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To help more women like me: Linh’s story

A Human Trafficking & Domestic Abuse Victim finds Freedom

She had met women from the shelter like Linh before. They enter a room with hesitant steps, their eyes fixated on the floor, the faces shadowed with fear. Linh’s shoulders were hunched and wary, as if her whole being was braced for the next blow that life had taught her would be coming, sooner or later.

But Linh, thought Mindy Rush Chipman, Senior Managing Attorney for Immigrant Legal Center (ILC) (formerly JFON Nebraska) stood out from the other women from the shelter in one particular way.

Linh’s head was completely shorn of hair.

There were other people in the clinic that day. Linh seemed to feel their curious gazes. Self-consciously, as from a long-practiced habit, she raised her hand to smooth the dark stubble on her head.

This was only an initial consultation, but Mindy already knew she was going to take Linh’s case. Turning to the volunteer interpreter, she slowly and carefully learned Linh’s story.

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Phuc and his parents traveled from the U.S. to the old country—Vietnam, in this case—to find him a bride. He needed someone to take care of him; someone who was poor and desperate; someone who wouldn’t ask questions or make demands. Someone they could control.

“I thought I would have a happy life in America,” Linh told Mindy sadly.

Photo credit: Sarah Ackerman

Once the family was back in their small Nebraska town, her in-laws immediately put her to work in their nail salon. She worked long hours every day, under unsafe conditions, and with no compensation.  When she shared her story with a co-worker, reprisals were swift and brutal.

“My sister-in-law and my husband hit me a lot,” she told Mindy. “They said they would kill me if I ever talked to anyone again. From that day, I was so scared of everybody around me. “

Far worse than the abuse she suffered in her workplace was the extreme violence she suffered at the hands of her husband at home. It did not take long for Linh to realize she wasn’t just dealing with a man prone to fits of temper; Phuc was seriously and dangerously mentally ill. He had medication for his condition, but he often refused to take it. His parents were no help whatsoever; they were full-fledged enablers of their son’s torture of his new wife.

He beat Linh regularly, the violence of each beating feeding, instead of assuaging, his rage. He was particularly fond of pressing a knife to her throat while he raped her. He also liked to pull her hair so hard that thick bunches came out in his hands.

So Linh shaved her head. It was one less way he could hurt her.

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Linh, Mindy explains, entered the U.S. with the conditional residency given to foreign spouses of U.S. citizens who have been married less than two years. Conditional residency was designed to deter people who enter fake marriages to evade U.S. immigration laws. Spouses who are still married after two years must file a petition to remove the conditions. It is not an overly complicated form, but Phuc refused to comply.

Mindy Rush Chipman, Senior Managing Attorney for Immigrant Legal Center (ILC)

“This resulted in the termination of Linh’s conditional residency, put her at risk of being placed into removal proceedings, and left Linh without current work authorization, or valid identification” says Mindy. “Her husband wanted to control every aspect of her life, including her immigration status.”

“They told me many times that I was illegal,” Linh adds. “I felt like an illegal person, and I had no one to help me.”

Phuc and his family were master manipulators; they successfully isolated Linh, closing every avenue of relief and escape. Finally, after three years of savage beatings and sexual violence, Linh reached a decision:

“I have to be free of them,” she said. “Even if I have to kill myself, I have to be free.”

Linh fled to a shelter for battered women. They helped her report her abuse to law enforcement and referred her to JFON Nebraska.

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Mindy listened to Linh’s story, taking copious notes and planning out Linh’s case in her head. She reassured Linh that she would begin working on her immigration case immediately. However, knowing Linh did not have access to an interpreter at the shelter, she asked, “What else can we help you with now?”

“To thank you,” answered Linh straightaway. “To thank you. And thank you to the people at the shelter.” She raised her eyes to look at her interpreter and then at Mindy. “Thank you all so much for helping me.”

“All she needed at that moment, all she wanted, before we had even done anything, was to say ‘thank you,’” remembers Mindy, shaking her head.

“It was at that point that I could not hold back my tears.”

Mindy first helped Linh obtain an I.D. and work authorization, and then permanent residency. “By demonstrating the abuse Linh had endured at the hands of her husband and his family,” says Mindy, “we were ultimately able to get the conditions of her residency removed.”

