NJFON Board Member and Elementary School Teacher Luis Juárez reflects on the 5th Anniversary of DACA
As we commemorate five years of DACA, I sit back to reflect on the opportunities I have received in my DACAmented life. This executive action has catapulted my life to a level that I never thought I could reach. It has given me a privilege not available to many undocumented people and helped me turn my dreams into a reality.
Personally, I am responsible for impacting the lives of hundreds of students at school. My undocumented experience, combined with my professional life, has equipped me with a plethora of resources that I get to share with the families I encounter. My teaching philosophy is sharply defined by these experiences and this has brought me incredible accomplishments in the classroom.
Lastly, thanks to NJFON, I now find myself in leadership spaces where I have a direct impact on communities around the country.
As I continue this journey, I am very conscious that this could not have been possible without DACA. My story is one of many, and it is incredibly important that we continue to be protected and supported. If there is anything we have proven, it is that we are willing to do the impossible to make a name for ourselves and give back to a country that has taken a chance on us.
West Michigan JFON helps young accident victim become DACAmented
Julio was brought to the United States in 2005, when he was only 13 years old. Unfortunately, he did not find a welcoming land of opportunity here, but was instead terrorized and exploited by an abusive uncle. Julio was not allowed to go to school. Even at that tender age, he was forced to work to pay off family debts to his uncle.
When Julio turned 16, he was finally able to move out of his uncle’s house and live with his brother. He was also able to start school. But Julio lacked evidence of his physical presence in the U.S. before he started school in 2008— evidence necessary for a successful DACA (Defered Action for Childhood Arrivals) application.
Julio first came to JFON West Michigan in 2014, after he had suffered a workplace accident that caused him paraplegia. He had to sue his employer to receive the worker’s compensation he was due to help pay for his expensive medical bills.
He could not, however, collect any money without a social security number, and for that he needed to prove his DACA eligibility.
Julio and his legal team at JFON West Michigan waited anxiously for well over a year, trudging through a challenging RFE (Request for Evidence) process before he finally got his DACA application approved.
“When he came to pick up his work permit,” remembers site attorney Alex Gillette, “he and his friend brought us two dozen doughnuts. Julio had proudly paid for them himself as a thank you to our staff.”
“Since we first met Julio,” continues Alex, “he has grown so much; his memory has substantially improved and his confidence has grown exponentially.”
Alex smiles happily. “We are thrilled he received DACA,” she says. “That program changed his life.”
“If I could work—even a little—it would help my brother who is supporting me and my little sister.”
In our video The JFON DREAMers in their own words, we see but a sampling of the young DACAmented clients the JFON network has helped over the last five years. They tell us of their plans to go to college, join the military, and have successful careers. They express their hopes to be of service to their communities, their adopted country, and the world. We hear their longing to belong and to be recognized as Americans.
But another, more prosaic, reason why DACA matters so much to our clients is found in an open-ended question on the I-765 Worksheet submitted to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). Applicants are asked to explain why they need work authorization.
“My dad is sick. He has diabetes and I want to be able to help him pay for his medicine and other bills at home.”
We’ve collected a lot of these statements from our clients over the years. Some of them expound on their goals and ambitions:
“I need to work to save for college,” they begin, followed by the expressed desire to become—a nurse, a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a diplomat. One young man expressed himself simply and poignantly:
One constant that runs through many of their statements is the worry and concern for their parents. Some of these applicants are still teenagers in high school, yet they are keenly aware of their elders’ struggles and sacrifices:
“I know my parents are having a rough time with the economy. I want to help them pay the rent and buy food.”
“Helping my grandma pay for her medication would be the nicest thing I could ever do.”
Many of the DACAmented who were young adults in 2012—or who have since become young adults five years later—are now working to support their own children. Many others support parents, siblings, relatives both here and back in the country of their birth:
I am the cashier and food runner at a local deli and make approximately $8.00 an hour. I need to have more work. I send back money to Honduras to help support my mom, dad, and two sisters.”
“My mother and I work to support my younger brother, who has cerebral palsy.”
For many of our DACA clients, security, the ability to wake up in the morning and know they will return to that same place in the evening—this is what truly matters the most; even if that security is doled out two years at a time.
This benefit of DACA has gained greater urgency during the current administration, which has stated that all undocumented immigrants are priorities for deportation. The statements below were written way back in 2012 and to read them now is to feel, once again, the ever-present menace of living in perilous times.
“I have a daughter and want to start building her future. I would like to not be deported and have to leave my family behind.”
“DACA will cease my fear of being deported and I would feel more safe and not so scared because I can prove to anyone that I can be in the U.S.A.”
NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown urges you to take action against the anti-family and anti-refugee bill before Congress
National Justice for Our Neighbors strongly opposes the “Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy” (RAISE) Act, introduced by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and championed by the Trump Administration. This anti-family and anti-refugee bill would dismantle our nation’s immigration system based on supporting family unification and would greatly reduce refugee admissions, instead favoring a “merit-based” points system based on the applicant’s ability to speak English and benefit the U.S. economy.
Like so many other proposals that have been floated in recent months, the justification for this bill—that it would increase wages and protect American jobs—relies not on facts but on myths meant to make us fear immigrants. For example, last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine produced a 500+ page report in which the lead researcher concluded that immigration had “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.”
More importantly, this bill is an affront to the core values of JFON: promoting family unity and defending the most vulnerable. We are called to serve those who are desperately seeking safety, refuge, and family.
Another relevant text, also not cited by those introducing the bill, the Bible, reminds us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)
Here are some components of the bill that demonstrate why we vehemently oppose it:
Reduces legal immigration channels by 50-70 percent, with an 85 percent cut to family-based immigration.
Permanently caps refugee admissions at 50,000 per year, the lowest resettlement goal in U.S. history, during the largest global refugee crisis in world history.
Eliminates the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters, and creates an impossible process for them to sponsor their parents for five-year visas, during which time the parents would not be able to work and the child would have to cover all expenses and health insurance costs.
Stops green card holders from sponsoring their children over the age of 18.
Leaves approximately four million people, who have been promised a visa and are waiting in line for it to become available, without any opportunity to reunite with their family members.
Essentially only permits individuals who have certain education levels, work history, English-language ability, or high-paying job offers to enter the United States.
The Interfaith Immigration Coalition, of which National JFON is a member, has drafted this sign-on letter that we encourage all faith leaders, churches, and JFONs to sign. Also, we urge you to call your Senators and Representative today at 202-224-3121.
Sample Script: “I’m your constituent from [CITY/TOWN], and I am strongly OPPOSED to Senators Cotton and Perdue’s RAISE Act. This bill would permanently cut refugee resettlement numbers to historic lows, make familyreunification inaccessible, and essentially only permit individuals who have certain education levels, employment history, and English-language ability to enter the United States. I urge you to reject this bill and do everything in your power to see that it does NOT become law.”
Refugee kids find a home with their team and their coach
Their school finds a home with a United Methodist Church
“There was this one time,” remembers Asad, a lanky 15-year old from Sudan, “we were winning and that made the other team mad. ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they yelled at us. One of my teammates was wearing a hijab and they called her a terrorist. That really affected me, you know, because I am a Muslim. And I am a refugee.”
“We could have reacted badly,” he adds, “but we knew we couldn’t let them get into our heads or we would lose the game. So we just walked away and let it go.”
Asad is as quick with his smile as he is with his feet. But he, like so many of his teammates, is a child survivor of war. He has lost much of his childhood to that war.
“I have had a hard life,” he acknowledges matter-of-factly. “But now I try to use my experiences as lessons to help me stay off the bad lane in life, and as a way to move on.”
He looks to his teammates, many of whom have witnessed horrors equal to his.
“I think,” he says thoughtfully, “that soccer has taught us peace.”
On one end is the Washington Monument. On the other is the alabaster-white dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the grassy mall that lies between them, on a day shimmering with heat, the kids are playing soccer.
Some of the players—there are both boys and girls—come from the Northern Virginia suburbs. They have uniforms and proper footwear. They love soccer, and it shows. They are very good.
The Fugees Family are a team made up of refugee kids, hailing from some of the most troubled spots in the world today: Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Syria. One girl plays in a hijab. The boys are playing barefoot. These teens also love soccer. And they are also very good.
Visitors to the festival stop to watch the game, and the kids among them are invited to join the Fugee team. One teenaged boy immediately takes off his sneakers so he can play barefoot, too.
“All right!” he shouts after his teammate—originally from Thailand—scores a goal. They grin and high five each other.
Their coach, Luma Mufleh, an asylee and immigrant from Jordan, watches from the sidelines. “Put them on a field and let them play,” she says. “At the end of this, they’ll be exchanging Facebook profiles.”
Ala kaffi el Qadar numshi wa la nudri ‘An el Maktoob
(On the palm of fate we walk and do not know what is written)
You may already know something of the Fugees Family and their remarkable coach. They have been the subject of numerous news stories, videos, TV shows, and a 2009 book, optioned for a film by Universal Studios in Hollywood. Coach Luma was one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2016. This year she has her own Ted Talk.
