The Sound of Distress and a Call to Action

Dreamers continue to live in the shadows. (image by Katty Elizarova/Shutterstock.com)

by Greg Smith

“Oh, I didn’t realize that.”  The words landed softly on my ear, almost inaudible.  That was all she could muster.  I guess there really wasn’t much more she could say.

The news on July 16, 2021 out of a federal district court in Texas hit the immigration world like a ton of bricks.  And it fell heaviest on Dreamers, the name given to the hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country before age 16.  

The court ruled that DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was illegal and that all new DACA applications – even those pending a decision before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – were blocked.  For now the ruling did not take DACA away from those who’ve already been granted its protections and right to work legally, nor did it deny current DACA holders from renewing their grant of DACA when the time comes.

But it stopped all new DACA applications in their tracks – permanently.

This is what blew away the young Dreamer I spoke with.  We filed her DACA application in February 2021, but USCIS had not yet granted her DACA.  Oftentimes court rulings affecting immigration processes or benefits do not apply to applications already filed with USCIS, but not this time.  In one fell swoop, DACA was ruled illegal and therefore all new applications and indeed the program itself was brought to a swift, callous, and merciless death.

By eliminating DACA, the ruling plunged a dagger into the hearts of 600,000 to 700,000 potential DACA applicants, young people who had been counting on DACA to access a job, or affordable college tuition, or a state-issued driver’s license, so many looking forward to stepping out of the shadows and into the light of a full life and greater social integration.

I told my young Dreamer that we would keep her file open in the event the ruling were reversed on appeal.  I told her we would pray and not give up hope.  I told her we would fight for her and all Dreamers yearning to breathe free and without fear in the only country they have ever known.

The fight, though, has proven difficult, and an outcome giving Dreamers the right to call the United States their home legally and officially won’t come easy.  What can you and I do to stand with Dreamers in their quest to build their lives in the US without fear?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let your US Representative and Senators know you stand with Dreamers.  Let them know your extreme disappointment and displeasure that Congress has yet to fulfill the wish of 72% of Americans who favor protections and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.  You can find how to contact your Representative here and your Senators here.
  2. Look in your community for pro-DACA and pro-Dreamer groups working on a solution to this needless quagmire, and support and/or join their efforts.  Some great nationally-focused groups to check out are United We Dream, Fwd.us, and Unidos US
  3. Spread the news through social media, the op-ed section of your local newspaper, and other means about the need for a solution that protects and supports Dreamers.  Here’s a resource providing tips for writing a strong op-ed, and here’s a link to the district court ruling on DACA.
  4. Get to know what the Bible says about welcoming the immigrant.  Read Christopher B. Harbin’s On Immigration for an extensive, well-researched treatment of the Bible’s embrace of the immigrant and immigration.
  5. As you come to know Dreamers, both those who already have DACA and those who are now barred from obtaining a grant of DACA, let them know of your support and prayers.  Ask them personally how you can enhance your support.  Become a trusted friend with a listening ear.  Do unto your immigrant neighbors, friends, and colleagues what you would have your immigrant neighbors, friends, and colleagues do unto you.

Two months have passed since that conversation with this young Dreamer. She’s begun another year of high school — her senior year, when she should be eagerly anticipating the same next steps as her classmates after graduation — college, a job, driving. And yet she’s still in limbo, still in the shadows, with no solution in sight.

Dr. Greg Smith serves as an Accredited Representative through the Department of Justice and assists many immigrants and refugees with low-cost immigration legal assistance.

Walls, Tables, and God’s Kingdom

by Renee Edington

I’m near the end of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Student.Go internship. I’m Renee Edington, a seminary student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. This summer, I’ve been working with Sue Smith and Karen Morrow, CBF field personnel and two other interns on a social media campaign encouraging native born U.S. citizens to welcome immigrants to the United States.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue shared a picture she took of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and I’ve been thinking a lot about walls ever since. I’ve developed a hatred of walls. This wall has a stark beauty that draws me in yet how can I enjoy looking at it when I know the purpose behind the tall metal sheets is exclusion?

Walls. Dividers. Barriers. Why do we have walls? In a house, walls divide or separate the rooms. Walls keep people in. Walls keep people out. Walls protect people. Walls separate people. Walls include people. Walls exclude people.

Tall walls, short walls, climbable walls, walls topped with razor wire. Why? Protection, exclusion, safety? Who are we protecting? Who are we excluding? Who are we keeping in and who are we keeping out?