As a lawful permanent resident, Linh was able to get a new job in a new town. She moved into her own apartment. She got a divorce. But she wasn’t done saying ‘thank you.’

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The first donation to JFON was for $400. “So you can help more women like me,” Linh wrote. Then, at Christmas, another check arrived, for a whopping $1,000.

“I’m sorry, it’s not so much,” Linh wrote. “Please use this to help more people the way you unconditionally helped me.”

“I also want to say thank you to all the people who have donated money to JFON,” she continued, “so that they had funds to help me and other people like me. Thank them all very much.”

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A few months ago, Linh became a U.S. citizen.

Gone is the silent, fearful, isolated Linh; today she is a confident and newly-independent woman. Linh’s hair has grown long again, and is fashionably styled. She walks into a room with purpose, back straight, shoulders squared.

“She smiles,” says Mindy with a twinge of wonder. “She smiles and makes eye contact with everyone around her.

“Linh was one of my first cases with JFON Nebraska,” continues Mindy, “and she’s been with me ever since. You know, it’s a given that immigration cases take a long time, but to go from basically undocumented abuse victim to U.S. citizenship in three years…” Mindy shakes her head. “That is really amazing. Linh is amazing.

“All these years, I’ve wanted her to have that happy life in America she dreamed of,” Mindy adds simply. “And now she can.”

National Justice for Our Neighbors Denounces Termination of Salvadoran TPS

National Justice for Our Neighbors (NJFON) vehemently opposes the Trump Administration’s decision to revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvador.

TPS has provided protection in the U.S. for nationals from certain countries for whom a return home is unsafe or unfeasible due to natural disaster or civil unrest. Salvadorans are by far the largest group of TPS recipients and were granted this relief after a pair of earthquakes in 2001. With the highest murder rate in the world, El Salvador remains extremely unstable.  Moreover, those with TPS have built their lives and raised families here in the U.S. for more than 15 years.

Photo credit: Telemundo Los Angeles.

Approximately 200,000 TPS holders from El Salvador will lose their status in September 2019, after which their lives will be upended and put in danger.

“This is the latest addition to the Administration’s appalling trend of expelling immigrants from our communities,” says NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown.  The announcement follows the cancellation of TPS for Haiti, Sudan, and Nicaragua, as well as termination of the Central American Minors (CAM) program that protected children fleeing violence in Central America.

“The Justice for Our Neighbors network has helped hundreds of Salvadoran TPS beneficiaries throughout the years with their applications and work permit renewals,” adds Rutland-Brown. “In doing so, we know they now face an impossible choice: whether to separate from their families, take their children into unsafe conditions in a country unknown to them, or retreat into the shadows of our communities.”

“The truth is, I feel very sad,” says Marco, a school custodian in Fairfax County, Virginia.  Marco is a longtime JFON client and Salvadoran TPS holder.  “I left El Salvador nearly 30 years ago because of the Civil War, and I have lived here all these years,” he explains. “I work day and night so my two children can have a good future. They were born here and this is their country. I wasn’t born here, but I feel like this is my country, too.”

NJFON believes in upholding human dignity, keeping families together and providing refuge to our most vulnerable neighbors.  Therefore, we call upon Congress to act to protect vulnerable people and pass legislation that will allow TPS holders to obtain permanent legal status in the U.S.

 

With Singleness of Heart and Action

Iowa JFON’s first executive director continues the fight for justice

In May 2008, Sol Varisco was working with Catholic Charities of Iowa. An Argentine immigrant teacher who had studied at Iowa State University, Sol was in charge of coordinating a state-wide emergency response for an immigration raid they all suspected would soon be coming.

“The Bush administration had already approved a lot of money for raids,” she states.  “So we were making plans for a raid of maybe 40-50 people.”

What happened next, she says, “totally blew our minds.” Over 1,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agents, heavily armed and wearing full SWAT gear, descended upon a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, 2008. Nearly 400 immigrant workers at the plant were arrested. Within four days, some 300 of them were convicted on document fraud charges.

