Jean-Rene Watchou, left, visits with classmates in the La Follette School student lounge in 2005.
Jean-Rene Watchou has come full circle. Nearly four years after graduating from La Follette with a Master of International Public Affairs degree, he is back in Madison helping other immigrants adjust to life in the United States and navigate the legal system.
As director of international outreach for Christ Presbyterian Church, Watchou organized the Community Immigration Law Center to provide free legal advice to immigrants at twice-monthly walk-in clinics.
Watchou says the clinic grew out of a need to provide information and legal advice to immigrants so they won't fall prey to unethical people who might try to take advantage of their immigration status. Sometimes, for-hire immigration services willpromise outcomes that aren't possible under immigration law, legal experts say. "When you're in that situation, sometimes you're really willing to pay whatever it takes to have your situation fixed," Watchou says.
He came to the United States from Cameroon nine years ago. The first three years were spent in New York and Maryland where he has relatives. After graduating from the La Follette School in 2006, he interned with the Africa team of World Vision in Washington, D.C. After five months he took a job as a case manager with the International Rescue Committee, an agency that provides emergency disaster relief and helps refugees relocate. "I helped newly arrived refugees resettle in the Baltimore area by assisting them in acquiring health insurance, housing, food stamps, job training and other socia lbenefits," he says. Watchou also worked as an employment advocate with the Lutheran Social Services in Silver Spring, Maryland, focusing on job training and placement for refugees.
The Community Immigration Law Center's volunteer attorneys offer free consultations and case assessments, plus help with immigration forms. Anyone with more complicated legal needs is referred to an immigration attorney.
The center received a $3,750 grant from the State Bar of Wisconsin in addition to seed money from Christ Presbyterian Church. Local immigration attorneys make up most of the center's 11-member board of directors. While the clinic is not formally affiliated with the UW Law School, about four students offer to work alongside the volunteer attorneys for each session. Volunteers are coordinated through the Latino Law Students Association.
Helping people make connections socially as well as legally and economically isthe focus of Watchou's job with Christ Presbyterian Church to promote mutual understanding and cross-cultural exchange among Americans andinternationals. The ministry is a new direction for the church to reach out to people from more than 50 other countries now living, working andstudying in Madison. "Our programs welcome and smooth the integration of international students who are often uprooted from their families," Watchou says. "We offer English conversation partnership, friendship partners, Bible study, international potlucks, international cooking,movie nights, live projection of international sports events, soccer, volleyball, basketball practice, temporary hosting, and Thanksgiving hospitality."
Watchou appreciates the cross-cultural aspects of the job and the efforts to expand mutual understanding. "In addition, giving immigrants the opportunity to find solutions to their immigration issues is one the greatest satisfactions of my job," he says.
Watchou is a permanent U.S. resident and expects to become a citizen within the next two years. His experience with the stress of the immigration process motivated him to get the Community Immigration Law Center going. "You have the sense that your fate depends on an individual ... someone who can decide whether youcan stay here or you have to leave," Watchou says. "When your situation is not cleared up yet, you're still in limbo, and then you don't know if you're going to stay, if you're going to go back."
Free clinic aids immigrants with answers to legal questions, January 5, 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison News
— article last updated May 10, 2010