Walls provide boundaries. Walls can be helpful or hurtful. There are physical walls and invisible walls. Invisible walls can oppress and exclude people. Invisible walls can keep us from becoming the person God imagined us becoming. Invisible walls pop up along our journey and stunt our emotional growth or push us in a different direction.

The sermon in church last week was based on Psalm 8, which talks about the magnificence of God and glorifies in the amazement that God is mindful of humans. God thinks about humans and cares for us. In fact, verse 5 says that we humans are made a “little bit lower than God” (NRSV) or a little bit less than divine. We are all unique nearly divine beings created in God’s image. ALL of us are created in God’s image. ALL of us are a little bit less than divine. There aren’t levels of humanity. Every single one of us is special and unique and created in the image of God.

Therefore, why in the world do some humans decide to exclude other humans? Why do some humans build walls? If we’re all indeed created in God’s image and in fact, just a little bit lower than God, how did it happen that some people take control of others through construction of walls?

God gave us “dominion over the works of (God’s) hands.” God expects us to take care of the world and its inhabitants, not find reasons to exclude.

Sometimes I think we as Christians put up walls to God for people of other religions. I recently read something that mirrors my thinking. In The Good News According to Jesus: A New Kind of Christianity for a New Kind of Christian, Chuck Queen writes “I believe in Christian particularism, but not exclusion.” My simple interpretation of his explanation is this: Christians come to God through Jesus Christ. People of other faiths come to God through other paths. Because God is so big, and God’s kingdom is all-encompassing, I cannot put boundaries on the scope of God.

My favorite description of the kingdom of God comes from Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” When I think about this quote, I always add that they’re not at the table because they’re Christian, they’re there because they said yes to God.

In her 2012 interview with U.S. Catholic, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine makes a similar point from the Jewish perspective: “If God is the God of the world, then God can’t simply be the God of the Jews. God has to be the God of the non-Jews as well.” Just as Christians cannot claim sole ownership of God; neither can Jews. God is great enough for Christians, Jews, and other religions.

Then let’s start thinking about how we can tear down exclusionary walls, whether visible or invisible. Start with one wall, then another and another and another until every human who is created in the image of God (and that’s ALL humans) has a place at the table of God.

I started with a picture of a wall. I end with a picture of a table where all are equally welcome. May it be so in God’s world. Amen.

Just Now Seeing the Worst

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about reopening things and getting on with our lives. About the damage that is done to our economy. About “herd immunity.” About wearing facemasks or not.

I recently read an article that stated that overall, our response to the coronavirus in the US has been typically “American” – focused very much on our individual rights and not wanting anyone to tell us what to do.

I get it, I really do. But from where I stand, from my daily ministry context as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Field Personnel working with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, I’m seeing a very different side of things.

Several weeks ago, a single mom of three called to tell me that her sister, who lives with her, had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire household (two adults and five children) was quarantined. Another lady asked for help as well that week. She contracted COVID-19 at work and lived in a home with several other families. She asked for food and toiletries so that she could quarantine in her room and try to keep others safe.

That week, we put in place a protocol to help Spanish-speaking Latino COVID-19 patients that includes regular check-ins with them by phone or text and leaving food or boxes of supplies on their doorsteps. We include facemasks, acetaminophen, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

Since those first two reports of illness among people we know, we’ve heard of many more persons in the Latino community who have tested positive for the virus. They’re all immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico.  They include:

A paternal grandmother who took over the care of her grandson when the toddler’s mom and other grandparents tested positive. The baby also has COVID-19.

A recently-arrived single mom seeking asylum shows symptoms of COVID-19 but hasn’t been tested. Her landlord insists that she needs to move, but she can’t find a job to pay rent and has no friends willing to take her in.

An older gentleman with kidney failure has been in the US for many years. He rides the bus for dialysis treatments several times each week and was recently hospitalized with COVID-19.

A couple who were discretely trying to earn enough money to pay the rent and avoid homelessness by doing odd jobs in the community. Both became ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and are now quarantined, along with their 76-year-old mother and two young sons.

An asylum seeker under electronic monitoring. He’s a single dad who rents a room and has recently moved to a new house and worries that he may have infected others before he became ill.