Aftermath of the Postville Raid. Photo credit: Fair Immigration Reform

It was, at that time, the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, and Sol was in the center of it. Within hours, the hundreds of volunteers and a group of pro-bono immigration lawyers who had been waiting for her order began streaming into town. They and the other volunteers needed to know where to go, what to do and whom to help. Meanwhile, ICE was stealthily moving the workers from jail to jail, scrambling to deport them within 48 hours, before Sol and her people could secure them access to qualified attorneys.

“They made the immigrants dress as criminals. They wanted to humiliate them, to diminish them.” Sol pauses, shaking her head. “But whatever message Bush was trying to send, it backfired on him. He truly opened a Pandora’s box that day.

“The worst moments,” she says, “bring humanity and justice together.”

Because it’s the right thing to do

The “Pandora’s box” that the Postville raid opened had a lightning effect on the residents of the surrounding area and towns. The families ripped apart were not abstract numbers on an accounting book; they were fellow congregants, classmates, and friends. Communities, schools, and churches immediately set about organizing to help their remaining immigrant neighbors.

There were the usual calls for food items, rent money, and school supplies. It soon became apparent, however, that what their immigrant neighbors needed most was access to expert immigration legal services—and the closest immigration attorney was two hours away.

Iowa JFON was already operating five clinics in the state. Decorah—30 minutes away from Postville—became the sixth.

Today, as the people of Iowa JFON look forward to celebrating their 20th anniversary in 2019, they can also look back on their history of growth and achievements with pride. They now operate seven clinics across the state. From January to October of this year, they’ve served 1,026 clients from 60 different countries. They have highly qualified staff members, wonderful volunteers, and dedicated board members under the leadership of chair Frank Camp.

For her outstanding work on behalf of Iowa’s immigrant community, Sol Varisco was honored in 2009 with the Methodist Federation for Social Action Award, Iowa Chapter.

What they have been missing before Sol’s arrival, however, is a leader on staff to guide and manage their growth through challenging years ahead.  They can now add her hiring to their list of accomplishments.

Sol first discovered Iowa JFON through its founder, Doris Knight, a fellow congregant of Trinity Las Americas UMC, a congregation with a zeal for following the Wesleyan example of putting faith and love into action.

Sol was a volunteer interpreter for IAJFON for many years, witnessing firsthand their commitment to providing expert immigration legal services to their community’s most vulnerable and disregarded neighbors.

“What I liked—and still like—the most about JFON is that they help people of all faiths, or no faiths,” says Sol fervently.  “All means all.”

Sol has already set several specific goals for the next few years: a permanent and centrally located office (currently Iowa JFON is split between two office spaces 15 minutes apart from each other), to secure funding for their existing immigration attorneys, and also to hire two additional attorneys to address the needs of their many rural clients.

Sol also wants to continue to be a bridge between the immigrant community and native Iowans, and to continue to use her skills to make this a more just world.

“I found my village,” she says, smiling. “This is where I belong.”

Finding the True Christmas in the Detention Facility

Austin Region JFON seeks to help those facing deportation

“The advocate’s sole responsibility is to succor the afflicted, the enchained, and the oppressed as people in need, having eyes only for their suffering, and not for their virtues or vices.”

Virginia Raymond, legal director for Austin Region Justice for Our Neighbors, (ARJFON) paraphrasing Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

“Cervantes’ wisdom resonates with me,” says Virginia.  “As an advocate, I don’t want to decide who is more “worthy”—is it the 20-year-old mother with a child or the journalist whose life has been threatened?” She shakes her head. “We set a priority of serving people with the most urgent need. Today, in terms of immigration, the people with the most urgent need in the Austin community are those facing removal [deportation].”

Although other JFON sites also serve those in detention facilities or facing imminent deportation, the Austin site has made it a particular focus of their ministry.

Longtime JFON attorney Rebecca Rosenberg mostly works on Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) cases for unaccompanied migrant children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both of their parents.

Virginia’s caseload, meanwhile, includes adults in truly desperate situations: a 19-year-old Cuban political dissident who was kidnapped and raped en route to the U.S.; a Mexican campesino whose father and brothers were murdered because they refused to grow opium; a Christian minister and his family fleeing persecution in Cameroon.

