Consider a few statistics: In 1990, just 2.4% of Harrisonburg’s population was foreign born. That figure rose substantially over the following decade to 9.2%, and now sits, per the latest Census Bureau estimate, at 14.1%.
Or, to put that in more real-to-life terms, there are now more than 7,000 immigrants living in Harrisonburg – plus another 3,500 or so in Rockingham County – many of whom face substantial cultural and linguistic barriers to accomplishing some of life’s basics, like setting up bank accounts or scheduling doctor’s appointments.
In response, a group of local Mennonite churches formed NewBridges Immigrant Resource Center in 2000 to serve as a one-stop shop for information and assistance as new arrivals set up their lives, says executive director Alicia Horst ’01, MDiv ’06.
At any particular time, many requests for assistance made to NewBridges also revolve around whatever’s current in the world of immigration policy. In the fall of 2012, for example, the organization assisted many young, undocumented immigrants applying for work authorization under a program created that summer by executive order.
Funded with the combined support of private donors, congregations, the United Way and the City of Harrisonburg, NewBridges has two full-time employees, Horst and Jaime Miller ‘01, who work out of an office in the basement of Community Mennonite Church. They now directly serve around 500 clients per year, and about 1,200 through events in the community.
In the coming years, the organization hopes to meet more general emotional needs of those new to the area and country, says Horst.
“When people move here, they can be incredibly lonely,” says Horst, who helped start a small sewing group for a handful of clients as an initial attempt at providing broader social support to immigrants.
A related future goal, adds Les Helmuth ’78, chairman of the board of directors, is to offer some sort of community space where people “could come together and relax without having any agenda.”
Another item on the future wish-list is adding an attorney to the NewBridges staff, to help the many clients with legal needs.
In the meantime, NewBridges has also become a resource for other agencies and professionals in the community, such as public schools staff and therapists who stumble across immigration-related issues they’re not well prepared to handle themselves.
Horst notes that EMU has been supportive of the organization in a number of ways, such as offering space for NewBridges to host a visit to town by Mexican consulate staff and by admitting undocumented students.
— Andrew Jenner ’04