And more and more of our immigration legal services clients are unable to complete crucial steps in their immigration process. Some are ill themselves, but other parts of the system have also been affected by COVID-19. They may be unable to complete the required physical exam, or have difficulty scheduling appointments to sign necessary documents in a timely manner.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, data on ethnicity is included for approximately 65% of the COVID-19 cases reported by our region. Of the 690 positive cases in the Rappahannock Health District where data on ethnicity is included, 50% are persons of Latino or Hispanic heritage; Latinos represent 33% of the total 1,059 positive cases. For a geographic area with a Latino population of just under 11%, this is a rather astounding number. And particularly when you consider that this population is often uninsured or underinsured.

These are some of the most vulnerable persons in our community. Early on in the pandemic, as people were losing jobs and struggling to adjust to at-home schooling and the loss of childcare, many of the folks among whom we work were still doing OK. Hours were cut, but many reported that they were still employed. Older children cared for the younger ones, or parents with reduced work schedules were able to cover the bases.

Our Latino friends were working in restaurant kitchens, where clean-up or prep work still had to be done for carry-out orders. They were still working on construction or remodeling sites and engaging in day-labor type jobs, or doing landscaping and other outdoor work. They weren’t in jobs where they could work from home or engage in social distancing.

But now, the effects of the coronavirus have hit the immigrant population full force, and while there is an overall clamor to open things back up and get back to normal, what we see is the panic within the Spanish-speaking community as they must now isolate themselves and quarantine — and see the earnings from those last few work hours disappear. They’re no longer OK.

They can get by on less, but it’s difficult to get by on nothing.

Ripping Families Apart: How Did Our Nation Get Here?

by Sue Smith

I traveled internationally with my sons on two separate occasions several years ago.

I was “estadounidense” (“American”) and gave little to no thought to whether I was able to travel alone with the kids.

We were U.S. citizens, which is to say, we were somewhat oblivious to the rules, regulations and visa requirements that most people face.

With my older son, Jason, when we arrived at the airport to board our flight home, I was asked for country-specific paperwork that showed I had the authority for him to leave Costa Rica with me.

This involved an application process, complete with signatures from both parents, interviews with government officials and properly notarized documents with “timbres” or official stamps.

I had purchased an exit visa that showed that Jason was a legal permanent resident, which placed him under Costa Rican protection as a minor. I was free to go home, but not Jason.

For my younger son, Kyle, Costa Rican law had recently changed and all minor travelers born in Costa Rica, regardless of their nationality, country of residence or passport, were covered by child protective services and required the government-issued travel documentation.

For both kids, the system promised to be responsible for them until a time when I could return and present the proper paperwork in order to take them home.

There was no way I was going to be separated from my kids. I was horrified at the idea that they could be taken away from me, the parent, or held in the country simply because I hadn’t known about current Costa Rican policy and law. I acted like a typical parent – I was pretty hysterical and irate.

Today, as I contemplate our government’s recent separation of children from their parents with no apparent thought given to reunification, I’m reminded of that day in the airport, being told Jason couldn’t travel.

What if he had been taken from me, moved to a shelter or placed with a family until I could return with proper documents? What if we hadn’t lived near Washington, D.C,. where my husband was able to travel to the Costa Rican consulate and present the necessary documents for Kyle to return home?

What if none of us had spoken Spanish? What if we had known no one in Costa Rica who could help us? Or if I had been accused of smuggling the kids and detained?

I don’t have a clue what Costa Rica would or could have done with my children, but I wouldn’t have immediately known how to get them back, especially if they had been moved well over 1,000 miles away (which, from Costa Rica, would be the equivalent of moving them several countries away).

For many of the parents who arrive at the border with their children, the idea of being separated probably never crossed their minds until they saw it happen right before their eyes.

In the hospital, a patient is given an armband that is checked and double checked by every healthcare professional who engages with that patient.

Children are checked in and out of schools, daycare facilities and church programs, always under the care of their parents.

Parents don’t entrust their children into the care of strangers, no matter how attractive the program or nice the representatives seem.

So, exactly how did we as a nation get to the point of believing it’s a good thing to take children away from their parents?

What was the plan for reuniting them, and what were parents told? How are they to go about getting their children back, once they are released from detention?

In my situation, both of our sons returned to the U.S. with me, and all is well. This makes a great family story about how Mom brought Jason home with a new tourist visa – after purchasing baseball caps and a change of clothes for both!

And about the days spent dealing with government agencies to obtain permission for Kyle to return home.

But what stories will be told by the thousands of children and parents separated through “zero tolerance” enforcement?