At many of the immigrant detention facilities that dot the Central/South Texas landscape, you will find people who have been, are currently, or will soon be, represented by Virginia and Austin Region JFON.

A fair amount of ARJFON’s referrals come from existing clients or from people who found its name on a list somewhere. But many of its new clients come via other nonprofits that offer immigration legal services in the area.

Virginia Raymond, site attorney for Austin Region JFON.

“In other words,” explains Virginia, “people are calling us after another organization has turned them down.”

In 2017, the Immigration and Civil Rights Section of the Austin Bar Association recognized Virginia with a Hero Award for her exemplary dedication to justice, civil rights, and immigration activism. This was preceded by a long history of social justice advocacy as a lawyer, organizer, and educator. When she came back to the full-time practice of law, her intention was to give half her time to criminal defense and half to immigration law.

It didn’t quite turn out the way she had planned.

“Immigration swamped everything else,” she admits.

Make ye straight what long was crooked

His name was Vinicio. He fled Guatemala because the government could not, or would not, protect him from his torturers.

“He came to the U.S. fearing for his life,” says Virginia, who became the young man’s pro-bono lawyer. “But he did not know that he should ask for asylum. So he was immediately deported.”

When Vinicio arrived back in Guatemala, his persecutors quickly tracked him down.  They attacked him, stabbing him with a knife before he could get away.

“He hid in a confessional of a church near his home,” says Virginia, “and waited until after dark to make his escape.”

Vinicio again fled to the U.S., but this time he told the officials why he could not return to Guatemala. He was put into a detention center. Because of his earlier deportation, the immigration court did not have the jurisdiction to release him. So Vinicio stayed in detention, waiting, hoping and praying.

Immigrant detention is big business for America’s private prison companies. Photo: Ross D. Franklin.

Virginia was able to secure Vinicio protection from deportation via the Convention against Torture (CAT), a treaty that the U.S. signed in 1985. CAT protection isn’t permanent, and it doesn’t lead to a green card. But it does keep Vinicio safe, and it did get finally get him out of detention. It also gave him authorization to work.

“He wanted very much to play music in a church,” remembers Virginia. Three years later, she notes with satisfaction, “and that is exactly what he is doing.”

Never Surrender

Removal defense cases, whether they are asylum, CAT, or “10-year cancellation of removal” (available to certain longtime undocumented residents), are a long, grueling and messy business. And the good guys don’t always win.

The Joe Corley Detention Center  is also operated by a private prison company. Photo: Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle.

When Conrad, a student and journalist from Sierra Leone, published an article sharply criticizing the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), he became the victim of intimidation tactics and serious threats to his life. He fled to the United States for his safety and eventually ended up at a detention facility in Laredo, Texas.

While asylum can be granted to those who are persecuted because of expressed political ideology, the judge acknowledged, the practice of FGM is cultural, not political. Conrad, the judge reasoned, had not been persecuted on the basis of his political opinion.

“That was a rough day,” Virginia concedes. “But, you know what?” She takes a deep breath and straightens her shoulders. “This is a great case for an appeal. That’s the next step.”

Unfinished Business

Alicia was bright, perceptive, and had a useful understanding of the English language. The terrible violence she had experienced in her native El Salvador had neither broken her nor caused her to shrink from the road ahead.  She didn’t have the money to pay the $7,500 bond the judge had imposed, so she couldn’t leave the T.Don Hutto “Residential” Center where Virginia first met her. But the 26-year-old woman remained positive and strong.

“I told her that arguing an asylum case while she was in detention was far from ideal, but we would do everything we could to succeed.  And I wasn’t worried about Alicia,” says Virginia. “I have clients I worry myself sick over, but I was not worried about Alicia.”

It never occurred to Virginia than Alicia would fall victim to traffickers while incarcerated at the detention center.

When Virginia went back to Hutto to see Alicia a few weeks after the bond decision, the staffer at the front desk told Virginia that Alicia was gone. He couldn’t tell her where, how, or with whom.

The walls of the T. Don Hutto “residential center” are painted pretty pink, but the women inside are still prisoners. Photo credit: The Blaze.

“Someone from El Salvador got me out,” Alicia told her when Virginia finally found her in San Antonio.

