Our Blog

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, attorney 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.

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.

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

Virginia made the long trek to Laredo to meet with her client and began learning all she could about FGM politics in her client’s home country. In the end, however, the judge ruled against Conrad.

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.

_____________________________________________

 

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.”

Why DACA Matters

“If I could work—even a little—it would help my brother who is supporting me and my little sister.”

In our video The JFON DREAMers in their own words, we see but a sampling of the young DACAmented clients the JFON network has helped over the last five years. They tell us of their plans to go to college, join the military, and have successful careers. They express their hopes to be of service to their communities, their adopted country, and the world. We hear their longing to belong and to be recognized as Americans.

But another, more prosaic, reason why DACA matters so much to our clients is found in an open-ended question on the I-765 Worksheet submitted to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS). Applicants are asked to explain why they need work authorization.

“My dad is sick. He has diabetes and I want to be able to help him pay for his medicine and other bills at home.”

We’ve collected a lot of these statements from our clients over the years. Some of them expound on their goals and ambitions:

“I need to work to save for college,” they begin, followed by the expressed desire to become—a nurse, a teacher, a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, a diplomat. One young man expressed himself simply and poignantly:

One constant that runs through many of their statements is the worry and concern for their parents.  Some of these applicants are still teenagers in high school, yet they are keenly aware of their elders’ struggles and sacrifices:

“I know my parents are having a rough time with the economy. I want to help them pay the rent and buy food.”

 “Helping my grandma pay for her medication would be the nicest thing I could ever do.” 

 Many of the DACAmented who were young adults in 2012—or who have since become young adults five years later—are now working to support their own children. Many others support parents, siblings, relatives both here and back in the country of their birth:

 I am the cashier and food runner at a local deli and make approximately $8.00 an hour.  I need to have more work. I send back money to Honduras to help support my mom, dad, and two sisters.”

“My mother and I work to support my younger brother, who has cerebral palsy.”

For many of our DACA clients, security, the ability to wake up in the morning and know they will return to that same place in the evening—this is what truly matters the most; even if that security is doled out two years at a time.

This benefit of DACA has gained greater urgency during the current administration, which has stated that all undocumented immigrants are priorities for deportation. The statements below were written way back in 2012 and to read them now is to feel, once again, the ever-present menace of living in perilous times.

 “I have a daughter and want to start building her future. I would like to not be deported and have to leave my family behind.”  

“DACA will cease my fear of being deported and I would feel more safe and not so scared because I can prove to anyone that I can be in the U.S.A.”

New Anti-Immigrant Bill is an Affront to Our Core Values

 NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown urges you to take action against the anti-family and anti-refugee bill before Congress

National Justice for Our Neighbors strongly opposes the “Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy” (RAISE) Act, introduced by Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and David Perdue (R-GA) and championed by the Trump Administration. This anti-family and anti-refugee bill would dismantle our nation’s immigration system based on supporting family unification and would greatly reduce refugee admissions, instead favoring a “merit-based” points system based on the applicant’s ability to speak English and benefit the U.S. economy.

Like so many other proposals that have been floated in recent months, the justification for this bill—that it would increase wages and protect American jobs—relies not on facts but on myths meant to make us fear immigrants. For example, last year the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine produced a 500+ page report in which the lead researcher concluded that immigration had “little to no negative effects on overall wages and employment of native-born workers in the longer term.”

More importantly, this bill is an affront to the core values of JFON: promoting family unity and defending the most vulnerable.  We are called to serve those who are desperately seeking safety, refuge, and family.

Another relevant text, also not cited by those introducing the bill, the Bible, reminds us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

Here are some components of the bill that demonstrate why we vehemently oppose it:

  • Reduces legal immigration channels by 50-70 percent, with an 85 percent cut to family-based immigration.
  • Permanently caps refugee admissions at 50,000 per year, the lowest resettlement goal in U.S. history, during the largest global refugee crisis in world history.
  • Eliminates the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters, and creates an impossible process for them to sponsor their parents for five-year visas, during which time the parents would not be able to work and the child would have to cover all expenses and health insurance costs.
  • Stops green card holders from sponsoring their children over the age of 18.
  • Leaves approximately four million people, who have been promised a visa and are waiting in line for it to become available, without any opportunity to reunite with their family members.
  • Essentially only permits individuals who have certain education levels, work history, English-language ability, or high-paying job offers to enter the United States.

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition, of which National JFON is a member, has drafted this sign-on letter that we encourage all faith leaders, churches, and JFONs to sign. Also, we urge you to call your Senators and Representative today at 202-224-3121.

Sample Script: I’m your constituent from [CITY/TOWN], and I am strongly OPPOSED to Senators Cotton and Perdue’s RAISE Act. This bill would permanently cut refugee resettlement numbers to historic lows, make family reunification inaccessible, and essentially only permit individuals who have certain education levels, employment history, and English-language ability to enter the United States. I urge you to reject this bill and do everything in your power to see that it does NOT become law.”

Thank you for your help.

Fugees Family United!

Refugee kids find a home with their team and their coach

 Their school finds a home with a United Methodist Church

“There was this one time,” remembers  Asad, a lanky 15-year old from Sudan,  “we were winning and that made the other team mad. ‘Go back to where you came from!’ they yelled at us. One of my teammates was wearing a hijab and they called her a terrorist. That really affected me, you know, because I am a Muslim. And I am a refugee.”

