Julio’s Story

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.”

Fugees Family United!

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.”

Asad takes a break from the soccer game.

“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.”

Summertime

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.

And then there are the Fugees, invited guests of the Smithsonian’s Folklife Festival, whose inspirational story is now part of the Many Voices, One Nation exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

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.

The kids of summer play soccer on the Washington Mall.

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.

Clarkson Citizenship class. Photo courtesy of America by the Numbers.

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.”

 Epilogue

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.

Photo courtesy of the Fugees Family. Coach Luma (center) with some of her kids. There are currently 83 students from grades 6 – 12, each grade reflecting the resettlement influx of that year; Afghanistan, Sudan, Burma, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The 6th grade class this year is predominantly from Syria.

 

* 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

 

Asylum

 Emily Kvalheim of South Florida Justice for our Neighbors helps abused and neglected children find safety in the United States. 

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.

Emily and one of her youngest clients take a break from Immigration Court to look at the Miami River and skyline.

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.

“I knew immigration law was complicated,” says Emily, shown here in her South Florida JFON office. “I just didn’t realize how much.” 

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.

As I look back on my time as a Global Mission Fellow Missionary serving with South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON), my heart is full. This experience has been incredibly rewarding, and I will miss my clients greatly as I head to law school in the fall.

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.

_____________________________________

* Emily Kvalheim and Caitlin Kastner, both Global Mission Fellows of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries have spent the last two years working for South Florida JFON. They have both been an invaluable asset to that mission, but now their time is at an end.  We wish them all the best in their future endeavors, knowing they will always leave their little piece of the world better than when they found it. Godspeed!

We wrote about Emily and Caitlin when they first started their work for South Florida JFON. Please read it here. 

 

For the Love of my Five Daughters

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.

Like these girls enjoying a holiday at the beach, Mark’s daughters were devoted sisters.

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.

Citizens of India whose U.S. citizen siblings filed family-sponsored petitions on or before Sept 15, 2003, are finally eligible for an immigrant visa in June 2017.

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.”

 

Making the case for JFON

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.

Graham Bateman, site attorney for JFON DFW.

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.”

“Yes, but—“

“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.”

Here come the Bishops! At the UMC Council of Bishops Meeting in Dallas, Texas.

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.”

The Mother’s Day Reunion

For three kids newly arrived from a remote corner of El Salvador, New York City is a bewildering place.

Central Park, New York City

They used to walk 30 minutes to a small and humble school. Now they walk a few blocks to a big and imposing building, with computers and supplies, and kids from all over the world.

Underground, there is the subway, rumbling and twisting through mysterious dark tunnels. Aboveground, there are horns and sirens and brakes shrieking as drivers narrowly miss those pedestrians who dawdle crossing the street.

“Even the crosswalks confuse them,” says their stepfather Eddie with a chuckle. “’’What do the signals mean? When do we walk? When do we stop?’” He shrugs his shoulders. “They’ve never seen anything like them before.”

Being reunited with their mother after a ten-year separation is also bewildering. Did they ever really believe this happy day would come?

 Consuelo 

There was always a feeling of sorrow about Consuelo, says Eddie, even when she looked happy. “Her heart,” he says, shaking his head, “was always with her children.”

At a very young age, Consuelo became the family breadwinner for her three young children in El Salvador. There was no work in her rural village; she was forced to leave her children with her mother in order to provide for them. She went to New York, found a job, and immediately began sending money home. They communicated through letters, phone or Skype, although mail delivery was sometimes unreliable and cellular and broadband coverage spotty at best.

Months became years, years became a decade. Her children were fast growing up without her. The sense of loss, of missing, of longing, didn’t diminish with time; it increased, along with the constant worry. There was no opportunity and no future in El Salvador for the children.

Funeral procession for a student killed as part of a gang initiation rite in Consuelo’s hometown in El Salvador. Photo credit: Angel E. Iraheta

Worse, the gang violence in El Salvador had spread out from the cities and into the rural areas. As the kids moved into their teen years, they became walking targets — the older boy for gang recruitment and the girl as a gang “girlfriend.” If the gangs found out they had a mother in the U.S., they could be kidnapped and held for ransom. Consuelo knew their grandmother could not adequately protect them.

