Center welcomes immigrants, and they give back Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Laura Green, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
CMC Madison
Marlene and Ray help in the food pantry at the Catholic Multicultural Center (CMC) in Madison. They have volunteered at the center for many years. Ray came to the United States from Mexico when he was 16 years old and later married Marlene. They raised a family of nine children. Ray became a citizen of the U.S. in the fall of 2017 with the help of CMC staff. (Contributed photo)

MADISON -- The Catholic Multicultural Center (CMC) in Madison has an extensive history working to welcome the stranger, actively serving immigrants from countries all over the world and all walks of life for the last three decades.

In 2017, CMC English as a Second Language classes served 163 students from 34 different countries who spoke 17 different languages.

Whether coming to the CMC seeking services, support, a sense of community, or to help out, each immigrant has their own story. Three immigrants at the CMC offered to share their stories.

Long journey to citizenship

Marlene and Ray have been volunteering at the CMC food pantry every week since 1995 and were actively involved with the CMC in different capacities even before that.

The CMC was recently blessed to experience a major milestone in the couple's life: After being in the U.S. for 40 years, Ray became a U.S. citizen this past fall.

Ray originally came to this country from Mexico to find work when he was 16 years old. His parents had been migrant workers, and Ray too found work picking produce.

A few years later, he married Marlene, and they raised a family of nine children including children they had and children they adopted.

"We waited a long time for this. This is so important to us," said Marlene, her voice thick with emotion as she explained what Ray obtaining citizenship meant to them. "It was a long and scary process, but well worth the wait."

The couple sought assistance with Ray's citizenship process from the CMC Immigration Legal Services Program two and a half years ago, after struggling to navigate the system on their own.

"It made the process a lot easier. They took care of everything, so I didn't have to worry as much," said Marlene, speaking of how the CMC helped the couple through the many steps towards obtaining Ray's citizenship.

Ray faced an additional barrier that not all prospective citizens have to face: a learning disability. However, the CMC helped get the required medical documentation to waive the requirement of a written test and go through an alternative process.

After filling out forms, going through an extensive background check, and lots of waiting, the couple finally received word the Ray was eligible to become a citizen. In October of 2017, he attended an oath ceremony in Milwaukee with 61 other immigrants from around the world. After the ceremony when he went to greet his wife and a family friend that accompanied them, he proudly exclaimed, "I am an American!"

Marlene was very touched by the ceremony and seeing her husband finally become a citizen. "Everybody, whether you're a citizen or not, should go to an oath ceremony," she said. "It's an awesome feeling. Seeing it gives you such a sense of pride in our country; you don't take [being a U.S. citizen] for granted, you appreciate it."

A CMC family

"Some of the people that don't know about immigrants and the issues they face criticize why immigrants come to the U.S., instead of supporting them. We are here to better our future, to better our country [the United States], and to improve society in some way or another."

Those are the words of José, who is a high school student, a Mexican immigrant, and a volunteer at the CMC.

His mom Connie arrived here from Puebla, Mexico, as a single mother when he was just three months old. "I came because a friend invited me to come here," Connie explained. "I thought it would be a better future."

Here in the U.S., Connie met her husband and they started a family, having three more children together. When José was eight, the whole family moved back to Mexico with plans to relocate there, but after their oldest daughter was shot, Connie and her husband made the difficult decision, for the well-being of their children, to leave their homeland and move to the U.S. permanently.

It was then that the family started coming to the CMC to use services and find a place of belonging in the community. Connie brought her younger children to the homework club for afterschool tutoring. She signed up José, who was in middle school at the time, for volunteering.

"We want to try to get our kids involved in activities," she said. "We want to help our kids stay out of trouble and avoid difficult situations, like using alcohol or drugs."

For four years now, Connie and her kids have been coming to the CMC. The younger kids continue to participate in the homework club. While José is now busy with other community involvement, he still finds time to volunteer at the CMC once a month.

The whole family has become regular supporters of the annual Radiothon fundraiser for the CMC, with Connie cooking food for 100 event-goers and her kids serving at the Mass that kicks off the event. They also help promote the event, hanging up posters and telling community members to come support the center.

The CMC watched José grow up over the past years; now he is getting ready to graduate from high school and apply for college. As an immigrant, he explained that he faces extra obstacles to accessing college.

"It takes more effort for me to get what students born in the U.S. [including his three younger siblings] have; I can still achieve my goals, but it takes two to three times more work," said José.

"For example, residents here pay in-state tuition and can get financial aid for college. I cannot; I have to find scholarships and find other ways to minimize the costs of paying for school."

Connie expressed her frustration in seeing her son in this situation. "I have four kids. Three were born here in the U.S., and one in Mexico. They should all have equal opportunities. It's frustrating that there isn't equality, that there are not opportunities for everyone."

Nevertheless, Connie still believes in the better future that originally compelled her to come to the U.S. the first time. "Despite the circumstances, we have hope," said Connie with a smile. "The changes we want to see, we can make ourselves. We have to trust in God. I always ask God to take care of us, to protect us, and to give us the strength to continue."

A DACA gives back

Alan was brought to the U.S. from Mexico City by his parents, along with his two brothers, when he was 11 years old. When asked why they came here, Alan gave the response that many immigrants give, "They came for a better life."

About a month after arriving in Madison, the family found out about the CMC through word of mouth. "If you are a new immigrant in the community, you know the CMC is a place to come if you need help," said Alan.

At that time, Alan's parents were struggling to make ends meet as they got established here, so the family needed a bit of help. They used the food pantry for about a month, just until they could get on their feet.

Then the parents started coming to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered at the center, with Alan tagging along to improve his already strong English skills and help his fellow classmates.

Throughout the years, Alan continued to come to the center in various capacities. He participated in a youth program that the CMC offered one year. He volunteered off and on through middle and high school, helping at the front desk and the food pantry. When he was a student at Madison College and working at the Madison College Volunteer Center, he helped refer other student volunteers to the CMC.

When asked what kept him coming back to support the CMC, Alan replied, "When I came here, this place was always very welcoming. You see the needs here at the CMC, and I have grown up to be a person where if I see a need, I'll help in any capacity I can."

Now, Alan is in his early 20s and volunteers with the CMC Immigration Legal Services Program. Alan is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient.

After applying for DACA when it was introduced in 2012, Alan said that he was able to get his driver's license, have access to better job opportunities, and have an easier time applying for school.

He sought assistance with his original DACA application and renewal application from Janice Beers at Jewish Social Services. Starting this May, Janice began working at the CMC as immigration services coordinator. In response to the assistance he received with his immigration case, Alan wanted to pay it forward. So he approached Janice about volunteering yet again at the CMC.

"Personally, if I can invest my time helping others that need immigration legal services, we [immigrants] can have a stronger presence in this community. The immigrant community contributes to society in a huge way. If I can contribute by helping one person change their immigration status, my hope is for that to improve their quality of life. Knowing that this is a potential outcome of the work we do here at CMC is a great joy."

CMC welcomes the stranger

These three immigrant families came to the CMC searching for assistance and belonging. However, through their volunteer work and support, they gave the CMC far more than the center offered to them. The CMC will continue to strive to answer the call to welcome the stranger and offer comprehensive services to the immigrant community.

In turn, immigrants themselves -- including volunteers and supporters like these three families -- help make all of these services possible, support for which the CMC is truly grateful.

To learn more about the Catholic Multicultural Center, its services, or how to volunteer, contact Laura Green at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 608-441-1180.

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