 10 years. So that means that they're not just establishing their lives here, but they are having children here and their children are also establishing lives. And all you have to do is look at Arkansas schools. There are school districts, where now the majority of the students are Hispanic. The Primary School of De Queen is one of those examples 80% Hispanic, and the state overall, has seen more than a doubling of Hispanic students while other racial and ethnic groups have been declining. So we're not just changing the face of Arkansas now. Immigrants look forward to changing the face of who Arkansas is in the future. And hence why being part of the change in our state is so important to us because it is our home too.

MM: You were recently awarded a quarter million dollar grant from United States Citizen and Immigration Services. What does the process look like to apply for this sort of funding?

MR: So we are very excited. This is the first time Arkansas State has won this citizenship grants and is definitely our first federal grants at Arkansas United in our 13 year history. And that is because it is not easy grant process. The applications are entailed you do have to put forth quite a few details and statistics, but you also have to tell the story. The story of your organization, the story of your state, and it is a process that has benefited by letters of support. And we were really lucky that a lot of our service providers who have been helping us with the immigrant integration and citizenship pieces of this grant. We're very enthusiastic to write those letters of support that we think were what made the difference for our application this year.

MM: I imagine that you're having a lot of conversations with people who have just gone through the process or fairly fresh to taking parts of these and you're constantly revamping and you're constantly thinking about ‘Oh that's good. We should start doing those sorts of services too, right?’ 

MR: Yes, well, that's where Arkansas United even before we apply to USCIS, we knew we had to shore up the referral process for immigrants. So much of how that service provision happens with immigrants. It's less about the specific issue and it's more about the trust relationship. And once you open that door of trust, and any range of issues can come out there, and we're really lucky in Arkansas since COVID. There's been a really intentional effort especially by health providers, and the Department of Education to map out different service providers. We do not duplicate efforts and said we'd put in the hands of our community navigators who themselves are first generation immigrants, those tools and resources but we do in a centralized place. And we find that those networks a lot of times work best depending on what part of the state and because our staff and our navigators have been using these resources for multiple years we can speak from experience in regards to how these different resources interplay in which ones are best and where somebody who's trying to get into the referral system offers. That's actually something within USCIS. We can onboard other nonprofits and schools to also offer that same referral system, which is an online portal that we do, and then because with referrals, it's never stagnant. It's always changing. We have a community of practice of other folks who are also doing referrals of immigrants in Arkansas. And that's probably one of the things we're most proud of. We're in live time telling each other what we're learning, what questions are coming forth, and we're able to track what are the major issues so that in turn, we can do education to our navigators, to our partners, but also to the community itself. And in our community. The immigrant community uses Facebook actively and so that's something else we promised USCIS, we on almost a biweekly basis, do what we call Charlas Informational Sessions by Facebook, that give a chance especially for immigrant adults to kind of tap in here from different service providers, learn about different issues. Again, you don't know what you don't know. So it's so much about inspiring knowledge and thinking about things in a new way. But we've now promised to integrate citizen and different civic themes into those Charlas as a result of the USCIS grant for the next two years.

MM: Let’s talk a little bit more about what you plan on using this funding for. You've talked a little bit about integrating Facebook and using that as an avenue to reach people and to inform people what other work are you planning to do with this funding?

MR: We're committing to doing 16,000 needs assessments of immigrants over these next two years. And we're engaging an army of community navigators and partners to be able to do that. Our past experience with needs assessments and talking to the community, helping them figure out how they can tell us what they need and what they might be eligible for different things is something that we've been proud to hone since COVID. And now we get to put to the battle toward citizenship and the reason 16,000, it's estimated that there's about 35 to 40,000 legal permanent residents eligible to become citizens. So we want to say we're going to tackle about half of that right and really start making a case to diminishing that gap between people who are qualified and eligible and actually get the citizenship. And those needs assessments are in turn forming four working groups. We have a working group of employers, of municipalities, of schools and then other immigrants serving nonprofits. And then we are looking forward to holding 10 what we call immigrant integration fairs, where we will actually have attorneys. We'll have those service providers who do the citizenship and the English work. But depending on the communities and other collaborators, we have the opportunities to sign up people for tax IDs so they can get financial products. We have the chance to have booths for workforce development opportunities or educational opportunities. We have the opportunities to do health fairs and we designed all of this based on our very successful collaborative model of back to school events that we've been doing the last years to try and tackle COVID. And I will say that the help institutions in the state with whom we collaborate, racially shared with us, Hispanics are the highest vaccinated group in the state of Arkansas. And we know that those bears did a great work, especially with those that have barriers around maybe status or additional fears. They have a great ability of drawing out and letting us make big accomplishments in short periods of time.

MM: Yeah, trust is such a huge element of community and and feeling a part of where you are in so many ways, and I feel like this probably leads really well into the Together Towards Citizenship and Innovation Project. Tell me a little bit about what that work is going to be and how you expect to see results from that. 

MR: The citizenship readiness assessments or the needs assessment, the immigrant integration fairs, the working groups, and our community navigators are all together towards citizenship. There's a piece in there that's activating the directly impact and the immigrant answers the piece that's a partnership. But really it is about together, being together, working together in Arkansas. The additional pieces to really hone that obviously as much as we want to help everybody in every community. And that is resources are definitely notable. It doesn't leave us with the ability of habit helping every single community that has a need in the state and that's where there will be some prioritization and the needs assessment gives us a way of targeting. And our goal with this work is really to work ourselves out of a job. There's a lot of systemic change needed and what brought us originally into this work was the idea of activating immigrant leaders, but you can activate folks that are working day to day to just live a life of dignity.

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