You may also have heard of their hometown, Clarkston, Georgia, the “Ellis Island of the South.” With its access to public transportation, close proximity to Atlanta, and affordable apartment complexes ready to be occupied, Clarkston was identified as an ideal refugee resettlement hub in the 1980s.
Refugees from 50 different countries have made Clarkston their first American home. Today, the town welcomes 1,500 refugees a year; half of its 13,000 residents are refugees. It truly is the “most diverse square mile in America.”
“The only place I’ve experienced this kind of diversity,” Luma says, “is in New York City.”
It was this diversity which led Luma to Clarkston one day in 2004 on a search for authentic pita—the kind she remembered from her childhood. She took a wrong turn and came upon some refugee boys playing soccer with rocks as goal posts and a sorry excuse for a ball. Luma had a better one in the trunk of her car. She used it to entice the boys to let her play with them.
And so it began. Luma formed a soccer team for refugee boys. She then started helping them with their homework, getting to know their families, and worrying about their struggles against poverty and gang violence. Are they going to have a meal when they get home? Are they going to be jumped for their soccer cleats walking back to their apartment complex? How far behind will they fall in their studies?
Luma decided to start a school—an academy—for child survivors of war.
Was that wrong turn written on her own palm of fate? Was it destiny? Could Luma have had any idea how much her life—and the lives of so many refugee kids and their families—would change from a simple and unexpected game of soccer?
No one is left behind
Coach Luma’s plan for a Fugee academy—small classes, remediation, social integration, and soccer at its core—found a home at Clarkston’s First United Methodist Church. The students occupy 90 percent of the church building space during the school year. They need all this room and more; there is a long waiting list of kids who want to come to the Fugee Academy.
The changes Clarkston has undergone in the last 30 years are reflected in this church; its once all-white congregation has shrunken dramatically, the remaining original parishioners now quite elderly.
Along with the church’s traditional English service, there is also one for their Eritrean brethren. An additional five congregations of other denominations hold services at the First UMC; one Burundian, one Nepalese, and three Burmese.
“On any given Sunday,” says Pastor Karen Lyon, “we have services in this church from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. And everyone is welcome here.”
Pastor Lyon recently completed her own Doctorate of Ministry, and she credits the Fugee students as a source of inspiration. “When you are in the presence of these kids, and you see their hunger for learning, their discipline—they are often in school from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night—yes,” she states emphatically, “they encouraged me to study harder.”
“They are one great family,” she adds. “No one is left behind. They know all too well what it feels like to be left behind.”
The game is over. Members of the Fugee team are gathered under a tent, water bottles in hand, speaking to an audience of festival visitors. They answer questions and share their opinions about the museums they’ve visited and their favorite subjects in school. They share memories of arriving in a new country, one with leafy trees and weird food. They admit to struggles to learn English and new customs.
Mostly, though, they talk about being part of the Fugee family, of belonging to each other, to the team, and to their coach.
Life is good.
* Coach Luma plans to open a Fugee academy in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and a few more in Midwestern towns where there are refugee resettlement hubs. All of them will follow the Fugees model so kids can have “this experience of being welcomed, wanted, and loved.”
To read more or to help them with this project, please visit the Fugees Family
A couple of months ago, a 12-year-old client and I sat down at the large, wooden desk in the middle of our small office. We were coloring pictures from a Dora the Explorer coloring book. Even as an adult, I find that coloring can relieve stress, and I hoped it would do the same for the young girl who sat next to me.
We began talking about school. She told me about her classes and that she was studying hard to learn English because she wanted to be a doctor one day. We bonded over our love of animals.
She told me about her life in El Salvador. I did my best to let her direct our conversation.
Soon I learned that her grandpa often got drunk and said he wanted to rape her.
Soon I was getting up to grab a box of tissues and a bottle of water as she explained that her uncle groped her cousin in front of other relatives, but nobody did anything.
Soon she told me about the nights when her uncle snuck into her bed and raped her.
She cried as she told me her family didn’t love her and wouldn’t protect her. We were the first to hear about what had happened to her in El Salvador. She couldn’t even tell her family.
About five weeks ago and with the help of a Spanish-speaking “monitor,” I was the Spanish-English interpreter for her three-hour affirmative asylum interview. I was so proud of her for telling her story, even through sobs. It was incredibly brave.
The waiting after the interview is the most difficult for everyone, I think, especially for the family. I get frequent phone calls from asylum applicants, wondering if I’ve heard anything. They are all afraid they will be forced to go back and face their nightmares once again.
The question people ask me most often is whether my job is emotionally draining. The answer is yes, sometimes, obviously.
The answer is also that, while it is hard to hear and interpret and repeat and write down and reread the horrifying acts of violence and persecution that my young clients have faced, it was much worse for them to have to live those real experiences.
