JFON on the Border:
Imperial Valley JFON celebrates Grand Opening and First Clinic

The Border is just different…

It was meant to be a desert. Modern irrigation, however, turned the valley into the second-largest agricultural area in California. An aerial view shows a vast expanse of light and dark green checkerboards; 80 percent of our nation’s salad greens come from these fields.  Take a closer look, however, and see the weather-beaten faces of men and women, their bodies bent and stooped as they move through the neat furrows. These are our immigrant neighbors who make all that lettuce possible.

Workers harvest winter lettuce in Imperial Valley. Photo courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Much of the work in this valley is agricultural and, therefore, seasonal. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent, among the highest in the nation.

Most of the inhabitants—80 percent—are Hispanic, some living here for generations, even before it was part of the United States.

The town of El Centro—the home of First United Methodist Church and Imperial Valley JFON—is the county seat.

To the west and north are mountains, blocking the valley off from the major cities of Southern California. To the east are the extraordinary Algodones sand dunes, where parts of The Return of the Jedi and The Scorpion King were filmed. To the south, of course, is Mexico.

Once you cross the border into the United States, you will likely see U.S. Border Patrol agents again. There are checkpoints at every road north, east, and west of El Centro. For U.S. citizens and lawful residents, these frequent checkpoints are a hassle and inconvenience. For the undocumented, they are a danger zone that limits freedom and opportunity.

“Your whole world is contained,” explains Kelly Smith, site attorney for the new Imperial Valley JFON.  “You can get a job in El Centro or Yuma, and that’s it. Every road out of here has a checkpoint.

“There’s just no way to get out of this valley.”

Nobody should have to go through the system alone…

Non-locals express surprise to learn that most of the detainees at the Imperial Valley Detention Facility do not come from Mexico; they are just as likely to originate from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean. Some are asylum seekers, fleeing violence or destruction. Some are victims of sex-trafficking or other crimes. Many are already in removal proceedings, waiting out the long days until they are deported back to their home countries.  Few have access to an attorney. Without an attorney to guide and advocate for them, even fewer will be allowed to stay in the United States.

 Imperial Valley Detention Center houses a minimum of 640 men and women, whose average length of stay is 124 days. Photo credit: Desert Sun.

“There are very few lawyers available to begin with,” Kelly says, “but for those with little money, there just aren’t any options.”

The largest and most well-known charitable organization in the area—Catholic Charities—doesn’t do detention work. But for Kelly and Imperial Valley JFON, it’s a natural fit.

“We’ve already made inroads at the facility,” says Pastor Ron Griffen of First UMC El Centro. “We met with the warden and took the tour.”

“It’s where I practiced originally,” adds Kelly. “And I think that’s where there is the biggest need.”

You are welcome here…

First UMC El Centro is a busy, active church, whose members strive to make a significant difference in the lives of people around them. “Your better life awaits,” is the promise you find on their website. ”You don’t have to watch others change humanity; you were born to do this, too.

At the church’s Olive Street Center, there are support groups for parents of autistic children, LGBTQ individuals and their families, and those grieving a loss of a loved one. There are also classes in music, ESL, and citizenship. And now there is a JFON clinic!

On Kelly’s first visit, she admits, she was “church shopping,” searching for a comfortable place to worship with her husband and young daughter.

Kelly did not grow up in the United Methodist Church. She was   immediately struck by the open and inclusive message coming from both Pastor Ron and the congregation, and the warm welcome she and her family received.

“I knew we had found our church home,” she says simply.

That was in 2014, at the height of the unaccompanied migrant children (UAC) surge, when El Centro was processing 130 kids per day, before sending them on to housing. There were no problems in El Centro; in fact, most of the town appeared sympathetic to the children’s plight. It was, however, a different story in other California towns, where residents protested, blocked buses, and shouted vitriolic remarks.

“What in the world were these people thinking,” Pastor Ron asks, shaking his head at the memory. “These were just kids.”

Pastor Ron organized a forum on the issue at a local community college. He announced the forum from the pulpit on the day that Kelly was visiting. Intrigued, Kelly let Pastor Ron know that she was an immigration attorney who wanted to help.

So here was Pastor Ron, with a congregation that wanted to make a significant difference in the lives of immigrants. And here was Kelly Smith, who was just the person to help them do it.

A better life awaits.

You have a place to go where you will be safe…

Kelly was volunteering her services, part time, for the church’s occasional immigration legal clinics when she first heard about National Justice for Our Neighbors, a ministry of the United Methodist Church. It was almost a moment of divine revelation: NJFON provides resources, expertise, and guidance to JFON sites across the country, exactly what Kelly and Pastor Ron needed if they were going to expand and grow.

They began the process of joining the JFON family. The launch and first clinic were planned for the last weekend of February.

The community was abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm. Nowhere was a JFON site more desperately needed.  But many of the local immigrants, Pastor Ron worried, were also desperately afraid. He read news reports of aggressive Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions—including one that had targeted a UMC Mission church in Northern Virginia. Would that happen here, in California, he wondered? Would people stay away, afraid to come out of hiding?

Kelly, while conceding the existence of a tense climate of fear and uncertainty, remained cheerfully optimistic. “It’s not for nothing that my friends call me Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” she says, grinning.

El Centro Mayor Alex Cardenas with Pastor Ron Griffen and Imperial Valley JFON’s site attorney Kelly Smith at the IV JFON Grand Opening. Many elected officials, dignitaries, and community leaders also came out to show their support. Imperial Valley Press Photo credit: Julio Morales.

Kelly’s confidence was well-founded. The launch of the newest JFON site—and the only one in close proximity to the Mexican border—was, by any definition, a great success.

Most exciting, for Kelly, is the number of people who want to help. Their first volunteer training attracted 12 people and more are signing up to attend the next training.

Best yet, Kelly reports that three local attorneys have also volunteered their legal services.

The story made the front page of the local paper and was also featured by the local Spanish television station. Kelly noticed the difference immediately.

“Today I am a bit overwhelmed,” she admits. “The church is being inundated with calls. But it shows you how much we are needed.”

There are three other UMC churches in the area that are interested in holding immigration legal clinics. Part of Imperial Valley JFON’s eventual goal, says Pastor Ron, is to have clinics all over the region, going everywhere and anywhere people need immigration legal services.

“We want people to know that we really are here, we really are legitimate, and we really can help,” explains Pastor Ron.

“We want them to know that now they have a chance.”