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.

ID:5038649

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.  

 

Bringing Lina Home

JFON of Southeastern Michigan comes to the rescue of a former Afghan interpreter for the U.S. Armed Forces as he struggles to bring his infant daughter to their new American home. 

As an interpreter for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Nazim took precautions to shield his wife and two young children from the violence he encountered on an almost daily basis from the Taliban. He knew he had an important job to do and he wanted to help his country.

The threats and attacks increased, however, and not just against Nazim at work. His home and family became targets, too. Fearing for their lives, Nazim applied for the Special Immigrant Visa available to Afghans and Iraqis who provide crucial aid to the U.S. Armed Forces.

M3352M-1009
Photo credit: Virginiamol

These visas take several months to process; in the interim Nazim’s wife became pregnant again. Soon the family welcomed a baby daughter and named her Lina. They received permission to emigrate to the U.S. just as the Taliban made the family’s continued existence in Afghanistan untenable.  It was a matter of life or death. They had to get out, and they had to get out now.

However, they faced a heart-wrenching decision. They would not be able to take their infant daughter with them. In the end, they had to leave Lina behind in the care of her uncle and grandmother, vowing to return for her as soon as possible.

Once in the United States, a frantic Nazim and his wife immediately began the process to bring Lina over to join them in their new home in southern Michigan. Unfortunately, they first met with an accredited representative (not an attorney) who filed forms that created unnecessary red tape and delays. Weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Lina was busily passing the milestones of her young life—sitting up, crawling, walking, babbling her first words—and her parents were missing all of them.

Worse yet, her uncle and grandmother were now in the Taliban’s sights as the closest relatives of Nazim, the “traitor.” They were forced to move for their own—and Lina’s—safety.

The First United Methodist Church of Blissfield, Michigan became involved in the case, and directed the family to JFON Southeastern Michigan. Their file landed on the desk of volunteer immigration attorney Virginia Norkevicius.

An immigration attorney with a private law firm, Virginia has twenty years of experience in immigration law. She also has close ties to JFON as a former employee and longtime volunteer. She now dedicates one day a week to JFON clients.

Virginia was surprised by the tangle of Lina’s case and the precious time that had been wasted. But she was also excited by the task set before her.

virginia-headshot
Immigration Attorney Virginia Norkevicius

“I knew what to do,” she says cheerfully. “I’ve handled this kind of case in the past.”

Virginia contacted the embassy in Kabul, and began the process again, this time filing the correct paperwork.  Because they had left Lina behind, both parents and child had to undergo DNA testing to prove their relationship to each other.

Meanwhile, the church started a GoFundMe campaign to send Lina’s mom back to Afghanistan to visit her daughter. Lina had her interview at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul in June. She was approved several months later.

“I cried when we got the word,” admits Virginia. “To bring families together is a wonderful thing.”

Lina finally arrived in Michigan on November 7, 2016, after being separated from her siblings for more than two years. All of them have a lot of catching up to do.

Nazim, profoundly moved by the care and expertise his JFON attorneys gave to Lina’s case, came by a JFON clinic to express his gratitude to the entire JFON SEMI staff.

“Thank you,” he said, his eyes brimming with unshed tears. “Thank you from all of my family. Thank you for bringing Lina home.”

 

 

One Pencil at a Time

Luis Juarez, a fifth-grade teacher in Dallas, Texas, a 2015 White House DACAmented Teacher Champion of Change, and an NJFON board member, reflects on the uncertain future that awaits his students and himself, post-election. 

November 13th, 2016

The week of the election was the hardest week of my teaching career. Wednesday was unexpectedly hard. It was tough because of my direct connection to the outcome of the election. It was tough because of my family; I found it challenging to hear their questions and their concerns and not being able to give a direct answer. “So what’s next?” it was daunting to even think about it.

I went to sleep on Tuesday night with the hope that I would come up with an answer by Wednesday morning. An answer for myself but most importantly, an answer for my students.I teach in a bilingual classroom and all of my students come from immigrant households; some of them are immigrants themselves and they were concerned. I woke up on Wednesday not knowing what to say.

