The number of immigrants seeking help in Berkshire County has grown tenfold in 20 years – and there’s only one center dedicated to assisting them. The center is now expanding.
The Berkshire Immigrant Center is moving from its small office at the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield to a larger one on the second floor of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, also in Pittsfield.
In the reception office is Eliza Fuller, a volunteer who is sorting through some of the center’s financial statements. Fuller, a native of Ecuador, sought help from the center in 2013.
“Was the first time I was going through a very difficult situation,” Fuller says. “A domestic violence situation. And I found myself not knowing where to go or what to do, and somebody suggested I go to the immigrant center so I came and the information I got right off the back it started making a difference in my life and in my kids’ life.”
Brooke Mead, who has been the center’s program manager for 15 years, is moving boxes with outgoing director Hilary Greene. Mead is taking over for Greene, who was director for 18 years, and will continue as a caseworker for the time being. Greene is thrilled.
“This is so much more space then we had before, and it not only includes office space but the church has been so great about giving us also the opportunity to let us use auditorium space,” Greene says.
Down the hall from the reception area are seven offices for caseworkers. Mead says they treat the center like a doctor’s office – partitioned and confidential.
At the end of the hall is a small conference room for classes that promote civic engagement, facilitate cultural integration, and assist people in navigating the U.S. immigration system and road to citizenship.
This is the only program in Berkshire County that focuses exclusively on the growing immigrant and refugee population.
Greene points to the mounds of casefiles that they need to sort into new filing cabinets.
Community Support Coordinator Janie Strachan looks flustered.
“I am also going to do some volunteer coordination now that we have a bigger space and actually have a space to put our volunteers because before it was a little bit like shoving them into one room,” Strachan says.
Strachan says they aren’t accustomed to this level of organization – it’s usually organized chaos, she says.
Mead says 10 percent of the county’s population is foreign-born.
“There is an immigration system that’s broken. We’ve never had the best immigration system and it hasn’t been overhauled since 1965,” Mead says.
The center was founded in 1997 as a project of the Jewish Federation of the Berkshires, focused primarily on resettlement of Russian Jewish immigrants and refugees. In 1999, it became independent, and served about 60 people. Mead says the center expects to work with roughly 1,000 people this year.
“I would point out that the issues facing immigrants 100 years ago are in large part the same kinds of issues facing people now,” Mead says. “There is always this myth that we want to fall into that this generation of immigrants is different and they jsut want a better like for their families and children and they just face most of the same issues.”
Mead admits recent headlines about federal immigration enforcement officials arresting and deporting undocumented immigrants and the Trump administration’s travel ban have led some people to be fearful – and others to take action.
Serving more than 70 countries, well more than half of the center’s clients are Latinos from Central and South America – like Fuller –seeking citizenship.
“As a matter of fact, I am going to be filing this week,” Fuller says.
Municipalities across the country and Massachusetts, including Pittsfield, Great Barrington and Williamstown, have adopted sanctuary policies amid fears of increased federal immigration enforcement activity.
“We like to refer to it as a trust act-like policy,” Mead says.
Supporters like Mead say the trust acts would make undocumented immigrants feel more comfortable reporting criminal activity because they could do so without fear of the police asking about their status.
Personnel polices include preventing law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration officials, except when there is a criminal warrant involved.
At Tuesday’s Pittsfield City Council meeting, lawmakers approved a similar measure for the public schools.
The center’s public funding has remained relatively even, Mead says.
“Our client load has more than quadrupled but our budget is not even close to having done that,” Mead says.
Mead says they are seeking private funding to help hire more case workers. The new location will open to clients in early July.