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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.”

 

 

 

Making an Impact

JFON Impact Litigation creates far-reaching change in the lives of immigrants

Each year, the JFON network of attorneys change, protect, and even save the lives of thousands of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They do this one client at a time, slogging through the miles of paperwork, filings, and court appearances for each case.

But what if you—through your client’s case—could change, protect, or save the life of not only one individual, but hundreds, even thousands of people?

Shane Ellison

Charles “Shane” Ellison, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska, is no stranger to high-profile cases of national importance; last year, he authored and filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.

He’s proud that JFON continues to engage in meaningful work of impact litigation.

“When you are able to positively change policy—and in some instances, create law—though an individual case, you can help countless people with similar cases who come after that original client,” he explains. “The potential for making an impact on the lives of immigrants through this type of litigation is extremely exciting.”

Remberto Aguinada-Lopez was in a detention center, his asylum request denied, when Shane first came across his case.

Those seeking asylum in the U.S. must prove persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit had ruled that family ties could not be included in the “particular social group” category; therefore, people fearing torture and death from gangs in El Salvador due solely to a familial association were not eligible for asylum.

Remberto had been a student at a technical school. He was not a gang member, but his cousin was. Rival gangs, as a means to intimidate this cousin, repeatedly beat, shot at, and threatened Remberto. These same gang members would eventually shoot and kill the cousin outside of Remberto’s mother’s house.

The long history of murderous despots in this world tells us that this is nothing new. Whether they battle over a country, a village, or a territory of several city blocks, violent thugs do not restrict their slaughter to other combatants.  Frequently they go after family members to “send a message” or just because they can. Such is life in El Salvador and in many other violence-ravaged countries and failed states in the world.

But the Eighth Court had rejected Remberto’s claim. Remberto, his hopes shattered, began to steel  himself for a return to his homeland when JFON, the Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School, and the law firm of Wichmer & Groneck teamed up to take his case. Together, they filed an emergency stay of removal and a petition for rehearing.

“Our odds of winning were not great,” admits Shane. “JFON had not represented him in the earlier proceedings; we were jumping in after he had lost at every previous level.”

Ultimately, the Eighth Circuit reversed its first decision and reaffirmed that persecution due to family ties is sufficient reason to make a person eligible for asylum.  Family ties joined the “particular social group” along with race, religion, nationality, and political opinion categories for asylum seekers.

A undocumented immigrant is placed in handcuffs for his plane trip back to his birthplace. Photo: International Business Times

However, before Shane and his team could celebrate this astonishing victory, they had to deal with a fresh calamity. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS)  had unlawfully deported Remberto back to El Salvador.

“It was an extraordinarily reckless action,” Shane says. “The Eighth Circuit had explicitly ordered DHS to keep him here while the court weighed our petition. But DHS deported him anyway.”

While Shane’s team scrambled to get Remberto back to the U.S., Remberto was in hiding in a distant relative’s house in El Salvador, confining himself to one room for weeks. Every day, every hour he remained there he was in grave danger.

The judge who had issued the original stay ordered the DHS to bring Remberto back as soon as possible. They were forced to return him on a chartered jet.

“He knew he was coming back to the U.S. to go to jail—and yes, detention centers are jails,”—yet still he preferred jail to remaining in El Salvador,” says Shane.

The deliberate violation of the court’s order had one fortuitous consequence for Remberto that DHS had not foreseen. Remberto, as a guest of the U.S. government, had entered the country lawfully on that chartered flight.  He was now eligible to seek an adjustment of status through his U.S. citizen spouse.

“This is how you make lemonade out of lemons,” declares Shane with a grin.

Shane’s team secured Remberto’s release from detention and reopened his removal proceedings. He is now reunited with his wife and pursuing his green card application. He remains profoundly grateful to Shane and the herculean efforts of his entire legal team, acknowledging that every day of his life is an unexpected gift.

“Literally,” Shane says, “his life was saved.”

We agree that someone saved this young man’s life.  But doesn’t the credit belong to Shane himself?

Shane shakes his head.  “No, I was part of an excellent legal team. I had great support from the JFON network of staff, volunteers, and donors. I can’t take credit,” he explains earnestly, “for something I didn’t do alone. “

There will be other Rembertos. Other Felipes, Carmens, Myats, Mustafas, and Gabriels. The names may change. The countries of origin may change.

