A New Beginning for Justice for Our Neighbors in Washington, D.C. & Maryland
The snack table is set, forms and supplies are at the ready, toys to occupy the youngsters are out, and the volunteers of the Epworth UMC JFON clinic are eagerly awaiting their new attorney, Angela Edman.
After a hiatus of several months during a staff attorney transition, DC-MD JFON is back in business, with clinics in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and two in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Angela, with extensive experience in asylum as well as other types of immigration cases both here and abroad, is the capable attorney at the helm for all four clinics.
Epworth UMC serves a diverse community in Gaithersburg, Maryland, some 20 miles outside of the nation’s capital. A large church, it is well-equipped to handle their many social justice ministries. Angela will see a total of eight potential clients tonight, but nearly a dozen volunteers and parishioners are here to help their immigrant neighbors.
They are also here to meet and mingle with these neighbors. Hospitality and welcome are an important part of the ministry at Epworth. Volunteers and waiting clients help themselves to snacks, sit in the comfy reception room and talk about their family, their work, and their lives.
Jorge, who came here from Ecuador 11 years ago, is a former JFON DC-MD client. Now he’s back to see if Angela can help his brother, who is still in Ecuador.
Jorge loves his life here, and he very much wants to tell us why.
“When I walk down the street, I greet my neighbors—first someone from Africa, then Asia, then South America, and on and on.” He sits back in his chair and puts up his hands. “Caramba, que bueno!”
“We all come from different places, but we all have something in common,” says Beatriz, a volunteer who arrived from Bolivia in 1979. “That is the love of God.”
Clients make appointments to attend the clinic, and no walk-ins are allowed. The clinic coordinators, Yolanda and Altagracia, are strict about clients keeping their appointments. There are just too many others who need Angela’s help. “If someone doesn’t show up,” Yolanda explains, “they have taken the place of someone else, and that isn’t fair.”
Protecting the client’s privacy and comfort is of paramount importance at all JFON clinics. (All client names in this story have been changed to protect their identity.) Here at the Epworth UMC clinic, volunteers conduct basic intake interviews with clients in separate rooms, where the clients can share—in strictest confidence—their personal history, their immigration legal issue, and why they need help.
It’s a method that works exceedingly well, says Angela. “Often times potential clients, particularly coming from vulnerable communities, can feel intimidated meeting with a lawyer because of preconceived notions or even negative experiences they’ve had with the law in the past,” she explains. “This can really impede their ability to communicate effectively with me and allow me to help them.”
Angela surveys the reception room of waiting clients with satisfaction. “That’s why it’s so helpful for them to meet with a dedicated and friendly volunteer first,” she says. “It helps ease them into the process and set the stage of JFON as a friendly place that’s here to help them.”
Having so many volunteers to conduct the intakes—plus those who watch the kids—saves loads of time. As soon as a volunteer finishes with an intake, she hands the intake sheet to Angela.
“I review it, and then meet privately with the client to conduct a more thorough intake, learn more about the client’s history and potential legal issues to assess whether the client has a case. From there, I decide what type of help we can offer, and let the client know the course of action. So I meet with each client separately in this way.”
More families arrive, some obviously coming directly from work. A middle schooler uses the coffee table to do her homework while her younger siblings play with toy trucks and blocks. From time to time we get a brief glimpse of Angela between appointments. She’s busy, but obviously enjoying meeting her new clients.
A tall teenage boy with wavy dark hair grabs a sandwich from the table and sits down to talk with us. Eddie’s family, originally from Honduras, are members of the congregation. His father is talking to Angela about obtaining permanent residence (a Green Card).
The discussion turns to sports. Like so many boys his age, Eddie is sports-mad: soccer, football, baseball; he plays them all. “I want to be a PE teacher in a low-income neighborhood,” he says. He hopes he’ll be able to stay in the U.S. with his family.
Eddie’s soccer coach arrives. The coach is also a member of the congregation. He came from Angola as a political asylee 20 years ago. “That’s my connection,” his wife Lana, another volunteer, says with a smile. “That’s why I’m here, that’s how I know what immigrants have to face, that’s why I have to be involved.”
The other volunteers are nodding their heads. They all have different reasons to be here, and yet there’s really only one reason that matters.
Lana speaks for all of them. “I want to help.”