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Home > Interpreter Magazine > Archives > 2012 Archives > May-June 2012 > JFON -- Justice for Our Neighbors

With advice and advocacy, JFON smoothes way for immigrants

By Kelly C. Martini

At ages 3, 5, 6 and 7, the four brothers began roaming the jungles of Burundi. When they heard voices, they laid down like corpses, often beside those who already were. For five years, they fled the violence that spilled over from the genocide in Rwanda. Finally reaching a refugee camp in Tanzania, they miraculously found an aunt.

Ines (right) fled Bosnia because of religious persecution. She and Elijah (center), also from Bosnia, received assistance from JFON volunteer attorney Beth Mellema in Michigan
Ines (right) fled Bosnia because of religious persecution. She and Elijah (center), also from Bosnia, received assistance from JFON volunteer attorney Beth Mellema in Michigan

Soon after, the United Nations High Committee on Refugees applied to the United States for the family's relocation. Accepted, they moved to Iowa where attorneys from Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) worked for 10 years to ensure they became United States citizens.

Begun in 1999 by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), today National Justice for Our Neighbors, the official name, is a separately incorporated entity. The ties to UMCOR remain close. JFON receives part of its funding through UMCOR Advance # 901285 and UMCOR staff members are among the nonprofit organization's directors.

Bringing different needs

JFON provides free, professional legal services through 14 local and regional projects and 33 church-based clinics that advocate for the most vulnerable immigrants in their communities and serve 3,000 new low-income clients a year.

Working together, attorneys and other volunteers have reunited families, helped women suffering domestic violence and assisted immigrants self-petitioning to become legal permanent residents, according to an UMCOR press release. Some attorneys are part of the JFON staff; others volunteer. JFON clients include people seeking asylum from persecution or death in their home countries, survivors of human trafficking and those needing legal advice about workers' rights and workplace raids.

Home to one of the oldest JFON programs, the Iowa Conference's work with immigrants comes through four clinics serving people from around the globe. One-third of the clients are from Mexico, one-third from other Central American countries and one-third from Asian and European countries. The work goes beyond assisting with legal issues.

Building understanding

In Columbus Junction, Iowa, a town of 1,000 people, Burmese refugees are slowly integrating into the community, which has struggled with cultural differences. Open community discussions about different practices – like walking in the middle of the road rather than on a sidewalk – began to replace hostility with hospitality and acceptance.

What Gary Walters, Iowa JFON's staff attorney, hears from clients can be heartbreaking. "We hear a lot of stories from Mexicans and Central Americans about the violence they are experiencing from gangs and drug cartels." For many, there are few benefits or relief services in the United States for which JFON can help them apply.

"Under our current immigration laws, we are not able to help them remain safe," Walters says. "It affects me to see a lot of what's happening and the inability to help in these circumstances."

The situation opens the door for other United Methodists to advocate for immigrants, even if they are not attorneys. Anyone can urge Congress to create just and compassionate immigration laws and to speak and act on behalf of immigrants, he said.

While JFON in the West Michigan Conference provides legal help and advice, staff and volunteers also speak at church and community events about social justice issues and the need for making "communities more welcoming."

Baffling procedures

The Central Florida JFON office works to dispel anti-immigrant sentiment. Its website describes most of the clients as tax-paying, churchgoing and law-respecting people who "wanted to do the right thing but were baffled by cryptic procedures and demands."

In the Northern Illinois Conference, while attorneys and paralegals work with people seeking legal immigrant status, other volunteers create an atmosphere of safety and hospitality. They have initial conversations and translate, make human services referrals and provide childcare.

When Michael Mann, acting regional director for the conference, visits local congregations, he often encounters people who say they have no problem with immigrants, just undocumented migrants. "They are floored when they hear how long it takes to navigate the system and that the current enforcement and penalty system was invented in 1996," he says.

According to information on the UMCOR website, JFON was created in response to The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, to aid immigrants seeking to reunify their families, gain legal status and have the right to work. After Sept. 11, 2001, the laws became even more complex and strict, spurring church groups and agencies to expand their efforts on behalf of vulnerable immigrants.
(From left) Volunteers Julie Hutchins, Mary Kaye Jordan, Krysta Perez and Jan Snider prepare to host a free legal clinic for immigrants at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.
(From left) Volunteers Julie Hutchins, Mary Kaye Jordan, Krysta Perez and Jan Snider prepare to host a free legal clinic for immigrants at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn.

JFON serves immigrants in a wide array of circumstances. In some cases, unscrupulous employers force immigrants to work without pay, for extremely low wages and long hours or in inhumane and unsafe working conditions. In other instances, people use fear of deportation, arrest or isolation in an unknown culture to enslave and traffic immigrants. When a husband abuses a spouse who is an immigrant, the woman may feel there is no escape because of her perceived status or threats of deportation.

Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of immigrants can be a revelation to citizens that there are people living nearby who are struggling in the margins of their own communities, says Mann. So can learning that most Americans come from an immigrant background.

Mann can cite many biblical references to immigrant communities and welcoming strangers. He likes to focus on instructions from the prophet Isaiah:

"Our welcome is judged not by those we like or who are like us, but by the left out, the looked over, and the left behind."

Kelly Martini is a freelance writer based in Glen Mills, Pa.

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