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Across the U.S., United Methodists welcome immigrants

By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*

Children at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, clearly understand their neighbors may not live next door or even in the same community. Every year during vacation Bible school, the children collect a love offering to support a ministry. Justice for Our Neighbors was their choice for 2018. A faith-driven ministry with sites at United Methodist churches across the U.S., JFON welcomes immigrants by providing free, high-quality immigration legal services, education and advocacy.

“We studied the book of Daniel,” wrote the Rev. Elizabeth Henry, “and learned about his captivity in Babylon – how Daniel and his friends were taken from their families in a strange land, how they were afraid and confused, but how God was with them through it all. 

“Our kids decided to help kids like Daniel who have been separated from their families at our own border, and in just three days, this group of kids in Mississippi gave $515.11 to make sure these kids know God is with them and so are we. One of our kindergarteners asked that the money be used to hire superheroes who can break down the walls and reunite families, and we think your team is up to the task.”

More than 3,500 years ago, God told Moses, “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 1:33b-34a, CEB)

God didn’t say, “You decide who is fit to be treated hospitably.” God simply reminded Moses of his 40-year journey to the Promised Land and advised, “Treat people the way you want to be treated.”

That’s what Justice for Our Neighbors strives to do every day. 

The United Methodist Committee on Relief started JFON in 1999. Since 2013, Rob Rutland-Brown has served as executive director of the national JFON office in Annandale, Virginia. He oversees more than 50 clinics at 17 sites, reaching out to over 5,000 clients annually. JFON receives an annual grant from UMCOR, but each site has autonomy, operating with its own board of directors. 

“JFON is very mindful of the vulnerability of people who are seeking refuge and better opportunities,” Rutland-Brown said. “Whether you are a Christian, Jew or Muslim, there is a very clear message of how you should treat those traveling to your land. Our work educates people about what immigrants go through, so that those who may not agree with us can see another perspective.”

“One of the things that I find so refreshing about working with JFON,” said the Rev. Jack Amick, “is that it is local people working in their community, not just to give people a handout and send people on their way, but to give them the technical guidance and support that turns patterns of exclusion upside down. 

“With JFON, the poor are given what would normally be the expensive legal keys to advancement that are required by many to stay in this country. It is like Isaiah’s bold command in chapter 55 (1b, NRSV): ‘You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.’ You who can’t possibly stay in the U.S. without legal help, come, see an attorney!” Amick is director of sustainable development and global migration for UMCOR.

Jovanka’s story

Judith Siaba had years of experience as a support-staff member of the Northern Illinois Annual Conference before she was approached eight years ago about starting a JFON clinic in the Chicago area. The longtime champion of social justice and active United Methodist Women member agreed to the volunteer job. Today, JFON operates five clinics in the Chicago area. 

“Clients are seen by appointment only and are provided with free initial immigration consultation to see if they have a viable case,” Siaba said. “Some of the cases which our lawyer takes are very difficult. Our volunteers do intakes and provide child care and hospitality.”

Paying it forward is not unusual, Siaba said. “Many [volunteers] are immigrants, and several former clients come back to volunteer.”

The goal is to assist those who may not be able to afford legal representation. “While we at Northern Illinois JFON provide our services at no charge,” Siaba said, “other JFONs might charge on a sliding scale depending on income.” 

Currently in Northern Illinois, JFON welcomes immigrants from 17 countries: China, Colombia, El Salvador, Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Iraq, Kenya, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Thailand and Togo. 

Siaba remembers one of her first clients.

“Jovanka came to the United States from the former Yugoslavia as a refugee with nothing more than a backpack full of her belongings,” Siaba recalled. “After several difficult years in the U.S., she met ‘Brian,’ a man from El Salvador who had escaped violence in his own country. After dating, the couple got married and had two beautiful children.” 

By then a U.S. citizen, Jovanka wanted to sponsor Brian for a lawful permanent residence card. However, Brian had entered the United States without a visa and had taken “the incredibly difficult trip in crossing the U.S.-Mexico border,” Siaba said. “In order to petition for him, Jovanka would need to show that his removal to El Salvador would cause her extreme hardship.” 

Jovanka consulted with severaAl immigration attorneys. One by one, they rejected her case. Finally, she discovered Justice for Our Neighbors. At the Aurora, Illinois, clinic, the couple met with JFON’s attorney who listened to their story and determined that they had a strong case for a to return to El Salvador. Finally, Jovanka saw a flicker of hope.

The JFON attorney’s instincts were correct: their waiver was approved, and Brian became a lawful permanent resident of the United States. A month ago, Siaba received an email saying that Brian is now a U.S. citizen. The process took six years.

‘A ministry of presence’

In the United Methodist Social Principles, we find the denomination’s official stance on immigration: “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all. We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.” (The Book of Discipline 2016, Par. 162H)

Siaba credits much of JFON’s success in Northern Illinois to lawyer Jenny Ansay, who has served the clinic for seven years. “We are so thankful to God for leading Jenny to be a part of our ministry,” Siaba said.

She pointed out that Ansay’s role has been especially critical in recent months. “JFON’s work has become more difficult because the requirements and deadlines keep changing,” Siaba said. “The time it takes to get through the system can be between three months to years.” Meanwhile, many immigrants are afraid of deportation and separation from their families and look to JFON for clarity and guidance. 

A United Methodist deaconess, Mary Ellen Kris understands the ups and downs of immigration ministry. A practicing lawyer, seminary graduate and active member of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in Manhattan, New York, as well as the New York Annual Conference, Kris serves as a legal and program consultant to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. 

In June, she was part of a team of lawyers and interpreters from the Feerick Center for Social Justice, Fordham Law School, that traveled to Dilley, Texas, to volunteer with the Dilley Pro Bono Project. Their task was to provide limited-scope legal representation to women and children seeking asylum in the U.S. 

“Most of my time,” Kris said, “was spent interviewing traumatized women (through a Spanish interpreter) to elicit their stories and prepare them for their ‘credible fear’ and ‘reasonable fear’ interviews with an asylum officer.” She documented hours of her interview/prep sessions and asylum officer interviews and uploaded them into a database.

“Perhaps more important,” Kris observed, “my role included serving as a witness to what is happening at the border and providing a ministry of presence.”

At the end of one deeply moving client interview, Kris asked the translator to tell the client that it was a pleasure and a privilege speaking with her. “To my surprise – and lasting impression – she suddenly rushed over and hugged me,” Kris said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether she and her toddler have been released to their sponsor or deported back to a life on the run, hiding to escape death.”

Amid the obstacles, committed United Methodists like Siaba and Kris appear undaunted. 

Although Kris described the week at the detention facility as “heartbreaking, infuriating, frustrating and well beyond challenging,” she said the experience was highly motivating and transformational.

“I’ll go off the JFON board this year,” Siaba said, “but I certainly will continue to be involved. JFON’s ministry provides us an opportunity to live out our faith of welcoming the stranger and caring for those in need. 

“Jesus did not ask for anyone’s credentials before healing, feeding and sharing God’s love. We are all created in the image of God and should be treated with compassion, respect and love.” 

– Retired from United Methodist Communications, Dunlap-Berg is a freelance writer and editor.

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