When Eddie, a U.S. citizen, married Consuelo, he knew he was also taking on children he had never met. It was a great responsibility, but also a precious one. He accepted it without reservation.  “I already love those kids just like they are my own,” he said happily. “Of course they have to come here and be with us.”

Consuelo’s beautiful eyes shone with tears. “If God wills it and the children come here,” she told him, “I will be like a new woman.”

At the U.S. Embassy

The couple scheduled an appointment with TJ Mills, legal director for NY JFON. They filed a family petition in August 2015 and it was approved that December. Now the children had to wait for their interview at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador.

That interview, says TJ, should have been scheduled by April 2016 at the latest. Computer glitches, however, caused their first interview to be delayed until October 2016. Then there was the guardianship issue, as the embassy tried to ascertain whether the grandmother had power of attorney to accompany the children to their interviews.

One of their follow-up interviews was cancelled without reason. Consuelo called TJ in a panic. Did this mean the children wouldn’t be able to get out?

“That was after the Trump administration’s first executive order on border security,” explains TJ. “I think the embassy was in triage mode, trying to figure out what it all meant for them.”

Altogether, the children and their grandmother made three separate trips to San Salvador. It’s a long trek to the bus stop and then a tortuous ride through rough, mountainous roads.

TJ was especially worried about the children in the capital. The 17-year old daughter of one of his New York clients had gone to the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador to be fingerprinted. She had been brutally murdered on her way home to her rural village.

Haunted by the death of this teenaged girl, TJ reminded the embassy multiple times that the trip to the city was not only difficult for the kids and their grandmother, but also potentially very dangerous.

As worrisome as it was for TJ, it was so much worse for Eddie and Consuelo.

“She cried a lot,” remembers TJ. “Every set-back was devastating for her. A kind of hopelessness settled around her, especially after the kids’ initial interview was cancelled.”

Finally, each of the three children received their visas in March 2017. They flew into JFK airport on April 26. It was a bittersweet moment for them in some respects; they had to leave their grandmother who had raised them behind. But their grandmother knew she was sending them someplace where they would be safe, have opportunities, and be with two loving parents. Not for one moment had she faltered in her resolve to have them join their mother.

“For the family,” Eddie says, “the future is everything.”

Just in time for Mother’s Day 

The scene at JFK when Consuelo was at last reunited with her children was a joyous and emotional one. It’s been two weeks since that day, and she still can’t quite believe the miracle of their presence. She often secretly checks up on them while they are sleeping; touching the downy skin of the youngest, stroking her daughter’s long hair, and marveling how the eldest grew so tall and strong.

They are truly here. And they are all together.

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Once Consuelo cried in sorrow; now she cries with joy and relief.

She isn’t a person who expresses herself easily; mostly she depends on Eddie to talk for her. But she does try to put into words her gratitude to JFON NY and most particularly for TJ.

“I will die grateful for everything he did for us,” she vows ardently. “Now my heart can breathe again.”

The family will attend church on Mother’s Day, but neither Consuelo nor Eddie know what they will be doing afterwards. The kids are busy planning a surprise and they won’t tell anybody what it is.

“Whatever they do, it will be fantastic,” says Eddie, grinning. “These are great kids.”

Consuelo seems almost uninterested in the day set aside to honor mothers. “We have received so many blessings already,” she explains. “All I ask God now is that he allows the children to grow, and to be happy and safe.”

 

 

 

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.”

Tarek’s Story

This is where I belong

Roughly a week after the new administration announced its travel ban, indefinitely prohibiting any Syrian refugee from entering the U.S., Amnesty International released a report detailing the execution—by hanging—of 13,000 Syrian civilians at Saydnaya prison, some 40 kilometers north of Damascus.

The number of dead is so staggering, the cruelty so monstrous, that we shake our head, unable—unwilling—to comprehend such evil acts.

“It is shocking, but it’s not surprising,” says Tarek, a JFON client and Syrian asylum seeker living in Chicago. “The Assad government proved to me a long time ago that there is nothing they won’t do to stay in power.  The people executed at this prison were just ordinary people. Yes, they opposed the regime, but they didn’t do anything about it. They were just normal citizens.”

Tens of thousands of ordinary Syrians have disappeared over the last four years. They are taken from their homes, schools, offices, and markets. There is always some place where they were last seen. But they are never seen again.

Tarek almost became one of the legion of disappeared himself.

