In 1979, Daniel Stracka visited a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where tens of thousands of people awaited resettlement. He returned to the United States determined to help them, and those efforts set a course for the rest of his life and his career.
Stracka has been an immigration attorney for more than 20 years. He helped resettle Laotian families entering the United States after the Vietnam War, and he aided Iraqi Kurds who had come under an execution order from Saddam Hussein in the mid-90s. Today, much of his work centers on helping immigrants from Central America.
His early work in helping refugee families often meant attending meetings with faith-based groups that had been certified by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees—groups such as the Jewish Federations, Lutheran Services, and Catholic Migration Services. Stracka found himself wishing there were an organization representing Unitarian Universalists at the table, an institutional voice in making policy regarding refugees and immigrants.
Stracka hopes that someday UURISE will be that UU organization. UURISE is an acronym for Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education, a nonprofit organization Stracka founded in 2007. He had long hoped to start such an organization with his wife, Barb, when they retired. After Barb died in 2006, however, Stracka realized that “life is sometimes short,” and there was no point in postponing his calling. He founded UURISE in his wife’s memory a year after her death.
Today, UURISE has a staff of two, contract attorneys as needed, and a number of dedicated volunteers and interns. It has a clear mission: providing “affordable, trustworthy legal immigration counseling, representation, and resettlement services to marginalized immigrants and refugees; and provid[ing] educational advocacy to the larger community.” Stracka is also working to equip UURISE to apply for State Department grants to provide refugees with direct resettlement services.
“Our vision is to create an institutional UU voice in immigrant and refugee work,” said Stracka. He also travels around the country, conducting workshops and trainings and preaching at UU churches about immigration as a moral issue.
UURISE operates out of an office in the Palomar UU Fellowship in Vista, Calif. Its advisory board includes Charlie Clements, the former president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, who now serves as executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. Stracka said Clements was one of the first people he reached out to when he was envisioning what UURISE could be. Denny Davidoff, former UUA moderator, also sits on the advisory committee. One of the five founding members of the UURISE board of directors was the Rev. Olivia Holmes, former director of International Relations at the UUA, who now serves on the advisory committee.
The day-to-day work of UURISE includes a wide range of services and educational programs for immigrants, ranging from asylum applications to a project in planning to prepare safety kits and safety plans for parents who fear they may be detained because of their immigration status and separated from their children. The kits will include powers of attorney designating people who can care for children if their parents are in immigration detention. UURISE also provides immigration counseling and representation, policy advocacy, and education programs on human and legal rights. Stracka and UURISE lawyers also counsel migrants who have been victims of human trafficking, domestic violence, and other violent crimes.
Many Unitarian Universalists heard of UURISE for the first time at this year’s Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, Ariz., in June. Stracka and UURISE proposed a service project for people coming to GA, a large Naturalization/Citizenship Fair, held at a school a few blocks from the Phoenix Convention Center. It was a collaborative effort of the UUA’s Arizona Immigration Ministry and other local organizations in Phoenix.
When Stracka began to conceive of the project to help people complete their paperwork for citizenship, he hoped to get 200 UU volunteers. Instead, 600 people signed up.
“We were bowled over,” Stracka said. “It was a great affirmation that people wanted to do this kind of work.”
About 320 people had signed up in advance to receive help at the fair in completing the United States’s complex citizenship applications. Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit aimed at promoting citizenship, registering eligible voters, and then getting them out to vote, was another sponsor of the fair, and had helped register people in need of assistance with paperwork to come to the event.
The gymnasium where the fair was held was divided into several sections: a registration table; a table for fee-waiver paperwork; a lawyer station; tables for completing citizenship applications; a quality control station, where experienced volunteers double-checked paperwork; and a checkout station, where people received study materials for their citizenship test.
Judy Flanagan, who attends the UU Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP), volunteered at the lawyers’ table. She works as an immigration attorney and has attended many naturalization fairs. “It’s so exciting to see all these yellow shirts,” she said, looking across the gym at the hundreds of UU volunteers in “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts.
Delmi Ortega, also a UUCP member, has volunteered with Mi Familia Vota for about five years. “It’s personal for me,” she said. “I am undocumented.” She began her application process in 1995, but her paperwork has not been processed yet. She therefore remains in legal limbo and is vulnerable to deportation. Ortega, 38, has been in the United States for 22 years. She was wearing a T-shirt from the Human Rights Campaign, which supports LGBT rights and is active in promoting naturalization. “I feel like I’m in such a unique position,” Ortega said. “If I were straight, I could get married to a U.S. citizen and solve my immigration problems.”
Katia Hansen, program manager with UURISE, oriented waves of volunteers, from youth to the elderly, as they filed into the gymnasium. Some provided childcare. Others were lawyers, who could answer more technical questions. Hansen asked which languages volunteers spoke, in case those skills were needed. Among the volunteers were speakers of Spanish, Russian, Swedish, French, Japanese, and German. “Our goal is to give every one of you an experience you can take home with you,” Hansen said.
Stracka and Hansen provided UU volunteers from around the country with packets of information about organizations that conduct naturalization fairs in every state. After participating in the fair, Stracka said, volunteers would have a skill they could take back home with them. “There are about 3 million permanent residents in the U.S. who are eligible for citizenship but have not filed,” he said.
Stracka was emotional about the outpouring of support from UU volunteers at Justice GA. “What we do here today really helps people get to the final step in a long journey,” he said. “It touches me. I’m grateful for having the opportunity to work with such great folks.”
The event was a long time in the making for Stracka, who had spoken at General Assembly in Minneapolis in 2010, asking GA delegates to select “Immigration as a Moral Issue,” as the association’s 2010-2014 Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI).
He had been joined at the microphone by Alexandra Woodhouse, who was then a college student. She spoke about her uncle in Afghanistan who had sought asylum in the United States and was aided by her church community, the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, N.Y. She was gratified to return to GA in 2012 and see Stracka’s work helping immigrants come to life there. “To be here in Arizona and to be able to put our UU values into action is what I always wanted to do in a Justice GA,” said Woodhouse.
According to Latifa Woodhouse, Alexandra’s mother, the UU Fund for Social Responsibility, funded by the Veatch Program at Shelter Rock, has supported UURISE financially in the past. Woodhouse, a member of that New York church, had invited Stracka to speak to UUs at the New York Metro District’s 2012 annual meeting. “We have to do something,” Latifa Woodhouse said, adding that she’s heartened to see Stracka’s work continuing. “We have to stand up for these immigrants.”
UURISE, as part of a collaborative effort, is working on a new model for naturalization and citizenship fairs like the one held at GA, Stracka said. Rather than having volunteers fill out paper forms for mailing, they would fill out electronic forms on computers, possibly at community colleges with computer labs.
“I’m committed to providing radical hospitality to the vulnerable and exploited populations among us,” Stracka said. He’s hopeful many UUs will join him as volunteers through UURISE or as donors to it.
“It is time for Unitarian Universalists to rise to welcome the stranger by advocating and providing services for refugees and immigrants with our own UU voice, with our own UU entity,” Stracka said.
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (page 42).
- UURISE Unitarian Universalist Refugee and Immigrant Services and Education (uurise.org)