Immigration attorney and Sister of the Holy Cross Sister Sharlet Wagner has combined her vocations to help those in need at the Newcomer Network.
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I'm Sister Maxine, and my guest is Sister Sharlet Wagner, Executive Director of the Newcomer Network at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. The Newcomer Network provides immigration legal services to people and connects them with other necessary services, such as food, housing, and health care. Sister Sharlet began her ministry at the Newcomer Network in June 2020, as Catholic Charities was launching the program. Sharlet, now as executive director of the Newcomer Network, you are in the Washington DC area. Would you describe some of the needs in that area that the newcomer network responds to?
Sure. There are tremendous needs that exist in this area, as with immigrants all over the United States. The biggest need, of course, for the immigrants who come to us is immigration legal services. It's really a key for our clients. If they're undocumented, if they can get a work permit and get stable employment and be free of that constant fear of deportation, that makes all the difference in their lives. They come for immigration legal services, and they have many other needs as well. During COVID, what we've seen are tremendous basic survival needs: food and shelter, the need for employment. We also see the need that clients might not name, which is for counseling services. Many of our clients have suffered trauma in their home country or on the journey here or in the United States or all three. And there is a tremendous need for bilingual, culturally competent counselors that are affordable, and it's a huge shortage area, one that's going to continue to challenge us as we move forward.
You encounter the folks who are coming in for legal services, and you become aware of other things that may be needed. How does the Newcomer Network address those needs? How do you provide those kinds of services that you were talking about, like health care, help with employment?
That's a great question. The Newcomer Network is really a new model and it enables us to try to address all of those needs. The Network came about thanks to a very generous multi-year investment from the A. James and Alice B. Clark Foundation. The foundation has made an investment to develop this network. Clients come first to our immigration attorneys but they're often in a precarious situation and they have multiple other needs in addition to their immigration legal needs. So, I'm an immigration attorney by profession and earlier I knew my clients had needs beyond their legal needs, but I wasn't really equipped to address the needs. I didn't have the training or the time. In the Newcomer Network, our attorneys can address those needs by referring clients to navigators who work with clients. The navigators, that's a new program here at Catholic Charities. Immigration legal services has been around for a while: we have a tremendous immigration legal services program that does great work. What we've been building is the navigator program. Navigators can establish a trusting relationship with their client. The navigator is there to listen and to help the client identify goals: their work is client-centered and directed. It's not about what the navigators think the client's goal should be, it’s about what the client wants to accomplish.
What would a couple of those goals be, for example?
I'll give you an example of one young man who's an asylum seeker, and some of his goals. One was to get health care. He also had the goal of going to college, and he needed a driver's license so that he could drive to college. The navigator was able to work with him to get him enrolled in a health care option here that's designed for low income, so he now is with a clinic and has health care. She worked with him to do an application for a scholarship to community college and to try to enroll in the college, and then she worked with him to get some driving lessons so that he could learn to drive and get his driver's license, and so that's one example of some goals. I can tell you another goal. A woman, a single mother with a daughter and also an asylum seeker, and her goals were health care for herself and her daughter, and employment. Again the navigator was able to work with her to apply to a special program here at the clinic for the underserved, and she and her daughter now are enrolled in health care. Then she referred her to an organization, a program at Catholic Charities, that helps with employment, and the woman was able to apply for caretaker position, and she's now a caretaker. The navigator helped her to get the TB test that she needed. Those are the types of goals and the work that the navigators are able to do. One advantage we have at Catholic Charities here in the Archdiocese of Washington is that it's a large agency, so we can refer clients to other programs within the agency. It's a wonderful network.
Do the navigators also connect them with a service outside of Catholic Charities if it's not available within the organization?
Yes. A number of the organizations we've connected with are not within Catholic Charities. The Newcomer Network has, I call it, a three-legged stool. We have the immigration legal services as one leg, the navigators our second leg, and the third leg is partnerships. So we have a partnerships manager who's working on building partnerships with other agencies outside of Catholic Charities so that we can refer clients easily. We try to identify the gap and services. Our clients have needs that we can't meet at Catholic Charities, then we try to identify organizations that can meet those needs and refer the clients to those organizations. The other part of partnerships is the parishes. We're building partnerships with high-immigrant parishes so that we can offer the legal services and the navigator services in the parish, where the clients feel comfortable, where they already have a trusting relationship, and where it's close to where they're living so it's easy for them to get to and they feel at home.
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This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.