Smart, studious, and serious-minded, he was an engineering student in Damascus before the war started. As a university student, Tarek had attended a few peaceful protests. He had also—using a fake name—complained about the regime on Facebook.

Such a silly, simple thing, and yet it could have cost him his life.

Tarek got out of Syria three and a half years ago. With the help of Northern Illinois JFON’s supervising attorney Jenny Ansay, he applied for asylum.  He completed his studies in Illinois and now has a good job, a girlfriend, and friends. He has not, however, been able to visit the parents and sisters he left behind.

Tarek worries that his asylum claim will be rejected. He worries he won’t be able to stay in his new country. He would like to be able to meet his family in a neighboring country—Turkey, perhaps, as going back to Syria is out of the question—but he doesn’t see how that is possible. The administration’s travel ban has thrown a menacing shadow over so many lives.

Yet the events of the past week have also led to something surprising—an unintended outcome that President Trump and his supporters simply did not foresee.

Belonging. 

“When the ban was first announced, I didn’t really imagine that a lot of Americans would care about people from those seven countries,” Tarek explains. “But then I saw the number of people coming out to protest. It really surprised me until I realized that what Trump did was truly against American values. The people protesting were telling the world that this action is un-American.”

Tarek—only 25 years old—has seen a lot of despair and misery in his short life. But it hasn’t changed who he is. A travel ban—even a Muslim exclusion ban—isn’t going to change him, either.

“Right now, I feel very lucky,” he says, smiling.  “I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of Chicago.”

To learn more about Northern Illinois JFON’s Syrian clients, please read Jenny Ansay’s Do y’all even know any Syrians?

Damascus protest photo courtesy of Al Jazeera. 

Standing in Solidarity with Refugees at DFW Airport

Thousands of Americans streamed into our nation’s airports this past weekend to both protest President Trump’s mean-spirited and ill-conceived exclusion ban and to support our Muslim immigrants, refugees, and neighbors.

 Heidi Ortiz, a volunteer from Justice for Our Neighbors Dallas-Fort Worth was there. This is her story:

On Sunday morning, January 29th, we received the message via Facebook. People with valid visas and permanent residency cards (green cards) were being detained at DFW airport.  We decided instead of attending service at our local United Methodist Church, we should immediately go to the airport to show our support. Rumors were circulating that officials were pressuring the detained to waive their rights and get on an 11 AM flight out of the country. We loaded the kids into the car, said a prayer, and were on our way.

At the airport, there were people of all different types, and many families with kids. The airport police were visible and courteous.  As long as protesters did not get in the way of passengers or airport workers, we were able to chant and hold signs.  One of the chants that caught my attention was “free my Grandma”.  Later I learned via the Dallas Morning News that a number of the detained were elderly with health issues.

Someone had brought supplies to make posters.  For myself, I made a sign that says “Jesus stands with Refugees”.  In addition to being theologically sound (indeed, Christ loves all people), I wanted our Muslim brothers and sisters to know that as a Christian, I was standing with them.  Jesus himself was a refugee, fleeing to Egypt after an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.

For my two-year-old daughter I wrote “Toddlers Stand with Refugees”. She has a friend her age whose parents are from Yemen.  While their exact status may not be refugees, the mother told me they cannot go back because of the dire situation in that country.  Toddlers don’t care much about borders—they just love people!

No one wants terrorists in this country. Unfortunately, so many people are unaware of the different types of immigration to the U.S.   Refugees are fleeing war.  Lawful permanent residents have already made their home in the U.S.  In both cases, those detained are our neighbors AND they had legal permission to enter our country.  This sudden action did not stop terrorists.  It was wrong and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to oppose it personally.  Before we left the airport, we stopped to pray as a family.

My prayer for you is the same as the one at the airport — that God will open our hearts to be more like Him and that He would show us how to love our neighbors as ourselves in these trying times.

Angels in their Corner

IOWA JFON Celebrates a Victory for Love and Family

They met, quite by chance, in the home section of Target in Reno, Nevada. Amy was raising two boys after a painful divorce. Gabriel was sunny natured, the kind of man who smiled with his whole face, and one who happily took on any household task that would ease the burden of a single mom.

Amy and Gabriel

They fell in love, of course. The boys welcomed a father figure in their lives and he, in turn, adored them.

“If I love the hen,” he told Amy, “I have to love the chicks.”

There was only one thing marring their happiness: Gabriel was undocumented.