NJFON board member Luis Juárez is that rare teacher who truly makes a difference in the lives of his students.
NJFON board member Luis Juarez is that rare teacher who truly makes a difference in the lives of his students.

I felt, and still feel, an incredible amount of responsibility for my family, my students, and their families. This responsibility comes not only from being a teacher, but  also from being involved in groups such as JFON, and from being part of other respected organizations. People look up to me, they seek me for answers. This makes it incredibly hard because I don’t have any clear answers yet.

There was an editorial on the Huffington Post that someone forwarded to me that morning and it gave me key points to discuss with their students. They are fifth-graders and they are aware of the political climate we live in. When I picked them up from the cafeteria, our looks crossed and we remained silent. It was a deafening silence.

I talked to my students about the outcome of the elections. I’ve given talks before. I’ve spoken in front of large crowds. Standing in front of my fifth-graders and talking to them on Wednesday morning was the hardest speech I have ever given. However, it was needed. My students needed reassurance; they needed to hear it from me that we will be okay. In the face of adversity, humans depend on each other to work together and be resilient together. Talking to them was especially challenging because I was not okay.

Although I knew that my words were not empty, it was hard to get in front of them and put on a brave face. We mourned together. It was heart-breaking to see them cry out of fear. The uncertainty and the obscurity pose a challenge that many of us are still trying to understand. However, we remained hopeful. We unified and we agreed that we must depend on each other and push each other to move forward, together. We will love each other, treat each other with respect. We will speak out when we hear something we don’t agree with. We will do this with respect and dignity. We will remain true to our values and beliefs. We agreed to do all of that.

Hope dies last.

Find out more about Luis in a story we wrote back in November 2015—A Lion in the Classroom.
Find out more about Luis in a story we wrote back in October 2015—A Lion in the Classroom.

I cannot give up. People like you and I cannot give up. Too many individuals look up to us and hold us high with respect. We must show that we are resilient. The moment we break, they will break too. The moment we show hopelessness, they will lose hope, too. They will give up too. We cannot let that happen.

I must keep teaching. I must remain in the classroom because I am incredibly committed to my school, my students and their families. My job and my future are at jeopardy in my country. I will remain fighting and I will continue sharing my story because it matters.

This election cycle made some damage and it is time for us to begin the healing process.I benefit from DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.) Executive actions are in danger by the imminent threat of the new administration. I am able to be in front of my students every day because of it. It sounds crazy to even say this, but I have two years to figure this out. My life has been ruled by two-year intervals since 2012 and although I am thankful for the opportunity to work every day, it weighs heavily on my mind.

I am doing my part in the classroom, one pencil at a time.

 

Stand with Us

Speak for those who cannot speak;
seek justice for all those on the verge of destruction.
Speak up, judge righteously,
and defend the rights of the afflicted and oppressed.  

Proverbs 31:8-9

The election of the new president-elect has created much fear, confusion and uncertainty in communities all across the nation. Will the young dreamers lose DACA? What obstacles will Muslim immigrants face? Will there be a “deportation force” roaming through our cities and towns, tracking down millions of hardworking undocumented immigrants to deport them? Will that wall be built?

Like many of you, we lift our eyes to the road ahead of us, and find it impossibly bleak.

How much bleaker—and how much more terrifying—that road looks for immigrants. They are our clients, our neighbors, and, in many cases, our friends and family. Will they take our dad from us? Will I still be allowed to work?  Are my children no longer able to come live with me? Am I safe here?

It remains to be seen how the rhetoric of Trump’s campaign will be put into practice as legislative, budgetary and other constraints come into play. There is also the hope that President Trump will be more unifying than candidate Trump, as our election process invites contrasts and creates divides.

But mostly, we find comfort in being faithful to our mission of providing vital legal aid to our most vulnerable immigrant neighbors. We know that our ministry is more crucial today than at any time in our history. We vow to daily prove to our immigrant brothers and sisters—by thought, word and deed–that we value them, we welcome them, and that we love them.