But those who are targets of horrific violence perpetuated by gangs due to their family relationships now have a chance to seek safety here in the United States.

That will not change.

From now on, when judges within the Eighth Circuit weigh asylum cases, they will be required to consider family ties as a legitimate reason for seeking asylum.  That is a direct result of the game-changing impact litigation of Remberto’s legal team.

“Yes, it’s a good feeling,” acknowledges Shane, smiling broadly. “Trust me, there’s nothing like it in the world.”

 

 

 

JFON West Michigan alone in leading “Know Your Rights” Programs at Detention Center

Necesito a alquien: I need someone

By Katrina Pradelski, Esq., JFON West Michigan Staff Attorney

I walk in, take a deep breath, and say, “me llamo Katrina, y trabajo para la Justicia para Nuestros Vecinos como abogada. No trabajo para el gobierno. Necesito a alguien para traducir.”

I’ve just introduced myself, assured them I don’t work for the government, and stated I need someone to translate.

Twice a month, this is what Tuesdays look like for me as I present Know Your Rights programs for the detained immigrants in the Calhoun County Correctional Facility in Battle Creek, Michigan.

A father of three faces deportation and separation from his children. Photo courtesy of UM News Service.

The immigrants here are in various stages of the deportation process, and many are not from Michigan; they were brought in on buses from the border, and have no idea that they’re only three hours away from Canada.

The presentations I offer consist of information on how to navigate the court system, what their rights are in the court process, and what remedies they may be eligible for. The information I provide helps guide them in the right direction, without taking the immigrant on for full representation.

Currently, JFON West Michigan is the only agency that does these presentations at Battle Creek. Without us, the only sources of information detained immigrants have are the government, a small law library (all in English, mind you), other inmates, or, if they are lucky, family on the outside who can hire an attorney.

They need someone on their side. Someone to explain this biased system and our laws, just like I need someone to explain their language for me. They need someone to commiserate with them about being treated like criminals, even though they only wanted safety and fled for their lives. Someone to tell them how long they can be detained after they are ordered to be deported. Someone to assure them that being here doesn’t make them a bad person, a bad spouse, or a bad parent.

Right now, that someone is JFON.

Knowledge is Power

JFON attorneys lead expanded “Know Your Rights” workshops

Photo courtesy of Ava Benach.

You kiss your daughter goodbye and send her off to school. You wish her luck on her spelling test, and tell her you can’t wait to hear all about it later that evening.

But you won’t see her later. She’ll come home to an empty house and not know where you are.

Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) knocked on your door just as you were leaving for work. They searched your house and now you are being detained.

What do you do now? What happens to your daughter?

 Do you know your rights?

At Know Your Rights workshops, immigrants—whatever their immigration status—can learn their rights as residents in this country, prepare for the possibility of a raid, and create a safety plan for their family.

These informational sessions are not a new thing, but the sense of urgency and the number of communities clamoring for them feels different from previous years. Hateful campaign rhetoric, multiple executive orders, subsequent cases filed to combat them, and the inundation of fake news on social media have all contributed to create an atmosphere of confusion, worry, and fear.

JFON attorneys across the country have responded to this heightened demand by leading more workshops, not only in their home churches, but in other houses of worship, schools, libraries and community centers.

This card was designed to be presented to the ICE agent, while the at-risk immigrant stays silent. Determined silence reduces the chance of altercations, blunders, and attempts at intimidation. Source: Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

If knowledge is power, it is also a weapon, and it is the best defense our immigrant communities have against the Trump administration’s new enforcement priorities. Some of these new priorities give sweeping power to local officials, many of whom do not have a full understanding of immigration law. Armed with knowledge, our communities can make informed choices regarding their interactions with ICE agents and local police officers and can best protect their rights at home, in their car, on the street or in their workplace.

Know Your Rights workshops can help, says TJ Mills, NJFON consulting attorney and site attorney for New York Justice for Our Neighbors, “assuage the concerns about the Trump administration’s executive order to deport undocumented immigrants without regard to number of years they have lived in the country or whether they have criminal records.”

Some undocumented immigrants may feel safe from the threat of deportation because they are misinformed or unaware of new and aggressive immigration enforcement policies. Source: Immigrant Defense Project.

