Helping Others Help Themselves

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Laura Raya Has Helped Thousands of Immigrant Families Reunite

Laura Raya sits in her small office on the second floor of Diocese of Davenport always surrounded by filing cabinets full of her active client’s U.S. citizenship, residency paperwork, and prolonged promises of the American dream.  As Immigration Coordinator for the Diocese of Davenport she is responsible for about six file drawers full of active cases that she began years ago, some open since 1994.  Since 1997 they began numbering their clients and have served over 6,000 people, add to that roughly 4,000 she’s helped before that and so far about 10,000 clients have received her help.  She estimates there are about 1,000 active cases in those drawers, but she thinks it could be more.   Each file represents a parent, a spouse, a brother or sister, a son or daughter; a person from our community seeking her help to reunite with their loved ones who may be in another part of the world.  Each file also represents a flawed immigration system that keeps families apart.

Laura Raya knows first-hand the way immigration policy has changed over the years and has made it more difficult for families to reunite.  Her father, Miguel Raya, first entered the country in 1956 without proper documentation and eventually returned to Mexico.  “He married my mom in 1959 and came back legally, the right way!” she says with a laugh.

The funny thing is how easy it was to enter the country back then.  Her father was able to return legally because he had a work letter from an employer who needed him to work in the fields in Calif.   He eventually settled in Moline and worked in a foundry.  On the weekends she recalls how her father would take her 2 brothers and 3 sisters to work the tomato and onion fields to teach them the value of money.  This motivated Laura to stay in school and pursue “anything sitting down in an office no out in the sun.”

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Laura eventually earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Office Administration and worked as a secretary for the Diocese of Davenport for 1 ½ years. She moved to Calif. and returned to her position when she found out an Immigration Counselor position would be opening. 

When she took over Immigration Counselor position for the retiring Consuelo Deanda in June of 1987, she didn’t know exactly what she had gotten herself into.  When she applied very few people would seek help. Her first moth was fine since she was learning the basics, but then all the undocumented immigrants who were granted amnesty by President Ronald Regan in November of 1986, began to show up in large number.  “It was crazy!”

“All these people started coming and it was just me!” Laura Raya said.  They began recruiting volunteers and got about 10 to 20 people to help with the translating and doing paperwork. 
Family members have since been trying to bring their loved ones to the United States to be with them but have found that it’s a long process.  Her backlog is not her fault, but that of the U.S. government’s current immigration policies. 

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“That (backlog) is the biggest problem; the only way to reduce that backlog is to increase the number of visas.  Some countries are waiting for 20 years, if you’re form the Philippines you are waiting 20 years.” Raya said.  For Mexico the average wait is 13 to 15 years for a visa, depending on the case. 

Today her office counts on two counselors and two secretaries and still they are extremely busy.
“The two secretaries, sometimes they can’t keep up with the phone,” Raya says and adds that it is one of her client’s biggest gripes, when their calls are not returned right away.  “It will go straight to voice mail and people get frustrated, and sometime you hang up and the phone rings right away so you don’t have time to call back right away.” 

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Raya regularly sees the desperation that many go through because they want to be with their family and they can’t; “and immigrants, well they aren’t rich.  They make enough money to make ends meet and they don’t have money to be going back home and see the people they have been separated from.  They have to send them money for their support over there and try to keep up with their expenses here, and I just see that all the time. Not just one or two cases.” 

Raya realizes there is only so much she can do for certain clients and will refer them to trustworthy lawyers in some cases.  She advises clients on what options are best for them depending on their situation.  It is when her clients don’t tell her the truth that they end up getting in trouble. 

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“They (U.S. government) have a way of tracking down your arrests, how many times they caught you at the border, if you tried to reenter, it’s like you can’t lie about it, they’ll find out,” Raya explains.  “It’s not a revolving door, you can’t just come and go whenever you want, so if you have two entries without permission then it’s an automatic ten-year bar and there is no waiver for you.”

Because of those long waits people enter the country illegally. Raya suggest that instead of creating walls that don’t work and send the wrong message, the United States should help many of the 3rd world countries create more jobs so that people don’t have to come here to seek jobs. 

Raya hopes that the next president and congress can work together to pass some sort of comprehensive immigration reform but knows that they have been talking about it for years with no real results.  She has “mixed feelings” as to whether McCain and Obama will do something significant with immigration reform.  She still doesn’t know who she is going to vote for. 

“If I was president I would love to give more visa numbers for the families who have been waiting 15 years to reunite with their loved ones,” Raya said, “because we have 3 categories of people: waiting, and waiting, and waiting.”

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