JFON Dallas-Ft Worth Attorney speaks at Meeting of the UMC Council of Bishops
Tiny, bird-like, and elderly, Nailah was a most unlikely person to stage a sit-in. Yet there she sat, her hands in her lap, her feet barely reaching the floor, and nothing anybody said would make her budge.
“I won’t leave until you help me,” she repeated. Her voice, still carrying an Egyptian accent after 25 years in the United States, was polite, but firm.
Immigration attorney Graham Bateman was nonplussed. This was a definite first for JFON Dallas-Ft Worth. “We have clients right now,” she explained gently. “Why not make an appointment? Or come to one of our clinics?”
“No.” Nailah shook her head. “You don’t understand. I am a Muslim. I’ve seen what is happening at the airports. Anything can happen now. I could be deported.”
“This is where my family is. This is my home.” Nailah looked at Graham, her dark eyes pleading. “I don’t know anything about Egypt anymore. Please help me become a citizen so I don’t have to go back there.”
Graham sighed. The sit-in might be a new tactic, but the heightened fear and worry was something she had witnessed many times over the last few months. Immigrants—even longtime, lawful permanent residents like Nailah—had once thought they were safe. Now they had begun to realize that permanent doesn’t always mean permanent.
“I was pretty darned convinced Nailah wasn’t going to leave without an armed escort,” Graham says, ruefully smiling as she shrugs her shoulders. “So we are helping her with her naturalization application.”
“Normally,” she adds, “our clients aren’t quite so feisty, thank goodness. But we have to do what we can to help our neighbors who are afraid.”
Graham finishes her story and glances out at her audience at the Council of Bishops, a gathering of United Methodist Episcopal leaders from around the world, who met in Dallas earlier this month. Graham was part of an immigration panel featuring Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño (California-Nevada Conference), Bishop LaTrelle Easterling (Baltimore-Washington Conference), and Leticia Mayberry Wright of the General Council on Finance and Administration.
“Bishop Easterling, Leticia and I are attorneys,” Graham remarks. “I joked that it was really unfair to schedule three attorneys right after lunch. Did I think the audience might fall asleep on us? No,” she shakes her head, “I knew they would fall asleep.”
But the faces looking back at her now were intent, interested, and, best of all, nodding in agreement. They didn’t look the slightest bit sleepy.
“I was wondering if there would be any negative feedback,” she confesses. “JFON-DFW receives such wonderful support from our own Bishop Mike Lowry (Central Texas Conference) and Bishop Michael McKee (North Texas Conference). I was delighted to see that support mirrored around the room.”
Graham joined the panel to speak on behalf of our entire JFON network of 17 sites around the country, an opportunity she embraced wholeheartedly.
“Sharing the mission,” she admits, “is something I’m very passionate about.”
Graham hopes that the bishops came away from the panel energized and excited, and will encourage their leaders and churches to do more for our immigrant neighbors.
“If there is a JFON site in your own or a nearby conference, reach out to them,” is her message for the bishops. “If you don’t have a JFON site in your conference, get in touch with National JFON, and find out what you can do to create one. There are a hundred ways to positively impact our immigrant neighbors. JFON has amazing resources for whatever shape you want that impact to take.”
It’s important for church leaders to realize, she adds, that it’s not just about the positive impact JFON has on our immigrant communities; it’s also about the impact JFON clinics—usually hosted in UMC churches—have on church members and volunteers.
“I’ve seen it over and over again,” says Graham. “The mostly-Anglo volunteers just light up when they are working with their immigrant neighbors. Often it’s the first time they’ve connected with an immigrant other than paying their gardener or tipping the waiter. They become committed to the cause because now they have a relationship.”
“This work matters to them,” she states forcefully, “because this person matters to them.”