A Berkshire County organization that offers legal aid to immigrants is in the midst of a fundraising campaign. It comes at a time when immigration is once again the subject of national debate.
The Berkshire Immigrant Center is housed in a series of offices on the second floor of the Parish House directly behind Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown Pittsfield.
“We are honoring the more than 10,000 foreign born residents that live in the Berkshires with a campaign that we’re calling the 10,000 Strong campaign," said Development Coordinator Sheryl Lechner. She's been with the center since May 2017. “We’re calling it 10,000 Strong because we recognize that the immigrants who live in the Berkshires really make this region stronger. Immigrants are the only growing segment of our population in Berkshire County, so they’re really filling key labor shortages in a lot of different sectors. And they’re also job creators — they are entrepreneurs, owning and running restaurants, hotels, nonprofit organizations.”
Lechner says the center is trying to raise $10,000, money that will go to the legal immigration assistance its offers to any foreign born Berkshire residents.
“Also family members of immigrants," she told WAMC. "We also provide assistance to employers, police departments, schools, social service providers, anyone who really needs any kind of legal advising from accredited experts in immigration law.”
“I’m an immigrant myself, so I know what kind of challenges they face in everyday life," said Gulrmira Churokova, a case worker at the Berkshire Immigrant Center. She’s 30, and from Kyrgyzstan. She studied immigration there and in Germany, and immigrated to the U.S. in 2015 when her husband’s teaching job took them to the Berkshires.
“So our typical cases are, for example, lawful permanent resident coming here to find out if he or she is eligible for citizenship," Churokova explained to WAMC, "so I will ask a lot of questions, I will do the screening, and then identify if the person is eligible or not, and help to apply for citizenship.”
She says a common misconception about immigrants is that they’re lazy or take advantage of government handouts.
“From my experience, immigrants are very hardworking people who work two, three jobs, and who are very — in terms of employment — very active,” she said.
Churokova says she sees a lot of nervousness, frustration, and anxiety.
“A lot of people who do not have any reason — who shouldn’t have reason to worry, they start worrying," she said to WAMC. "Because what is happening and all these changes, they give the feeling of fear and insecurity.”
For immigrants, commonplace but vital needs like applying for a driver’s license or more complicated processes like reuniting with family become nightmarish.
“Does this job have a lot of heartbreak in it?” asked WAMC.
“It does," said an emotional Churokova. "It does. Especially when I see — when the families cannot reunify easily. When the father needs to wait two years in order to see his or her daughter… or when the mother, if she is undocumented, when she comes and asks questions about her children… it does.”
Churokova is the only member of her family living in the U.S.
“It is a very warm feeling, and it empowers me to see how — that we can reach, we can achieve, we can help these people," she told WAMC. "To see how families are unified, and how they are happy. It gives me more strength and more motivation to work and help immigrants.”
The Berkshire Immigrant Center’s 10,000 Strong fundraiser campaign runs until July 4th.