Without legal status, his life was precarious. He couldn’t drive. His employment opportunities were limited. He was overworked and underpaid. Worse, he lived with the constant fear of being deported back to his home country of El Salvador.

But he was still Gabriel, the man she loved and her boys needed.  “I was all in,” Amy remembers. “I decided in my heart that I would be ready to move myself and the kids to protect Gabriel and stay with him.”

Iowa is a Welcoming State

A year later, the family packed everything into a Ryder truck and moved back to Amy’s hometown of Mount Vernon, Iowa.  In Reno, Gabriel had been one in an ocean of undocumented immigrants. In Mount Vernon, Iowa, he was the only Latino. He was the minority.

“Yet here,” Amy says, smiling, “our community embraced us. It was the exact opposite of what we expected.”

Wedding Day

The boys settled into their new school. Amy and Gabriel were married. They both found jobs. The family also found a home at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church, where members joined together to support them in any way they could; driving Gabriel to appointments, helping defray the costs of urgent dental surgery, connecting him to a retired ESL teacher to tutor him in English.

They also introduced the couple to Iowa Justice for Our Neighbors and to Ann Naffier, the managing attorney.

During their time together, the two had discussed plans for Gabriel to obtain legal residency, but the obstacles seemed insurmountable. For an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border illegally, marriage to a U.S. citizen still does not provide an easy path to a Green Card. Gabriel would be required to travel to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to apply; yet once he left the U.S. he would trigger an automatic 10-year ban from re-entering the country. He would be stuck in El Salvador, away from Amy and the boys, for a decade.

Neither Amy nor Gabriel could contemplate such a long separation.

They could, however, with Iowa JFON’s help, request a waiver for the re-entry bar, citing the extreme hardship his U.S. citizen wife would suffer without Gabriel’s continued presence in her life. It was still a great risk; the request could easily be denied.  They could still face a separation of years. There was absolutely no guarantee of a happy ending.

One day, after much deliberation, Gabriel told Amy he felt God was leading him to start the process for residency.

“I did not receive the same message,” Amy remarks dryly, “but I accepted his decision.”

The couple met with Ann immediately. While they were impressed at Ann’s depth of knowledge of both the U.S. immigration system and its relationship to El Salvador, it was Ann’s dedication and kindness that amazed them the most, as she walked hand in hand with them through the complicated process.

“I remember all the nights of late emails full of desperate questions and weary emotions that I sent,” says Amy. “Ann would respond like we were her only clients. She was truly the calm in the storm we depended upon for so many months.”

The time came for Gabriel to have his embassy interview in El Salvador. Despite travel warnings about the violence-ravaged country, Amy was determined to go with him.

“If the interview doesn’t go well, he’s not coming back to Iowa,” she says grimly. “If he doesn’t get approved, we’ll lose our house. How will the kids go to college? How will I go on?”

“I had to go with him,” she concludes. “I couldn’t let him go through that alone.”

Home at last

Happily, the interview did go well, and Gabriel was allowed to return to Iowa with his wife and stepsons. After months of applications, required documents, meetings, and endless waiting and worrying, Gabriel is now a legal resident. He eagerly looks forward to the day he will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Ann Naffier celebrates with Gabriel and Amy.

“It is through the blessings of these angels,” Amy says, referring to Ann and the staff and volunteers at Iowa JFON, “that our family is able to sleep at night, knowing that we will wake up with Gabriel in our house, right where he is meant to be.”

When he was an undocumented immigrant trying to help support a wife and two teenaged boys, Gabriel worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week, as a cook in a nearby Mexican restaurant. He had no security, no legal protection, and no insurance.

But he had faith, hope and the love of his new family.

Now Gabriel has a good job, with an established company.  For many of his colleagues, he’s the only immigrant they’ve ever met. Now that they know him and are hearing his story, Amy reflects, perhaps they will reconsider their view of immigrants.

Inspired by this experience, Amy and her eldest son, Ethan, recently started Love Our Neighbor, a non-profit which serves to provide immigrants with information on available resources in Iowa and also helps them connect to other immigrants who have already gone through the process.

As for Gabriel, his life changed in so many wonderful ways. Perhaps most wonderful is that this change didn’t just end with him. It went on—it goes on—to change the lives of his wife, stepsons, friends, family, church and community members, and everyone around them.

Welcome, neighbor.