“So are you going to California, then? Can your relatives there help you?”

Alicia shook her head, avoiding Virginia’s eyes. “No, I’ll be staying in San Antonio for a while, I think.”

Virginia stared at the young woman, realizing with growing unease that something was very wrong.  She asked Alicia to tell her about her day.  Alicia eventually revealed the full truth of her situation: up at 4 a.m. every morning, working in a food truck for 12 to 16 hours a day, and paid $5 an hour. Out of those measly earnings, her “savior” took out for room and board. He also demanded that she pay back the cost of the $7,500 bond and the monitoring device she now wore around her ankle.

“The trafficker made a deal,” says Virginia bitterly. “He knew she would never, ever get out of that debt.”

But the worst was yet to come. Alicia’s countryman had made her a virtual slave—casi esclavitude—with “debt peonage.” But he was also sexually abusing her.

The first order of business was to get Alicia out of that house.

Alicia seemed reluctant to go. “If I leave, he’ll call immigration, and I’ll get deported,” she told Virginia. “And the other workers on the food truck will get deported, too.”

Within several hours, however, Virginia convinced Alicia to leave San Antonio. Virginia then spent days trying to retrieve the bond papers necessary for Alicia to travel to California. The Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents had given the papers to the man who had bonded Alicia out of the detention center. Of course, Alicia’s abuser had no interest in letting Alicia have the papers that proved she was in the U.S. legally while awaiting her hearing.

“Taking documents from people is a form of control,” Virginia explains gravely. “It’s what traffickers do.

“Detention, like poverty,” she continues, “makes people vulnerable in many ways, including labor and sexual exploitation. It makes people vulnerable to unscrupulous predators, notarios and unethical lawyers, too.”

Alicia is now in California with her relatives. Virginia is still working on Alicia’s asylum application, hoping that the hearing can take place in California instead of Texas.  It isn’t a happy ending yet. But it’s a good place to start.

An Unconquerable Soul

You can call them “residential centers.” You can paint them pretty colors and dress them up with plastic seasonal decorations. But they still look like and feel like prisons.

Uniformed correctional officers tell adults and children when to get up, when to eat, what to eat, and where to go. Those who are detained are under 24-hour surveillance.

Within the fences and barbed wire, there are hundreds of stories of suffering, separation, and tragedy. There are victories, yes, but there are also defeats, and things that are strangely neither one nor the other.

We may look at the path Virginia has willingly chosen for herself and think it too stony, too hard, and far too grim. We can admire the social justice warriors who toil among us, while we are uncomfortably reminded of our own weaknesses and inadequacies. And we can shake our heads and wonder, “How on earth does she manage to do that, day in and day out?”

“I’m lucky to have supportive colleagues and a supportive board,” Virginia answers, smiling. “I know what I’m supposed to do when I get up in the morning. And that is a gift.”

 

 

NJFON Responds to Administration’s Termination of TPS for Haiti

National Justice for Our Neighbors vehemently opposes the Administration’s decision to revoke Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Sudan, Nicaragua, and now Haiti.

TPS has provided protection in the U.S. for nationals from certain countries whose return home is unsafe or unfeasible due to natural disasters or civil unrest.

Many individuals with TPS have now worked lawfully in the U.S. for years, built families and made this country their home.

TPS for Sudan (1,000+ individuals) will expire November 2018, for Nicaragua (2,000+ individuals) January 2019, and for Haiti (58,000+ individuals) July 2019.

The Justice for Our Neighbors network has helped hundreds of TPS beneficiaries throughout the years with their applications and work permit renewals. In doing so, we have gotten to know these amazing men and women and their families. The Administration’s ill-informed and cruel decision means that individuals with TPS from these countries must choose between separating from their families (including U.S. citizen children), taking their children into unsafe conditions in an unknown country, or living on the fringes of our society, unable to work legally and under the constant threat of deportation.

We reject these choices and the Trump Administration’s alarming trend of abandoning those in need of protection in our country. We believe in upholding human dignity, keeping families together and providing refuge to our most vulnerable neighbors.

The JFON network calls upon the Department of Homeland Security to extend TPS for all countries.  We urge Congress to pass legislation that will allow TPS holders—from these three countries and the seven others with designated TPS status—to obtain permanent legal status in the U.S.

