What if it were me?

Immigration Court with the Micah Corps Interns and JFON Nebraska 

What does the Lord require of you?

Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God.

Each summer, the Great Plains Conference of The United Methodist Church brings together a group of outstanding college-age students and encourages them to live out the words of Micah 6:8 while confronting the difficult social justice issues of our time.

Although their backgrounds are widely dissimilar—one from a small town in Kansas, and the other a native of Togo—both Maria Penrod and Divine Dansou chose immigration as their focus this summer. When they were invited by Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska attorney Anna Deal to observe proceedings at Omaha’s Immigration Court, they welcomed the opportunity to experience some small part of the migrant’s journey through our legal system.

Nebraska Attorney Anna Deal.
Nebraska Attorney Anna Deal.

It was a “juvenile docket” day in late June—a day when unaccompanied minors (UAMs) are scheduled to appear before the judge in Immigration Court.

“Although these hearings are open to the public,” says Anna, “few people are aware that hundreds of children and teens in Nebraska and Iowa are required to appear in adversarial removal proceedings each year, often without permanent counsel.”

JFON-NE helped develop the “Attorney of the Day” program to assist these UAMs without resources and without lawyers. JFON-NE recruits and trains attorneys to provide pro-bono services for the young migrants’ day in court. Through this program almost all of these children and teenagers without attorneys are provided with legal representation when they first come before the immigration judge.

Maria and Divine: an inside look at Immigration Court

 Maria, ever the student, finds a seat in the small courtroom and pulls out a notebook. She starts numbering the cases as the people fortunate enough to have attorneys take their place before the judge. His Honor, she notes, with his bushy white mustache and glasses, looks like the central-casting idea of a judge for a Hollywood movie.

The judge asks every teenager before him a lot of questions: are you in school? Why not? Where do you live? Who provides you with food and clothing? Do you feel safe?

“He even asked one boy if he knew what to do if he felt unsafe,” Maria reports. “What clued the judge into asking more questions of some kids than others? Would anyone ever confess to feeling unsafe in their home to this courtroom full of strangers who don’t speak their language?”

Micah Corps Interns Divine and Maria.
Micah Corps Interns Divine and Maria.

Maria has noticed that the translator does not translate everything that is said—only the questions directed at the immigrants. She knows that for some of these kids—coming from indigenous areas of Central America—Spanish is not even their primary language.

“I wonder how much they understand of what is happening?” she asks.

Divine has also noticed the judge’s many questions, which, he says, “gladden my heart.” It feels as if the judge is attempting to stand in for the dead, lost, and otherwise missing parents.

Divine has a profound, almost visceral, reaction to witnessing this parade of teenagers without mothers and fathers.

“I was born in Togo, but due to the killing and violence in Togo, my parents took me to Ghana,” he explains. “I grew up and went to school In Ghana. I have not enjoyed parental care for some years because of my parents’ search for work and taking care of my younger siblings. So I know how it feels like not having your parents around.”

There are a total of nine unrepresented UAMs today and, thanks to JFON-NE, none of them has to appear before the judge alone. The last two are teenaged brothers who said they had been waiting in the lobby for their attorney for two hours. The attorney never showed up. It was up to Anna to bring them into court before the judge.

“What would have happened if they had missed their appointment?” Divine worries.

No one chooses where they are born

Their day in Immigration Court over, both Maria and Divine reflect on their shared experience and all that they have learned. Both were struck by the compassion and genuine caring shown by the judge and everyone involved, in spite of working in a system that is fundamentally flawed.

Hearing some of the stories of teenagers fleeing violence and forced to leave family behind has led to thoughtful introspection on Divine’s part.

“Why do I think I am the only person who suffered?” he ponders.

Maria, meanwhile, has discovered what JFON–NE attorney Anna Deal calls her own “consistent reflection and source of motivation for me in my work.”

“No one chooses where they were born,” Maria states firmly. “These kids could have been any one of us.”

What does the Lord require of you?

 How do we answer this question?

“We are all brothers and sisters in a global family,” replies Maria. “We have to take care of each other.”

2016 Micah Corps at DHS CROPPED and ENHANCED
The 2016 Micah Corps

To read Maria’s complete blog post, go here.

To read Divine’s complete blog post, go here.

Special thanks to Andrea Paret, Great Plains Peace with Justice Coordinator, for her invaluable assistance and support.