BRADENTON -- The League of Women Voters of Manatee County Monday hosted a program on refugees in Southwest Florida. Citing the current influx of refugees from Central America, the Middle East and Cuba, the league invited guest speakers to the event held at the Bradenton Woman's Club, 1705 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton. Speakers included Bradenton-based immigration attorney Thomas Goldman of Goldman & Loughlin and Ivis Triana and Jacqueline Williams of the Immigration and Refugee Services of Lutheran Services of Florida.
"Multitudes of people are fleeing places where there is warfare, rebellion or violent crime. They are coming from places like the Middle East, north Africa, and parts of Latin America," said Rosalie Shaffer, president of the LWVMC. "They are looking to us and other Western nations for a safe haven, but many parts of Europe are being overwhelmed by the sheer number of such migrants."
Since World War II, Shaffer said, the United States has had a policy of providing shelter for those who are truly in danger.
"Should we provide shelter or, as some say, should we close the door to protect ourselves?" Shaffer said.
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Between 2009 and 2014, Florida became home to more than 156,000 refugees, according to Lutheran Services of Florida.
Goldman, who described immigration as an emotional issue, spoke at length about the difference between refugees and those seeking asylum in the U.S. According to the attorney, Florida's refugee program is the largest in the U.S., resettling more than 25,000 refugees annually.
"A refugee is a person who's unable or unwilling to return to their home country because of persecution or fear of persecution by the government or those the government cannot control," the attorney said, adding that the persecution has to be based on one of five categories: religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
The attorney described an asylum-seeker as someone who has made it to the shores of U.S. territory who wants to file for asylum.
"They then become under the classification of a refugee, as long as they have a fear of persecution," he said. "Again, the person can't be just simply a migrant who wants to be here."
Ivis Triana, a Cuban refugee who now works as an office manager for Lutheran Services of Florida, shared her personal story. She said leaving her country was the hardest decision of her life.
"I had to leave my family, my friends, my profession as an engineer but I had decided to start a new life with hope and dignity for my son and me," Triana said, getting emotional as she spoke about not being able to attend her grandmother's funeral in Cuba.
Triana said the Lutheran Services of Florida helps its clients find their first jobs in order to become economically self-sufficient. She said it's in her opinion, the best way to thank the U.S.
"I want to say thank you to all the Americans for giving me the opportunity to live in this wonderful country," she said. "Thank you."
Maryanne Owens, one of several attendees who asked questions near the end of the program, said the LWV Of Manatee County's programs are always great because attendees are learning from people who are hands-on on a specific topics.
"We hear a lot from politicians who have read an article, who have spoken to other people, but these are the people who are working in the field," the 66-year-old Bradenton resident said. "They're the people who see the immigrants face-to-face, who see a refugee and they can see the fear in their eyes and they can hear the horror they've experienced. It makes a big difference."
Amaris Castillo, law enforcement/island reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7051. Follow her on Twitter@AmarisCastillo.