The Four Lives of Butrus Lazarus

A South Sudanese refugee finds a permanent U.S. home with the help of a Diversity Visa and Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska

His name is Butrus Lazarus.

Lazarus of the Bible endured death for four days before Jesus gave him a new life. The Lazarus in our story endured four different stages of immigration status before a computer in a government facility randomly gave him a chance for a new life in the United States of America.

Stage 1: Refugee

South Sudan gained its independence in 2011 and almost immediately descended into Civil War. Map courtesy of  Voice of America.

Butrus fled his home in Southern Sudan in 2003. At that time, the Second Sudanese War had been waging for 20 years—the entirety of his young life.

Approximately 2 million people died during this conflict; another 4 million were displaced. Butrus, his father in jail, his Christian family a target of persecution, was determined to survive.

Following another biblical example, Butrus fled to Egypt. He applied to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and was accepted as a refugee. He waited to be resettled.

He was still waiting nine years later.

“There is no refugee camp in Egypt,” he explains. “I found work where I could, cleaning houses and things like that. This is how I was able to live and to survive.”

With such a rootless existence, school was out of the question. Yet it was the one thing—besides his family—that Butrus yearned for the most. He had always been serious about his studies.

An American missionary working in Cairo took an interest in him. She was able to find a place for Butrus in a high school outside the city. He stayed there for two years, when his missionary angel was able to help him, once again, with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Honestly, the idea of going to the United States was not in my mind,” Butrus admits, “I just wanted to go to college. I wanted it more than anything.”

Stage 2: Student Visa

Butrus surrendered his refugee card for a student visa and arrived at Iowa Western Community College in 2011, not long after South Sudan became an independent nation.

Life in Iowa was different, but Butrus soon felt at home. He was reunited with his eldest brother—who had been resettled in Iowa as a refugee—after a separation of nine years.  He could worship at a local church where many South Sundanese were fellow congregants.

“I struggled for that first year, but only for monetary reasons,” says Butrus, shrugging. “It wasn’t tough. I was happy. I enjoyed the school very much and the people were very friendly.”

Stage 3: Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

A U.N. peacekeeper from China on patrol in South Sudan. Courtesy of Foreign Policy.

In 2013, South Sudan descended into bloody ethnic violence and civil war. Recognizing the impossibility for those South Sudanese residing in the United States to return to an essentially failed state, the US government designated South Sudan for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

A person with TPS can legally work in the United States. Butrus, a student struggling to pay college costs, needed to work. He wanted to apply for TPS, but felt he needed help with the application. He found that help with staff attorney Gary Walters of Justice for Our Neighbors Nebraska.

“Butrus is a great guy; very intelligent and very hard-working,” says Gary, “In South Sudan, he and his family were targeted because they were Christian and because they were from the wrong tribe. I was glad we were able to help him stay here.”

Gary helped Butrus apply for TPS the first time and then renew it two years later. In the meantime, Butrus continued working and taking as many classes as he could. He eventually transferred to University of Nebraska in Omaha, choosing to major in finance.

Stage 4: Diversity Visa Lottery

In 2017, 19.3 million people applied for the U.S. diversity visa lottery program. Although only a tiny fraction of these applicants will succeed in receiving visas, it is a wildly popular program worldwide, particularly in Africa. In 2015, for example, 10 percent of the Republic of Congo’s citizens applied for the program.

“It gives hope to people,” explains Gary, who, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo had witnessed first-hand the excitement the lottery engenders. “And it shows our welcoming nature towards all kinds of immigrants.”

“Can you believe it? I had no idea of what the diversity visa program was,” says Butrus ruefully, “until I was trying to help a friend apply.”

Although most people who apply do so from their home countries, applicants living in the U.S. are also eligible, if they can prove they had legal status the entire time they have resided here. Butrus had never overstayed his student visa. He now had TPS. Furthermore, he was from a country which had not sent more than 50,000 immigrants to the U.S. in the previous five years. He was definitely eligible.

Butrus Lazarus is now a  U.S. Permanent Resident.  