*This article first appeared on EthicsDaily.com, July 17, 2018

What Will Happen to US? Halfway between September and March, DACA recipients wonder what their future holds

“If DACA ends, life as I know it will end, too. I won’t be able to drive anymore because I’ll lose my license. And I won’t be able to work, or go to school . . . . I don’t know what I’ll do!”

This statement exemplifies the feelings of DREAMers everywhere, who anxiously await the final fate of their current temporary status.  DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is a program that has afforded nearly 800,000 young immigrants the opportunity to come out of the shadows of the undocumented world.  But it is scheduled to end in March 2018.  Brought to the US as children by their parents, they had no choice in being here and most think of themselves as Americans.  Many are college students and aspiring young professionals.

PROFILES OF DACA RECIPIENTS

Christian,* age 19, is a full-time second-year community college student who is studying Computer Science. He lives at home with his parents and three younger sisters (who are US citizens) and works five days a week to pay for his school expenses. He’s thinking ahead and plans to transfer to a four-year university once he earns his Associate Degree.

We first met Christian when he was 7 and in the second grade. He participated in our after-school program, Study Buddies, and he became a volunteer during middle and high school, tutoring elementary-aged students from immigrant families. Christian is a natural tutor and role model for the kids, with his calm, quiet manner and ability to explain homework assignments to them in either Spanish or English.

For Christian, losing DACA means losing his work permit and thus his job, which means he will no longer be able to afford to pay for college. Like most DACA students, he has no student loans and must pay school costs out-of-pocket or on a semester payment plan. He will also lose his drivers’ license, which will impact his ability to get to and from class or work –and his ability to help his parents with transportation. Christian and his dad commute to work in the same restaurant approximately 45 miles away from their home.

Without DACA, this young man who has lived in the US since age three will revert to status as an undocumented immigrant, working at unskilled labor jobs for cash, and his education will come to an end without the ability to pay for tuition, books, and materials.

José* is 21 and a student. He lives at home and works a 40-hour per week night job in a call center, which allows him to take classes during the day at the university. He’s lived in the US since second grade.

DACA had a huge impact in Jose’s life. As a middle-schooler, his family moved to a new home and he became aware that he was an undocumented immigrant. He was bullied and called “the Mexican kid” at his new, mostly-white school — even though he repeatedly explained that he was not from Mexico. He most likely had ADHD but no services were provided, and he struggled in school, even though he was very bright. Outgoing and friendly, José made friends quickly at Passport Missions camp and loved helping others, but he was also known for his impulsiveness and jokes.

José gave up hope. “What difference does it make if I do well in school?” he said. “I’ll still be an illegal immigrant – just look at my parents!” His dad, a university professor in his home country, worked in the kitchen of restaurants in the US, and his mom, an accountant, was stocking shelves in a small retail store. But then, José’s sister earned an academic scholarship to a four-year private college, and he saw that her hard work really had paid off. Soon afterward, DACA came along, which meant that college would be a possibility for him, too.

José suddenly had hope, hope for the life his parents had sacrificed so much for him to have. But it was dependent on him to do his part, to learn responsibility. He quit skipping school, began to focus on his classes, and sought help for areas where he was struggling. He became a good student, and he found new friends. When he was approved for DACA, he was able to get his drivers’ license and obtain a part-time job to save money for a car and for college.

More than the loss of his good job, car and drivers’ license, or ability to study, the loss of DACA for José means he loses hope. José saw what he could do with his life if he just put forth an effort, but without DACA, he’ll go back to what he once dreaded being, just another “illegal immigrant.”

When Yerendi,* received school supplies from LUCHA Ministries in the third grade, she grabbed the bag and danced around the room before sitting down to sort and organize her backpack for the first day of school. “I love school,” she said. “Summer is so boring, and I can’t wait to get back! One day, maybe I’ll be a teacher. Or maybe a doctor. Or maybe . . . something else!”

It’s no surprise that Yerendi, now age 22, took charge of her DACA application once she was old enough to apply. She soon had a job, a car, and was looking forward to college. She was able to pay for her own clothes and help her parents out with expenses – plus becoming the family’s “taxi” as she took her younger siblings to activities and her parents to appointments. Her dad, a self-employed mechanic with a third-grade education, bought and refurbished a car for her.