I owe it to them to be at least as brave as they have been by fleeing and sharing their stories so they can stay safe.
Last week I opened up a letter: “Recommended Approval” it said, in bold, at the top.
“She’ll get to be a doctor,” I thought. The sense of relief washed over me when I called the child’s mother. Contingent upon an identity and background check, etc., the United States has decided to protect her from the persecution she faced as a young girl in El Salvador.
I allowed myself a chance to feel the joy of that moment.
Then I was back to work, with 12 more asylum applications to finish before I leave in July.
JFON New York reunites sisters after a 22-year separation
He was a hard-working man in a country where hard work is not always rewarded. He was a devout man among the Christian minority in Hyderabad, India; a lay minister in the Methodist Church, who loved to preach and loved to sing. He was a man who always wanted to do the right thing.
But ask anyone who knew this man to identify the defining purpose of his life and the answer would always be the same: love for his daughters. He had five of them; they were the joy of his life, but also his worry. How would he adequately provide for them? What kind of future would they have? Where was the opportunity for them?
So when Mark had a chance to immigrate to the United States, and to bring his family with him, he took it. This had been his dream for a very long time. He was determined that his daughters would start new and better lives in America.
All except one. Tiara, the eldest, was 21 years of age and recently married. No longer a dependent, she was not allowed to accompany her father. She and her husband would need to stay in India until Mark could find a way to bring them over.
It was a heart-wrenching decision. They were a close and loving family. They knew it would take more than a decade to bring Tiara to them. The sisters had never been separated. How would they bear so many years apart?
“It was difficult to be left behind,” admits Tiara quietly. “But I understood why.”
It was for the good of the family, and the family is everything.
In 2001, after some years living in the United States, Mark—a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR or Green Card holder) who was on his way to citizenship—petitioned the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to bring Tiara and her husband over to join the family. He assumed he was doing the right thing, that as a Green Card holder he had a right to petition for Tiara.
He was wrong.
“My father didn’t do his homework,” admits Josephine, the second eldest daughter. “He should have asked somebody, but he didn’t have anyone to advise him. He didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do that.”
USCIS never informed Mark of his mistake. He became a citizen in 2002, still waiting to hear when his eldest daughter would be joining them. In 2006, they were finally informed that Mark’s original petition as an LPR was invalid. Now they would have to start all over again.
For a U.S. citizen parent to bring over a married child from India the waiting time is 12 years. If Mark had waited and submitted the petition when he became a U.S. citizen, the family would have been together by 2014. Now the earliest they would see her would be 2018.
By his mistake, Mark had cost his daughter Tiara and their entire family four years. Four years when they could have been together.
“He carried this guilt until his deathbed,” remembers Josephine. “For 22 years, he lived with regret for leaving her behind. He wasn’t able to give her the advantages the rest of his daughters had. And then, to know we had lost all those precious years…” She shakes her head. “It was a terrible blow.”
Their father died in 2015. It was a shock to everyone. He had been ill, yes, but it hadn’t seemed that serious. Always protecting the ones he loved, Mark had hid his illness well from his daughters.
“The last time I saw him,” recalls Josephine, her voice quavering, “he made me promise: ‘If anything happens to me,’ he told me, ‘you have to continue. You have to bring your sister here.’”
“I honestly feel like I reassured him,” she adds. “He trusted me. He had faith that I would get this job done. I was not going to fail him.”
Although Josephine willingly shouldered this burden from her beloved father, the obstacles preventing her from carrying out his last wishes remained immense. A family petition dies with the petitioner. Josephine would have to submit her own petition and as she was only a sibling, the wait would be another 14 years. The year would be 2029. The sisters would be middle-aged women, their own children grown, before they would be finally reunited.
Josephine was at a loss as to where to turn and what to do. A friend from church told her about JFON New York and site attorney TJ Mills.
TJ advised Josephine to apply for a humanitarian exemption, so that Tiara, her husband and child, would be moved to the front of the line. “It was going to be difficult,” TJ acknowledges. “Tiara’s life was not in any danger and she was not suffering undue hardship—unless we could convince the USCIS that a family’s separation of 22 years is an undue hardship.”
“What we had on our side,” TJ adds, “is that family unity is fundamental to U.S. immigration policy.” He began gathering affidavits; a local congressman became involved; and TJ carefully laid out the case for a timely family reunification.
They won, and Tiara, her husband, and child will shortly be moving to the United States.
“Honestly, I feel like USCIS probably felt remorse,” says Josephine. “My guess is that they felt somewhat responsible for the delay. If they had only informed us of my father’s mistake…” She stops, her voice quavering again with unshed tears. “And perhaps,” she finishes quietly, “they also recognized that we all had been apart long enough.”
