UMCOR

United Methodist Committee on Relief

Building a Vibrant National Immigrant Justice Ministry

By Rob Rutland-Brown*

Currently, more than 40 million foreign-born individuals reside in the United States and many of them need legal assistance with their immigration status (Pew Research Center, September 2015 report). Without status, immigrants are often vulnerable, with a greater likelihood of danger to their physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

National Justice For Our Neighbors (NJFON) is committed to ensuring that immigrants receive high-quality immigration legal services so they can work in the United States lawfully, stay together as families, and remain safely and permanently in the United States. We create a welcoming atmosphere for clients and provide opportunities for meaningful interaction between volunteers and their immigrant neighbors.

TN_DUB1992.jpgPHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE

NJFON serves as the backbone for a network of United Methodist immigration sites around the country that together were responsible for nearly 4,000 family reunifications in 2016, handling 10,577 immigration cases in total—up from 7,860 the year before—on a budget of $700,000 from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

The network grew out of UMCOR’s long commitment to refugees and immigrants. Since UMCOR’s founding in 1940, refugee ministry has been at the heart of its work, guided by Judeo-Christian values of hospitality to the stranger. UMCOR established Justice For Our Neighbors in 1999. Since that time, Justice For Our Neighbors has grown to a network of 17 sites.

The National Office

The role of NJFON is to oversee and offer guidance to the JFON network, a national alliance of independently operated nonprofit sites. These sites collectively operate more than 40 legal clinics (locations where groups of client intakes are held) staffed by approximately 35 immigration attorneys and hundreds of volunteers. NJFON also engages in advocacy for immigrant rights and offers education to communities of faith and the public. NJFON’s primary strategic goals are to ensure sustainability among its sites and strengthen their capacity to serve more low-income immigrant clients.

We have seen that where JFON clinics or other immigration representation is available, immigrants have better outcomes in their cases in the US courts. Unaccompanied migrant children who are represented in court are five times more likely to be able to stay in the United States than those who have no representation. Individuals seeking asylum are three times more likely to win their case if they have an attorney.

CA JFON Imperial Grand Opening.jpgJFON Imperial Valley founding board members (left to right): Tomas Oliva, Ann Featherstone, Amber S. Lawless, Kelly Klingbeil Smith, (with Assembly member Eduardo Garcia), Diana Moreno-Inman, Martha Garcia, Pastor Ron Griffen. PHOTO: IMPERIAL VALLEY JFON

The stories that follow come from JFON network members around the country. They represent just a few of the families and individuals who have found hope and help in JFON clinics, many of which are found in United Methodist churches that have committed to the work of justice for their neighbors.

*Rob Rutland-Brown is the executive director for National Justice for Our Neighbors in Springfield, Virginia.

California

JFON on the Border: Imperial Valley Celebrates Its First Clinic

By JFON Imperial Valley*

It was meant to be a desert. Modern irrigation, however, turned the valley into the second-largest agricultural area in California. An aerial view shows a vast expanse of light and dark green checkerboards; 80 percent of our nation’s salad greens come from these fields. Take a closer look, however, and see the weather-beaten faces of men and women, their bodies bent and stooped as they move through the neat furrows. These are our immigrant neighbors who make all that lettuce possible.

Much of the work in this valley is agricultural and, therefore, seasonal. Unemployment hovers at 20 percent, among the highest in the nation. Most of the inhabitants—80 percent—are Hispanic, some families living here for generations, even before it was part of the United States.

The town of El Centro—the home of First United Methodist Church and Imperial Valley JFON—is the county seat.

First UMC El Centro, led by Pastor Ron Griffen, is a busy, active church whose members strive to make a significant difference in the lives of people around them. “Your better life awaits,” is the promise you find on their website. “You don’t have to watch others change humanity; you were born to do this, too.”

Kelly Smith is the site attorney. She was volunteering her services, part time, for the church’s occasional immigration legal clinics when she first heard about National Justice for Our Neighbors. It was almost a moment of divine revelation: NJFON provides exactly what Smith and Pastor Griffen needed if their clinic was going to expand and grow. They began the process of joining the JFON family.

The community was abuzz with excitement and enthusiasm about this new endeavor. Nowhere was a JFON site more desperately needed.

The launch of the newest JFON site—and the only one in close proximity to the Mexican border—was a great success. Their first volunteer training attracted 12 people and more are signing up to attend the next training. Three local attorneys also volunteered their legal services.

Three other UMC churches in the area are interested in holding immigration legal clinics. Pastor Griffen says part of Imperial Valley JFON’s eventual goal is to open more clinics, going everywhere and anywhere people need immigration legal services.

*Founded in 2016, JFON Imperial Valley is the newest JFON site in the United States.

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