Being prepared for the worst-case scenario

“Safety planning” has become an integral part of all the Know Your Rights workshops led by JFON attorneys, who help immigrants in danger of deportation and separation from their family compile the documents they will need if they are suddenly detained by ICE. These documents need to be kept in a secure place, one known to other trusted friends or family members. They include:

  • Caregiver’s Authorization Affidavit—so the person taking care of your child has authority to make school-related and medical decisions.
  • Special Power of Attorney—for the person who will be making long-term decisions for your child’s well-being.
  • Limited Power of Attorney—for the person who will be handling your financial assets.

Planning for the possibility of being forced to leave your family—even just thinking about it—takes courage. It’s confusing and scary, and it’s a task best not attempted alone.  JFON attorneys can walk their at-risk immigrant clients through the planning process, explaining every step along the way, and providing them some ease and assurance that, even if the worst happens, they and their family will be better equipped to deal with it.

“They are very grateful for our help,“ says Dominique Poirier, NJFON consulting attorney and legal director for Just Neighbors, our JFON site in Northern Virginia. “From what I’ve seen, people leave the workshops actually feeling encouraged and hopeful.”

“We have never been more proud,” adds Melissa Bowe, program and advocacy manager for NJFON, “to serve our immigrant family members, neighbors and larger community in teaching about our constitutional protections and other best practices under American immigration law.”

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.”

Travel Ban/ Refugee Ban 2.0

“This order limits access to our nation by the most vulnerable people in the world—those we are called to serve.  It does not make our country safer, and it most certainly does not follow the Biblical mandate to love thy neighbor.”

 Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director for National Justice for Our Neighbors.

We met these two ladies at a February rally against the ban in Washington, D.C.

Despite nationwide opposition and multiple legal losses, the Trump administration introduced an Executive Order on Monday, March 6, that continues to bar travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. It also suspends refugee resettlement for 120 days, and drastically reduces the number of refugees the United States welcomes—from 110,000 to 50,000.

Unlike the previous version, the travel ban portion of this new order will not be implemented immediately.  As our friends at the National Immigration Law Center point out, “this is no doubt an effort to limit the protests at airports across the country we saw within hours of the original ban. But we will not be deterred.”

These orders continue to be devastating for travelers who are detained and threatened with deportation in our airports, for our community members who are waiting to be reunited with their family members, and for refugees overseas who need to be resettled to be safe from violence and persecution.

National Justice for Our Neighbors joins the chorus of dissent against this new executive order, and encourages everyone to denounce it to their elected leaders.

You can declare your support for immigrants and refugees by signing National Immigration Law Center’s petition to oppose Trump’s new Muslim Exclusion ban.

 

 

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. 

The America we love

The America we must defend 

“This is a normal work day for you, yes?” Zamir asked, looking around the chaotic waiting area at Washington Dulles airport, where hundreds of protesters were gathered with signs, and lawyers sat on the floor with cellphones and laptops at the ready.

Zamir is a U.S. lawful permanent resident (LPR or Green Card holder). Having served our government abroad for years in a dangerous and vital capacity, he now calls Maryland home.

“All these lawyers…they are being paid?”

“No, we’re all volunteers,” replied Angela Edman, site attorney for DC-MD JFON. Having extensive experience serving refugees and asylum seekers, Angela had driven to Dulles early on Sunday morning to assist in any way she could. And there she had met Zamir, her newest client.

“We’re here to help you.”

Zamir was silent, but his face mirrored puzzlement and disbelief.

“But, why?”

“Because I believe the president’s orders are wrong,” Angela told him. “This is not the America I love. And we want to show you that you are welcome here.”

The scene at Washington Dulles Airport when travelers being detained were finally released.

Just then, as if on cue, the waiting room erupted in cheers as a group of travelers straggled through the doors. There were balloons, flowers, American flags and robust cries of “welcome home!”

It had been a terrible day for Zamir. His wife, also an LPR, and his baby daughter, a U.S. citizen, were in their home country, visiting a gravely ill family member. Now they were stuck there and could not get back to Maryland.

Zamir was sick with worry, but a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

“Wow,” he muttered, shaking his head in wonder and gratitude. “People actually do want us here.”