It was a miracle late in coming, but it was still a miracle. “I give the glory to God,” Josephine says gratefully, “but also to TJ.”
Josephine and her sisters are busily making preparations for the day when they are finally reunited. There will be a joyous celebration, of course, with many thankful prayers. “And then,” says Josephine, “we will all go to visit our father’s grave and spend some time with him.”
Together the five daughters will remember the father who loved them and wanted to give them the world. A father who nurtured trees under whose shade he will never sit and who planted seeds for a garden he will never see bloom.
“He is,” says Tiara simply, “still in the midst of us.”
I walk in, take a deep breath, and say, “me llamo Katrina, y trabajo para la Justicia para Nuestros Vecinos como abogada. No trabajo para el gobierno. Necesito a alguien para traducir.”
I’ve just introduced myself, assured them I don’t work for the government, and stated I need someone to translate.
Twice a month, this is what Tuesdays look like for me as I present Know Your Rights programs for the detained immigrants in the Calhoun County Correctional Facility in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The immigrants here are in various stages of the deportation process, and many are not from Michigan; they were brought in on buses from the border, and have no idea that they’re only three hours away from Canada.
The presentations I offer consist of information on how to navigate the court system, what their rights are in the court process, and what remedies they may be eligible for. The information I provide helps guide them in the right direction, without taking the immigrant on for full representation.
Currently, JFON West Michigan is the only agency that does these presentations at Battle Creek. Without us, the only sources of information detained immigrants have are the government, a small law library (all in English, mind you), other inmates, or, if they are lucky, family on the outside who can hire an attorney.
They need someone on their side. Someone to explain this biased system and our laws, just like I need someone to explain their language for me. They need someone to commiserate with them about being treated like criminals, even though they only wanted safety and fled for their lives. Someone to tell them how long they can be detained after they are ordered to be deported. Someone to assure them that being here doesn’t make them a bad person, a bad spouse, or a bad parent.
What do you do now? What happens to your daughter?
Do you know your rights?
At Know Your Rightsworkshops, immigrants—whatever their immigration status—can learn their rights as residents in this country, prepare for the possibility of a raid, and create a safety plan for their family.
These informational sessions are not a new thing, but the sense of urgency and the number of communities clamoring for them feels different from previous years. Hateful campaign rhetoric, multiple executive orders, subsequent cases filed to combat them, and the inundation of fake news on social media have all contributed to create an atmosphere of confusion, worry, and fear.
JFON attorneys across the country have responded to this heightened demand by leading more workshops, not only in their home churches, but in other houses of worship, schools, libraries and community centers.
If knowledge is power, it is also a weapon, and it is the best defense our immigrant communities have against the Trump administration’s new enforcement priorities. Some of these new priorities give sweeping power to local officials, many of whom do not have a full understanding of immigration law. Armed with knowledge, our communities can make informed choices regarding their interactions with ICE agents and local police officers and can best protect their rights at home, in their car, on the street or in their workplace.
Know Your Rightsworkshops can help, says TJ Mills, NJFON consulting attorney and site attorney for New York Justice for Our Neighbors, “assuage the concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order to deport undocumented immigrants without regard to number of years they have lived in the country or whether they have criminal records.”
Being prepared for the worst-case scenario
“Safety planning” has become an integral part of all the Know Your Rightsworkshops led by JFON attorneys, who help immigrants in danger of deportation and separation from their family compile the documents they will need if they are suddenly detained by ICE. These documents need to be kept in a secure place, one known to other trusted friends or family members. They include:
Caregiver’s Authorization Affidavit—so the person taking care of your child has authority to make school-related and medical decisions.
Special Power of Attorney—for the person who will be making long-term decisions for your child’s well-being.
Limited Power of Attorney—for the person who will be handling your financial assets.
Planning for the possibility of being forced to leave your family—even just thinking about it—takes courage. It’s confusing and scary, and it’s a task best not attempted alone. JFON attorneys can walk their at-risk immigrant clients through the planning process, explaining every step along the way, and providing them some ease and assurance that, even if the worst happens, they and their family will be better equipped to deal with it.
“They are very grateful for our help,“ says Dominique Poirier, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Just Neighbors, our JFON site in Northern Virginia. “From what I’ve seen, people leave the workshops actually feeling encouraged and hopeful.”
“We have never been more proud,” adds Melissa Bowe, program and advocacy manager for NJFON, “to serve our immigrant family members, neighbors and larger community in teaching about our constitutional protections and other best practices under American immigration law.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”