Butrus was always uneasy about his TPS, knowing that it could be canceled at any time. The lottery was a long shot, but it was also a chance for to stay in his new home.

“I thought, ‘well, why not me?’” he says, chuckling. “Why not let me try?”

He applied in October 2015 and again in 2016. The second time he was lucky. Among all those other names, the computer had plucked out his. But it wasn’t a done deal yet.

“It’s a two-part system,” explains Gary, who has been a JFON attorney for nearly a decade. “First you get your lottery number. Then you have to wait for that number to open up a visa spot. It doesn’t always open up. Basically, if you win, but the spot doesn’t open up, you lose your chance.”

Once again, Butrus was lucky. There was a spot available for him; now all he needed to do was file for his immigrant visa and successfully complete the interview process.

“I was really nervous about that,” he confesses, “because you don’t know what kind of questions they will ask.”

“It was not a difficult case,” counters Gary. “Butrus was a person in good standing, with no record, and well-regarded in the community. He’s exactly the kind of person you want settling in the United States.”

Epilogue

Butrus is now a U.S. permanent resident. He will graduate next year from the university. He plans for a career in banking. He wants to become a U.S. citizen.

Does he miss his home in South Sudan?

“I miss my people,” he says quietly. “With my green card, I can travel anywhere I want to, but…it’s not good there. The war doesn’t stop.”

Butrus bows his head. “I am so blessed.”

Is he remembering the terrors of war, the years of loss and hardship? Or does he reflect on the many kindnesses of strangers he has encountered along his journey?

Perhaps, just perhaps, he considers one random and monumental act of kindness in particular…from an inanimate machine in a government office somewhere in Kentucky, briskly choosing the next Lazarus.

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Feature photo by Reuters

Simple Gifts

  JFON Southeastern Michigan client and new U.S. permanent resident reminds us of the things we take for granted 

When Carolina and her family left Chile for the United States in 1999, she thought they were going for a nice visit.

“I had no idea whatsoever of my parents’ plan to stay,” she says, shaking her head at the memory.  “I was young and I didn’t understand much.”

Carolina adapted to her new life, as kids usually do. She went to school and studied hard in her ESL class so she could keep up with her new American friends. She graduated high school and planned to continue on to college.

That was when she realized, like so many young immigrants before and after her, what it means to be undocumented.  Like the sudden shock of a hard frost on young fruit, Carolina’s dreams withered and died. She gave up her plans for college. She got a job instead; the kind of job you get when you don’t have a social security number.

Fast forward a few years, with two young children and a U.S. citizen husband, Carolina wondered if she could finally secure her status in the country she had long considered home. A friend told her about Justice for Our Neighbors Southeastern Michigan.

“Everyone was so nice,” Carolina says of her first experience at the immigration legal clinic at Ypsilanti First United Methodist Church. “This is where I was introduced to our attorney Melanie Goldberg.”

“Carolina was very sweet,” remembers Melanie. “I didn’t know why she hadn’t done anything before, but I was glad I was able to help her.”

Carolina and her children enjoy a day in an apple orchard, picking and eating some of Michigan’s finest fruit. 

On the outside, Carolina’s case—being married to a U.S. citizen and having in-laws ready and willing to be her support sponsors—looked like it would be a relatively routine one. But Melanie soon discovered that there were some issues to resolve before they could proceed.

For one thing, they needed additional documentation, and that would require extra time.

“Melanie was so well prepared,” says Carolina approvingly.  “She took the time to thoughtfully request precise evidence to be sure that I wouldn’t be at risk of denial when filing for my green card. Although it slowed us down a bit and I was eager to get things rolling, I was glad she spent time researching and making sure we wouldn’t have any delays.”

JFON SEMI handles 15 – 20 green card cases each year; each typically takes about six months. Carolina started the process in November 2016 and finally received her permanent residence this past September.

“I felt secure and confident with her beside us in the interview,” says Carolina. “She filled out every form for me and prepared us so well.” Carolina takes a deep breath. “I literally couldn’t have done it without her help.”

Carolina is normally a shy person, and definitely not a fan of public speaking. Yet when asked to tell her story at our annual JFON Roundtable Conference in Detroit, she jumped at the opportunity to express her gratitude and her joy.

