Go and Do Likewise
The “Justice for Our Neighbors” National Network
by Todd L. Lake
It is one thing to wring one’s hands about the plight of undocumented immigrants, but quite another to actually do something to help them. Since 1999, the United Methodist Committee on Relief has fostered the creation of a national network of legal aid ministries that provide high quality, free or low-cost immigration legal services. This network, known as Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), which is supported by a national office (NJFON), also engages in advocacy work on issues of immigration, often in partnership with like-minded community organizations. The JFON network is currently composed of 15 independently-run programs that operate 45 clinics across the country.
Thanks to Harvard-trained lawyer Katherine Dix Esquivel and her fellow Belmont United Methodist Church member Jan Snider, immigrants in Nashville, Tenn., can receive some much needed assistance. Snider began dreaming about how to help undocumented neighbors in 2007 after filming a story about a JFON program in Michigan. The two women contacted several United Methodist churches, formed a task force, brought in speakers for informal talks, and in 2008 began monthly clinics with the help of three local Methodist congregations.
The vulnerability of undocumented immigrants—and the all-too-common lack of a humane, measured response by authorities—made front-page news in Nashville when Juana Villegas was stopped for a minor traffic violation on the way to a prenatal visit to her doctor. She was arrested and taken to jail, where she began to have contractions. She was not allowed to let her husband or three children know that she was being taken to the local hospital where she was cuffed to her bed. Two male police officers stood guard as she delivered a son; she was not permitted to take the nursing newborn with her back to the county jail upon her hospital discharge. It is situations like these that JFON wants to see redressed and reduced, but when they occur, JFON seeks to help immigrants understand and navigate the complex American legal system.
Potential clients call JFON offices, usually located in United Methodist churches, in confidence and tell a volunteer what kind of immigration issues they are facing. They are then scheduled for a clinic appointment, where they meet with a trained volunteer, who conducts an initial intake, and then with an immigration attorney who provides advice about the client’s situation under current immigration laws. The clinics, which last around three hours, also include hospitality and childcare because JFON is more than just about filling out immigration forms, it’s about making immigrants feel welcomed. Often the client has a case that is accepted by JFON, in which case the attorney works with the individual for a period of weeks or months until their case is resolved. This legal work is often worth hundreds or thousands of dollars, an insurmountable barrier to low-income immigrants and refugees.
In 2014, the JFON network handled 7,642 cases on behalf of clients from 126 different countries. JFON’s legal work helps clients in several different concrete ways:
- Work authorization cases enable eligible immigrants to receive authorization to work in the US by obtaining a work permit. This includes “dreamers” who arrived in the US as children and have lived here for most of their lives.
- Family unification cases allow families to reunite after long separations, or to stay united. This includes helping refugees apply for their green cards as well as enabling spouses, parents, children, and siblings to live in the Unites States together, permanently and lawfully.
- Some cases involve helping immigrants escape from violence, including individuals seeking asylum in the US due to a fear of persecution in their home country. This also includes immigrants (usually women) who experience domestic violence and who can apply to remain in the US without dependence on their abuser.
- Citizenship cases involve helping eligible immigrant to naturalize. While most immigrants seek citizenship in the US, not all are eligible for it, and many must wait years. Citizenship enables immigrants to vote, to petition for family members to join them here, to no longer fear deportation, and to access many benefits afforded to Americans.
- Advice and counsel cases enable immigrants to learn their options under the law through intake with volunteers and staff attorneys. One benefit of this case type, which is undertaken with most first-time JFON clients, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing their options in a trustworthy and affordable environment, which also protects them from being scammed by those who make false promises and would steal their money.
While the focus of the JFON ministry is to serve the very pressing legal needs of immigrants, Esquivel points out that church members of all stripes who get involved have their hearts changed in the process. JFON gives Christian advocates for immigrants the chance to share a biblical understanding of God’s attitude toward “the alien and the stranger.”
The JFON network is coordinated by a national staff in Springfield, VA, who are happy to advise other denominations and congregations who want to begin a similar program in their churches. The road to a world marked by a biblical vision of justice and shalom is long and imposing, but it doesn’t get any shorter by our sitting and doing nothing. Starting a free, professional legal clinic for immigrants is one small step along the narrow road upon which we are all called to travel.
Todd L. Lake is vice president for spiritual development at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.
Making Friends Along the Way
by Rob Rutland-Brown
This past fall the Department of Education shared that, for the first time, more children in public schools in the United States were minority than white. Schools are now majority-minority and richly diverse, though our churches may not always be so. How do we, as Christians, respond to the growing diversity within our country?
In my role as executive director of the United Methodist ministry National Justice for Our Neighbors (NJFON), I have come to see the powerful effects of actively seeking to know and welcome those who come from a different background from our own.
NJFON supports a network of church-based immigration legal clinics where staff attorneys and teams of volunteers provide in-depth immigration legal assistance, helping low-income immigrants and their families understand and navigate our nation’s complex immigration laws. The outcomes of the legal work often include keeping families together safely and permanently, enabling eligible immigrants to work lawfully, uniting families who have experienced long separation, and helping immigrants escape from domestic violence. However, there are other results of this volunteer-driven model that positively affect both client and volunteer and that can serve to guide us as Christians in our diversifying communities.
JFON volunteers have learned that when we take the time to truly listen to someone’s story about how they came here, what struggles they have endured, and what hope they hold for the future, we gain a connection with someone who at first appeared a stranger to us. We realize that while our languages, skin color, history, and journeys may be very different, we share in common deeper traits such as a profound yearning for our kids to be safe and thrive, a desire to support one’s family through work, and a longing to be a part of a community without feeling like an outsider.
These intentional encounters, which our ministry strives to foster into meaningful relationships, create communities of welcome in our churches. Numerous immigrants have told us that the assistance they received through JFON helped them to see the church as a safe, welcoming place. Many of these immigrants also lived within a stone’s throw of the church but had never been inside.
In 2014, we had the opportunity to serve nearly 3,700 immigrants of all faiths, including Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. We hope that these immigrants experienced not just love and compassion at our JFON clinics, but also an eagerness by volunteers to know their stories. As JFON staff and volunteers, we have become enriched by these encounters and blessed to better know our immigrant neighbors. I’m glad to say I’ve made some friends along the way.
Rob Rutland-Brown is executive director of National Justice for Our Neighbors.