11:30 A.M. EST June 9, 2010
Ines (right), who fled religious persecution in Bosnia, is helped by volunteer Beth Mellema (left) during a JFON clinic in Grand Rapids, Mich.
A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.
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Twelve years ago, Rocio came to the United States from Mexico, met a young man from Honduras and fell in love.
The couple started a family.
When their daughter turned 7, Rocio recalled, the child became critically ill with a brain-related disease.
After the little girl’s 18-hour surgery, Rocio and Norman “realized many things. We knew she might need another (surgical) procedure.” They wanted to get married, but were afraid of the legal ramifications. They were especially worried that Rocio would be detained, deported and separated from her very sick child.
“I was so scared,” Rocio said. “I had to take her to the hospital almost every day.” She shared her concerns with a doctor who suggested the couple talk with an immigration lawyer.
“The news wasn’t good at all.”
Rocio was taking ESL classes at Hillcrest United Methodist Church in Nashville, where someone told her about Justice for Our Neighbors.
JFON is a network of church-based, volunteer-led clinics that provide free, professional legal services to immigrants monthly. The United Methodist Committee on Relief sponsors the program with 28 clinic sites in 13 annual (regional) conferences and Washington, D.C. Seven full-time attorneys and several legal assistants, supported by hundreds of volunteers, serve the clinics.
United Methodists, along with their ecumenical and community partners, focus on helping refugees navigate the complicated legal system toward secure and productive family lives in the United States.
At first, Rocio was skeptical because of the negative result from her first lawyer consultation.
“They did my intake. I told them my story and why we were so scared,” Rocio said. “They were really, really kind to us. From that moment, I knew somebody would be there for us.”
First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids hosts a JFON legal clinic for immigrants in October 2006. A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.
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Today, Rocio and Norman are married and the parents of two children—their daughter, now 9, and a son, 5.
Still a JFON client, Rocio also volunteers with the program doing translations and intake. She has nothing but gratitude for the volunteers who changed her life. “They don’t only want to help you with the law. They want to help you as a person,” she said.
Across the United States, JFON is changing lives—for clients, volunteers and staff. Panravee Vongjaroenrat is a case in point.
Eight years ago, a law school friend of Vongjaroenrat was going on maternity leave and needed someone to cover her work at JFON in Washington, D.C.
“I came into JFON thinking it’s just like any immigration legal-service program,” the lawyer admitted, but “was intrigued to learn it’s much more ambitious and far-reaching.”
Today Vongjaroenrat, an immigrant from Thailand who came to the United States in 1983 as a Fulbright scholar, directs JFON’s programs and legal services. This is part of her role as director of immigration and refugee ministries for the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
JFON, she said, “aims to be both a welcoming ministry and a legal service provider … to welcome immigrants while attracting more long-term citizens from within the church and the community to come out and join in the hospitality.”
Attorney T.J. Mills, who oversees UMCOR’s New York clinics, is quick to note that JFON does not condone the violation of immigration law. Nor does JFON work outside the legal process. “However, JFON will ensure its clients get to exercise that legal process and find a way to immigrate lawfully.”
Lilia Fernandez, who came to the United States from Cuba 50 years ago, served as the executive secretary for refugees through the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries from 1977 to 2002.
Instrumental in starting JFON, she had approached the board about the church stepping up to the plate. The intent, she remembers, was “to facilitate churches to get involved” and to offer immigrants safety, dignity, respect and legal counsel. Today UMCOR coordinates the network of JFON lawyers and trains the volunteers.
“The biblical call to welcome the sojourner and to defend the cause of the poor has always been a central piece of the church's mission,” Fernandez said.
“Today,” Fernandez said, “it is even more important for (The United Methodist Church) to be at the forefront of the immigration issue. Our churches have become the only option of hope for many sojourners.”
Immigration debate is complex
United Methodists can help in many ways, Vongjaroenrat said. The first and most important thing is to know the facts on immigration. “Because immigration law is so complicated … very few laypeople truly understand what is true and what is not. The second thing … is to reach deep inside your faith and your heart to find the way to respond that is truly Christian.”
One advantage to JFON’s presence, Vongjaroenrat said, is that in areas with local JFON programs, extreme anti-immigrant measures generally fail. “Our volunteers have been very active and involved in local advocacy efforts.”
Vongjaroenrat described the Arizona law as both a challenge and an opportunity. “I do believe that if such measures were to be proposed in a state where JFON exists, our volunteers (would) not rest in their efforts to defeat them.”
Those who focus so singularly on the violation of the law, Vongjaroenrat said, should remember, “If we were to take the solely law-based approach, we would still have slavery and legal discrimination.”
“I do not see JFON's role changing as Arizona enforces its new immigration law and other states consider similar legislation,” Fernandez said. She expressed hope that bishops in conferences without JFON “get more information about it, encourage churches to participate and support it financially and (work to establish) JFON clinics in their area.”
In the heat of the immigration debate, she added, it is “important for United Methodists to understand the complexity of the causes that drive people out of their own countries. All the causes that uproot people violate basic human rights and reveal the inability or unwillingness of governments to protect people.”
Mills said volunteers are essential to JFON’s ministry.
“JFON requires a commitment way beyond the extent of most volunteer work,” Mills said. “I really don’t know how our volunteers sustain their commitment, given the enormous demands on their time. This project would not exist without volunteers. To sustain this commitment remains our greatest challenge.
“No matter how stringent border enforcement, the reality is that people will continue forever to enter the U.S. without permission,” he said. “Even immigrants stopped at the border, however, have the right to invoke the protections of U.S. law.
“Once they enter the U.S., these rights are enhanced.”
Vongjaroenrat is grateful the immigration debate gets so much news coverage.
“The United Methodist Church has gotten so active and shown great leadership on this issue,” she said. “It’s wonderful for the JFON program because we’re on the frontline every day with our clients’ cases.”
United Methodists and others can support JFON’s ministry through UMCOR Advance #901285.
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or email@example.com.