“I am now proud to say that I’m a permanent resident,” she told the audience, smiling shyly at the thunderous applause, “and, God willing, I will soon be a U.S. citizen!”

Carolina and her husband have two children—an 18-month old daughter and a 6-year old boy.  As she speaks, Carolina comes back to her children again and again. Yes, Carolina’s working life has changed, but, more importantly, her life as a mother has changed. It’s obvious which change she values the most.

“Last year, when my son was in kindergarten,” she relates, “I missed so many activities because I was not driving. I missed field trips and performances, and it made me super-sad. But now, with the benefits of being a legal resident, I can confidently sign up for volunteer work and to chaperone at field trips.”

Parents in the room steal glances at each other. Did any of us ever consider chaperoning an elementary school field trip a “benefit?”

“Now,” Carolina adds, her voice quavering with emotion, “I can speak with the rest of the moms without feeling somehow left out. It feels amazing not having to worry about my children’s future, and be able to save for their college education.”

Carolina rubs happy tears from her eyes and beams. From someone who was living day-to-day, she is now living for the many days ahead of her, with hopes, plans, and dreams. She and her husband would like to travel. They want to work hard so that one day they can move into their own home. Carolina would also like to pursue her long-delayed dream and go back to college.

“I want to set a good example for my kids,” she says, “that no matter how old you are, you can continue learning and dreaming to achieve higher.”

Carolina, like so many of our clients, reminds us of the many simple things we take for granted. Perhaps one day she’ll take them for granted, too. Today, however, these simple things are still very new and wonderful.

“I have no words to describe how blessed we were to have found JFON,” she says simply. “Melanie was more than a lawyer to me. I felt like she was my good friend.”

 

JFON Defends the #DREAMers

We—National Justice for Our Neighbors and the entire JFON network—are extremely dismayed by President Trump’s cruel and reckless decision to revoke Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Speaking on behalf of the entire Trump administration, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced his intention to end DACA by March 5th, 2018.

This decision will not only affect the 800,000 young people currently with DACA status, but many more DACA-eligible youths whose applications filed after today will not be considered.

Congress now has six months to take action on DACA and pass legislation to protect these young people and secure the future of all those eligible for DACA.

DACA recipients are not only our clients, but our board members, staff, partners, friends, and family. Our future is intertwined with theirs, our country and lives enriched by their many contributions.  We stand in full solidarity with immigrants and our allies and will lift our voices unequivocally in opposition to this decision and in full support of the Dream Act of 2017.

In the meantime, our attorneys will identify any other avenues of legal remedies for clients with DACA and help these young people apply for immigration benefits.

This is not the end.

We are also here to stay, and we will never back down from this fight for justice. 

What can you do? 

Stay Informed.

Check out and distribute the Immigration Legal Resource Center’s resources and Catholic Legal Immigration Network’s tool on the revocation of DACA.

Join your community in the streets.

Visit Here to Stay to find the nearest action to you.

Call your Representatives!

Tell Congress to enact the Dream Act of 2017 and protect immigrant youth. Use this call-in script and information provided by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition.

 

My DACAmented Life

NJFON Board Member and Elementary School Teacher Luis Juárez reflects on the 5th Anniversary of DACA 

As we commemorate five years of DACA, I sit back to reflect on the opportunities I have received in my DACAmented life. This executive action has catapulted my life to a level that I never thought I could reach. It has given me a privilege not available to many undocumented people and helped me turn my dreams into a reality.

Luis prepares for his video broadcast for students and parents of Lipscomb Elementary.

Personally, I am responsible for impacting the lives of hundreds of students at school. My undocumented experience, combined with my professional life, has equipped me with a plethora of resources that I get to share with the families I encounter. My teaching philosophy is sharply defined by these experiences and this has brought me incredible accomplishments in the classroom.

Lastly, thanks to NJFON, I now find myself in leadership spaces where I have a direct impact on communities around the country.

As I continue this journey, I am very conscious that this could not have been possible without DACA. My story is one of many, and it is incredibly important that we continue to be protected and supported. If there is anything we have proven, it is that we are willing to do the impossible to make a name for ourselves and give back to a country that has taken a chance on us.

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.”