Immigration into the United States has captured the attention of the world. For those who end up in South Dakota, legal resources aren’t always immediately available. But a new initiative aims to change that. 

The images of kids separated from their families at the United States/Mexico border have grabbed many people’s attention. Sioux Falls preschool teacher Jean Magnuson is one example.

“I’m the mom slash teacher who’s making supper, and I’m watching this unfold at the border, and I’m watching these families be separated, and these children, and I literally can’t breathe,” Magnuson said. “I’m so sad, and I’m thinking of myself, I’m thinking of my kids, I’m thinking of my preschoolers, I’m thinking of the trauma just on the separation.” 

So she decided to do something about it.

“And I thought, it’s not enough to be sad- you’ve got to channel that into something,” Magnuson said. “So I just recently met Taneeza at some other things, and just kind of grabbed her and said … tell me what I do.” 

Taneeza Islam of Sioux Falls is an immigration attorney and executive director of South Dakota Voices for Peace. The nonprofit has a new initiative called Hand in Hand: Immigrant Justice Alliance. Hand in Hand is working to hire a lawyer for their work; there is a GoFundMe page for this effort. 

“Our focus are kind of two populations, which would be the unaccompanied minors from Central America and families who are eligible for asylum,” Islam said. “So if a parent has been released, probably a really high chance they have a good asylum claim, that’s why they were put into bond proceedings to be released.” 

Islam says there have been 284 unaccompanied kids who fled violence in Central America “released to a sponsor in South Dakota” since 2014. She says there are also about five parents in South Dakota separated from kids under the “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in separated families at the border. South Dakota Voices for Peace’s new initiative aims to work with these people.

“So we want to say to our families in South Dakota and our kids in South Dakota, that we are building support services for you,” Islam said. “We are looking to hire attorneys so that you don’t have to go to Minnesota or Omaha or somewhere else to find an attorney, that we are developing the right information so people are empowered to make the right decisions and to provide that service here locally.”  

“I’ll help anyway that my talents can be used anyway, but I think the biggest thing I can do right now is to lend my voice to it, to gather people,” Magnuson said.

The future of people arriving at the southern border separating the United States and Mexico is one that’s brought about highly-charged rhetoric from both sides of the political aisle. Magnuson says their effort is apolitical.

“This is not a political thing, this is a human rights thing, this is a human thing, this is about children,” Magnuson said.

“These are our kids. These are our kids,” Islam said. “They range from infants to under 18, and they’ve been in our state since 2014, and we haven’t really known much about them. But what I, I would like people to harness their passion and their energy that they’re feeling around this issue with the zero tolerance at the border right now and channel it locally.” 

She sees potential.

“‘Cause we can make some real impact here locally by providing attorneys and legal support services for these kids,” Islam said. “They have a 60 percent chance of staying here lawfully, and again a hundred percent chance of being shipped back to the country that they’re fleeing into these abhorrent conditions if they don’t have access to justice.” 

“I can’t imagine how scared some of these kids must be that are here fleeing violence,” Magnuson said. “They know they’re not here lawfully yet. But they don’t know how to get there. And I’m thinking that’s where we can help. That’s the piece of the puzzle that we need.”

Islam says lifting up these new arrivals to South Dakota will lift up the communities they are just joining.

“South Dakota Voices for Peace wants to become this place where these families and kids can turn to for legal assistance, because the return on the investment will be 10 to 100 times fold for South Dakota,” Islam said. “These kids will remember that they were able to hire an attorney locally.” 

Magnuson says lifting up a neighbor is part of the South Dakota spirit.

“We come together, like when somebody needs something, we come together,” Magnuson said. “You’ve heard so many stories of a farmer who maybe was ill and the whole community came together to help. That’s us. That’s us.” 

She says other details are, well, details.

“We throw everything else aside, politics and religion and everything else, when somebody needs us,” Magnuson said. “And I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud about for South Dakota. And I knew if they knew these kids were here, we can get this done.”

Hand in hand, they’re hoping.