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A UMNS 2010 file photo by Christian Galdabini.

United Methodist congregations have led faith communities in advocating for just, humane immigration reform, including the DREAM Act.

Immigrant students get ‘moment of grace’

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
6:00 P.M. ET June 25, 2012 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The advice was clear: Now is the time to plan, gather documents and continue to pray that young immigrants who enter the United States before age 16 will be able to attend college, join the military and build a life in the only country most have lived in.

This is a moment of grace, said advocates meeting at the United Methodist Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference office on June 22. On June 15, President Barack Obama announced an immediate halt to the deportation of undocumented youth age 15 to 30 who meet certain criteria. The action allows those youth to apply for protection from deportation and a work permit.

The Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors has been working hand-in-hand with the Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition for passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which gives undocumented students a chance to earn legal status.

Justice for Our Neighbors, a United Methodist ministry that provides legal services, education and advocacy, has chapters across the denomination that are meeting and planning for the expected rush of applicants to take advantage of the ruling.

"How can we use these next several months?" asked the Rev. John Purdue of the group of pastors, advocates and young people."This precious time will be gone (soon)," said Purdue, director of Hispanic ministries for the Tennessee conference.

Although the news is a blessing, now is the time to be cautious, said the Rev. Joaquin Garcia, a consultant with the Tennessee conference. "Don't rush. Don't go out and hire an attorney. Don't get scammed," he warned. Prepare, gather the documents you will need, look at the resources available and go to the places and people you can trust, such as the local churches, he told the group.

Bishop Trimble on the DREAM Act

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At the same time, remember this is a "moment of grace," said the Rev. Mary K. "Kaki" Friskics-Warren, a member of the Tennessee JFON.

"We have just been given a glimpse of what we have been praying for," she said.

Temporary fix

This is not the DREAM Act, not a pathway to citizenship and doesn't change the immigration status of young people, warns Miguel Carpizo, East Tennessee organizer for the coalition.

Anyone in deportation proceedings needs to seek "trustworthy legal advice" to apply for deferred action, Carpizo said. He suggests calling the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hotline at 888-351-4024 or the Law Enforcement Support Center's hotline at 855-448-6903.

There is no application process in place yet, said Adrienne Schlichtemeir, staff attorney for Tennessee's JFON. She predicts it will be mid-August before a procedure is in place. After a young person has filled out an application and provided all the required documents, it is likely to take several more months before the documents are approved.

But once approved, young people who were in the United States on June 15, 2012, and meet the other requirements will be granted a work permit, Social Security number and a temporary driver's license.

Young people are eligible to apply if they:

  • Came to the United States before age 16
  • Lived continuously in the United States for at least the last five years
  • Are now in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or U.S. Armed Forces
  • Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety
  • Are between the ages of 15 and 30

Step forward

Arizona ruling 'signals change'

The Supreme Court ruling June 25, 2012 that rejected much of Arizona's immigration law and the June 15 presidential order addressing the deportation of young immigrants signals a change in public policy, said Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Phoenix area.

"This is a change United Methodists have long worked for," said Carcaño, who is co-leader of the United Methodist Interagency Task Force on Immigration.

"While I celebrate the fact that the Supreme Court ruled the majority of SB 1070 (the Arizona law) unconstitutional, I am disappointed that the provision for local law enforcement to continue to function as immigration officials has largely been left in place."

Bishop Will Willimon, North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference, has been fighting a similar law in his state.

"Great damage to our state's economy and reputation has already been done by the Alabama law. While the court's decision certainly guts the Arizona law, the hostile atmosphere that produced the laws in Alabama and Arizona still continues.Our church will need to continue to witness to the spirit of prejudice and fear that has produced this unnecessary and hurtful legislation."

Today's ruling struck down provisions that would have made it a crime for failure to apply or carry identification about legal status; for undocumented immigrants to apply for a job and for someone to be arrested based solely on the suspicion that the person is in the country illegally.

The court upheld part of the Arizona law that allows police to check the immigration status of anyone detained if there is "reasonable suspicion" the person might be in the U.S. illegally. However, the court said that provision could be subject to additional legal challenges.

"United Methodists will not be deterred until rights of all immigrants are protected, regardless of their legal status. United Methodists in Arizona and across the U.S. will continue to stand firmly and compassionately with our immigrant brothers and sisters. With Christians everywhere and persons of other faiths, we will continue to raise our voices to challenge all anti-immigrant laws in the land. The time has come for justice for immigrants and for our communities," Carcaño said.

The decision announced by President Obama shows a bold step forward, according to Bishop Minerva Carcaño of the Phoenix area and Bishop Julius Trimble of the Des Moines area, task force chairs of the United Methodist Interagency Task Force on Immigration. They said many United Methodists across the country stand ready to support this important and long-awaited decision.

The young people affected by this policy are known as "DREAMers" after the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for eligible students. The DREAM Act passed the Senate in 2010, but came up five votes shy of overcoming a procedural filibuster that prevented its passage by Congress.

In the past three years, United Methodist congregations have led faith communities in advocating for just, humane immigration reform, including the DREAM Act.

A recently released "United Methodist Immigration Reform Grassroots Journal" documents more than 570 events by denomination members seeking just, humane reform of U.S. immigration policies. The events of public witness during the past three years include public prayer vigils, meetings with members of Congress, and 250 DREAM Sabbath services just in the fall of 2011.

Hundreds of United Methodist churches provide direct services to immigrant communities through such ministries as Justice for Our Neighbors, which are legal clinics for low-income immigrants. United Methodists also advocate for legislative reform that upholds the dignity and defends the basic civil and human rights of their immigrant brothers and sisters.

"These are students who serve in our communities and congregations. These are not just leaders for tomorrow, they are our leaders today and they deserve every right that every citizen of the United States enjoys," Carcaño said. She called the president's decision a much-needed first step. It is "one that we will celebrate until we see the DREAM Act signed into law," she said.

The Rev. Francisco Javier Gale, associate pastor of McMinnville (Tenn.) First United Methodist Church agrees.

"We must continue to dream with our eyes open," he said.

Learn more about The United Methodist Church's work on immigration.

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.