UMCOR's Advance Story of the Month for June 2001 is about the Justice for Our Neighbors immigration clinics. You can support this outreach ministry through Advance #901285.
Simon is a legal resident of the United States from the Dominican Republic. He applied for citizenship two times and was denied. His mental illness makes it impossible for Simon to learn English, U.S. history, and civics well enough to pass the citizenship exam. But according to the law, immigrants who are incapable of passing the exam are entitled to a waiver. So Simon applied for a third and final time.
At his first interview he was once again denied. With only one interview, one chance, left Simon sought help from UMCOR's Justice for Our Neighbors ministry. The program's attorney began to advocate on Simon's behalf– writing letters, gathering more evidence of Simon's illness– and accompanied him to the second interview.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) officer, who was ignorant of the waiver laws and uncooperative, made many demands on Simon that were inconsistent with the INS' own policies. He gave him 30 days to gather more evidence that was impossible to obtain.
After writing more letters to INS superiors, the Justice for Our Neighbors attorney was called to bring Simon back in. This time, they were treated with courtesy by the officer, who was accompanied by his supervisor. The waiver was granted and Simon is now a U.S. citizen.
When the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was passed, it dramatically restricted the individual rights of immigrants and refugees. It made even more difficult the INS maze through which newcomers must navigate in order to become legal residents or citizens or bring family members to join them.
Why is it so difficult? The laws are so complex that many attorneys and INS officers themselves do not understand them. For most immigrants, English is not their first language; in fact, they may not yet know any English when they are going through the process. It is easy for them to fill out a form incorrectly or to fill out the wrong form. Files get lost. And, sadly, there are many lawyers taking advantage of immigrants by charging huge fees and then giving erroneous advice– or abandoning their clients altogether.
When Yong Fu immigrated from China, her husband and young son were supposed to follow. The INS officer who opened Yong Fu's case retired shortly thereafter, and the file was lost. Yong Fu got bad legal advice telling her that if she left the country to see her husband and son or try to bring them back with her, she would never be able to return to the U.S. So Yong Fu was separated from her family for five years. The U.S. Consulate in China informed her that if she did not send or bring proof of her green card they would close her husband and son's case and they would never be able to come to the U.S.
Yong Fu sought help from the Justice for Our Neighbors clinic at the Chinese UMC in Chinatown, New York City. The staff wrote letters and made several visits to the INS offices. Her file was found and within a month the INS called Yong Fu in and gave her her green card. She immediately went to China, showed it to the U.S. Consulate and was reunited with her family who are now resettled in the U.S.
The "Justice for Our Neighbors" program was begun in 1999 by UMCOR and the Just Neighbors Ministry in Virginia. Currently, there are 14 Justice for Our Neighbors centers located in churches across the country providing immigration counsel and legal advice to low-income people.
The people who seek assistance are often afraid. For one reason or another their cases have become tangled and messy. In the church centers they find a safe haven that allows them to talk freely and seek the help they need.
At this time, UMCOR must ask churches wishing to participate in the program by setting up an immigration counseling program to put this interest on hold. Limited resources and expenses associated with providing the necessary legal resources for the JFON sites have necessitated a period of consolidation and the need to assess the present situation and plan for the future. As soon as we are able to discern any change in these circumstances, these will be reflected on this web page.
Throughout the Old and New Testaments, people of faith are exhorted to show kindness to the strangers in their midst. Justice for Our Neighbors offers United Methodists a way to be faithful to that call. You can support this outreach ministry through Advance #901285-1.
UMCOR encourages you to give through your local United Methodist Church. Gifts may also be sent to: UMCOR, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 330, New York, NY 10115. To make a credit card donation, call (800) 554-8583. United Methodists' generous giving to the One Great Hour of Sharing, part of their ongoing contribution to mission around the world, supplements the cost of Advance gifts.
Photos: Volunteers work with immigrants in a Justice for Our Neighbors clinic at the Whitfield UMC, Sioux City, Iowa.