Asad takes a break from the soccer game.

“We could have reacted badly,” he adds, “but we knew we couldn’t let them get into our heads or we would lose the game. So we just walked away and let it go.”

Asad is as quick with his smile as he is with his feet. But he, like so many of his teammates, is a child survivor of war. He has lost much of his childhood to that war.

“I have had a hard life,” he acknowledges matter-of-factly. “But now I try to use my experiences as lessons to help me stay off the bad lane in life, and as a way to move on.”

He looks to his teammates, many of whom have witnessed horrors equal to his.

“I think,” he says thoughtfully, “that soccer has taught us peace.”

Summertime

On one end is the Washington Monument. On the other is the alabaster-white dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the grassy mall that lies between them, on a day shimmering with heat, the kids are playing soccer.

Some of the players—there are both boys and girls—come from the Northern Virginia suburbs. They have uniforms and proper footwear. They love soccer, and it shows. They are very good.

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

The Fugees Family are a team made up of refugee kids, hailing from some of the most troubled spots in the world today: Sudan, Burma, Iraq, Syria.  One girl plays in a hijab. The boys are playing barefoot. These teens also love soccer. And they are also very good.

Visitors to the festival stop to watch the game, and the kids among them are invited to join the Fugee team. One teenaged boy immediately takes off his sneakers so he can play barefoot, too.

“All right!” he shouts after his teammate—originally from Thailand—scores a goal. They grin and high five each other.

The kids of summer play soccer on the Washington Mall.

Their coach, Luma Mufleh, an asylee and immigrant from Jordan, watches from the sidelines. “Put them on a field and let them play,” she says.  “At the end of this, they’ll be exchanging Facebook profiles.”

Ala kaffi el Qadar numshi wa la nudri ‘An el Maktoob

(On the palm of fate we walk and do not know what is written)

You may already know something of the Fugees Family and their remarkable coach. They have been the subject of numerous news stories, videos, TV shows, and a 2009 book, optioned for a film by Universal Studios in Hollywood. Coach Luma was one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2016. This year she has her own Ted Talk.

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

You may also have heard of their hometown, Clarkston, Georgia, the “Ellis Island of the South.” With its access to public transportation, close proximity to Atlanta, and affordable apartment complexes ready to be occupied, Clarkston was identified as an ideal refugee resettlement hub in the 1980s.

Refugees from 50 different countries have made Clarkston their first American home. Today, the town welcomes 1,500 refugees a year; half of its 13,000 residents are refugees. It truly is the “most diverse square mile in America.”

“The only place I’ve experienced this kind of diversity,” Luma says, “is in New York City.”

It was this diversity which led Luma to Clarkston one day in 2004 on a search for authentic pita—the kind she remembered from her childhood. She took a wrong turn and came upon some refugee boys playing soccer with rocks as goal posts and a sorry excuse for a ball.  Luma had a better one in the trunk of her car. She used it to entice the boys to let her play with them.

And so it began. Luma formed a soccer team for refugee boys. She then started helping them with their homework, getting to know their families, and worrying about their struggles against poverty and gang violence. Are they going to have a meal when they get home? Are they going to be jumped for their soccer cleats walking back to their apartment complex? How far behind will they fall in their studies?

Luma decided to start a school—an academy—for child survivors of war.

Was that wrong turn written on her own palm of fate? Was it destiny? Could Luma have had any idea how much her life—and the lives of so many refugee kids and their families—would change from a simple and unexpected game of soccer?

No one is left behind

Coach Luma’s plan for a Fugee academy—small classes, remediation, social integration, and soccer at its core—found a home at Clarkston’s First United Methodist Church.  The students occupy 90 percent of the church building space during the school year. They need all this room and more; there is a long waiting list of kids who want to come to the Fugee Academy.

The changes Clarkston has undergone in the last 30 years are reflected in this church; its once all-white congregation has shrunken dramatically, the remaining original parishioners now quite elderly.

Along with the church’s traditional English service, there is also one for their Eritrean brethren. An additional five congregations of other denominations hold services at the First UMC; one Burundian, one Nepalese, and three Burmese.

“On any given Sunday,” says Pastor Karen Lyon, “we have services in this church from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. And everyone is welcome here.”

Pastor Lyon recently completed her own Doctorate of Ministry, and she credits the Fugee students as a source of inspiration. “When you are in the presence of these kids, and you see their hunger for learning, their discipline—they are often in school from 7:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night—yes,” she states emphatically, “they encouraged me to study harder.

“They are one great family,” she adds.  “No one is left behind. They know all too well what it feels like to be left behind.”

 Epilogue

The game is over. Members of the Fugee team are gathered under a tent, water bottles in hand, speaking to an audience of festival visitors.  They answer questions and share their opinions about the museums they’ve visited and their favorite subjects in school. They share memories of arriving in a new country, one with leafy trees and weird food. They admit to struggles to learn English and new customs.

Mostly, though, they talk about being part of the Fugee family, of belonging to each other, to the team, and to their coach.

Life is good.

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

 

* Coach Luma plans to open a Fugee academy in Columbus, Ohio in 2018 and a few more in Midwestern towns where there are refugee resettlement hubs.  All of them will follow the Fugees model so kids can have “this experience of being welcomed, wanted, and loved.”

To read more or to help them with this project, please visit the Fugees Family