We will keep fighting for immigration policies that are just and compassionate and against those grounded in bigotry and intolerance.  We will lift up our voices in our churches and our communities and share stories of the immigrants we have come to know and admire. We will continue to stand with refugees and those who seek safe haven in our country.  We will continue to tirelessly represent immigrants so they can, in fact, work here lawfully, be able to live together with their families, and remain safely and permanently in the United States.

The new president-elect made many promises on his road to the White House. Here’s our promise to you: we aren’t quitting, we aren’t backing down, and we are not going away.

Here we stand. Here we stay. Join us.

JFON clinic Aurora

 

A Sea of Lost Souls:
One Day in Miami’s Immigration Court

A personal reflection from Janet Horman, Attorney and Executive Director for South Florida Justice for Our Neighbors 

It has been almost 20 years to the day since I began to practice immigration law. Over the years I have made more trips to immigration court than I can count. This afternoon’s experience in Miami, however, was like nothing I have ever seen.

The complexity of immigration law baffles us all. But the unrepresented mothers in court that day looked dazed, frightened, and utterly lost. Most appeared unable to read any of the documents they had dutifully brought with them. They had traveled to court from Naples and Bonita Springs—a minimum of two hours driving time from Miami. Now they struggled to contain fussy infants and wriggling toddlers while desperately straining to understand the judge’s questions.

mother-with-sleeping-child-immigration-courtAt one point, I leapt up to catch an unsteady toddler who had escaped his mother’s lap and was heading for the judge’s bench. The judge waved me forward.

“This lady is going to take care of your little boy while we talk,” he told the anxious mother. I remained in the courtroom, trying to keep the toddler occupied while his mother had her hearing.

Another mother and school-age son had moved recently and had no idea of their new address. The judge patiently allowed the opposing attorney (from Immigration and Customs Enforcement)  to look through the plastic bag of papers the woman had brought with her to determine whether she had received a Notice to Appear, a charging document which marks the beginning of removal (deportation) proceedings.

We—South Florida JFON—were there to represent another mother and her baby. The mother, a victim of horrific violence, had fled her home country for her safety and that of her child.

I cannot begin to describe how difficult it would be for even the most patient and fair judge to get through the preliminary hearings that were before the court on this particular afternoon. I am proud of our country’s tradition of holding court with standards of fundamental fairness and due process. Essential to achieving this standard is assuring that those brought before the court understand the nature of the proceedings.

Since immigration law violations are considered to be civil and not criminal violations, persons before the immigration courts are not provided counsel if they cannot afford such help. They are given a list of free or low-cost attorneys/nonprofits, but at this point, even the largest nonprofit agencies in Miami have waiting lists of over 500 people.

It was excruciating for me to sit back and not rush forward to volunteer to represent those in need at today’s hearing. But our caseload is full, too. Every week, we receive calls from people desperate for help. Sadly, we are forced to turn them away.

South Florida JFON's Site Attorney and Executive Director Janet Horman is also a UMC Pastor. Here she is with Daniel, a client who has just received his green card.
South Florida JFON’s Site Attorney and Executive Director Janet Horman is also a United Methodist Pastor. Here she is with Daniel, a client who has just received his green card.

After 20 years in immigration law, I am still surprised when new arrivals to the United States have never seen a water fountain or been in an elevator. Our way of life is so foreign to them in every way. How can they possibly navigate through our courts without legal counsel?

Providing court-appointed representation for low-income persons in immigration court would be expensive but cost-effective in the long run. There is already a tremendous backlog of cases. Each unrepresented person triples the time it takes the judge to hear a case, adding to that backlog.  Attorneys help streamline the process. They can prepare the client before she makes her appearance in court. The necessary documents and information are at hand. The client has been briefed on what to expect. The judge is allowed to conduct hearings in an orderly and efficient manner.

I am thankful for the many judges and government employees who do their best to treat people with respect and dignity. I am thankful for the gift of relationships with our clients who have lost so much, and yet, who have taught me so much about strength, kindness and generosity. Most of all, I am thankful to the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church and others who make the JFON ministry of hospitality and service to our immigrant neighbors possible.