Yerendi began working for a physician’s office part-time, primarily getting the job because she had served as a volunteer interpreter for one of the physician’s Spanish-speaking patients. The job turned into full-time position, and she had to make a decision about school. She opted to work full-time and study part-time. In the meantime, the practice became part of a university system, and now she qualifies for significant tuition assistance as an employee of the university. Plus, she determined she liked the medical field and has a heart for interpretation.

For Yerendi, the United States is truly her home. While she was born in Central America, she’s lived here since she was 6 months old, and her brother is in the US Marine Corps. “My parents will eventually be OK. My siblings are US citizens and can petition for my parents. It’s me – I’m the only one left out.” What will the loss of DACA mean to Yerendi? “I honestly don’t know,” she said. “For now, I’ll keep on working and studying. I have time to figure out what my next steps will be.”

Carlos graduated from high school last spring and recently turned 18. He’s been in the US since he was 2 years old. Carlos was born with spina bifida, a birth defect affecting the spine. Carlos has a severe form of spina bifida and has no use of his body below his waist. He will spend his life in a wheelchair.

When his parents learned that there was nothing that could be done for Carlos through the hospitals in his country, they made the decision to come to the US. They simply couldn’t accept the grim prognosis that he would soon die. Almost as bad were the heartbreaking thoughts of the bleak existence that he would face as a person with disabilities in his home country if he survived. Carlos’ dad came to the US to find a job and a place to live, and Carlos and his mom followed later.

In the US, they found help for Carlos in the form of charity care, free clinics, and a program through the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC. He received needed surgeries and medical care, and was soon able to use a wheelchair and go to school. Carlos’ mom has dedicated her life to caring for him and serving as his advocate, while his dad has ensured that there was somehow enough money to keep a roof over their heads, food on the table, and a somewhat reliable vehicle large enough to accommodate Carlos’ wheelchair. They’ve paid many of the costs associated with Carlos’ care out of pocket, with no form of health insurance.

After recovery from spinal surgery, Carlos can move forward with his life. With DACA, he can work or continue his studies, normal everyday things that would be much more difficult for him as a person with disabilities in Mexico.

 

Actions Have Consequences The Decision to Leave a Child Behind

“How do you feel when your parents migrate to the US . . . and leave you behind?”  This wasn’t an easy question for students to answer in El Salvador.

We were visiting an inner-city high school, Instituto Isaac Newton, located in the heart of San Salvador.  The seven of us, all Baptists, were seeking to better understand this country and how churches and individuals in the US can come alongside and help with the challenges faced by families there.  And to learn more about immigrants in our own country in the process.

The challenges of the neighborhood were apparent just outside the entrance of the school, where we saw young men being cuffed and interrogated by the police.  We walked through busy streets lined with vendors and learned that many were parents of students at the school.  It was a section of the city rarely seen by tourists.

Many students asked to meet with us, to tell their stories and ask questions about the United States.  Approximately 25% of the students said they had a parent living in the United States, and more than 75% had a close friend or family member in the US.  Only a few had not been directly touched by emigration.  Public education is free through secondary (9th grade).  Isaac Newton and other similar schools seek to provide a high quality private school education for upper-level students at minimal cost (less than $40/month).  These students are studying for careers in healthcare, tourism, business, etc., largely thanks to assistance from parents and other relatives in the US who send money back.

Ana*, a petite girl standing in the back of the packed classroom, raised her hand and bravely answered our question.  “It’s hard, really hard” when you don’t have both parents with you.  “My dad is in the US, and I miss him so much.  But I know he’s away because he loves us and we need the money he makes there.”   There’s no work for him here, Ana said, and she wouldn’t be in school if her dad wasn’t sending money back home to support the family.  She said she was very appreciative of the sacrifice he had chosen to make for her and for her family.  And then Ana broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as another student hugged her.  Other students swiped at teary eyes.

While the kids often feel hurt, abandoned, or lonely when their parent or parents leave them behind, they say that they have other family around to help, and they know that the absent parent has made a hard decision that is for the good of the family.  Immigrant parents say that one of the hardest issues for them is the decision to leave a child behind.

However, Latin Americans often view children as part of a rich family tradition where the members are strongly connected and where aunts, uncles, grandparents and even older siblings all share in the raising of a child.  The decision is often a family decision, made in the best interest of the child as well as the extended family.  “How could I bring my son with me, to a place where I had no job, no place to live?” said Maria,* a mom from Honduras.  “I think it would have been too hard.  He was better off with my mom until I could get established.”  After a few years, she sent for her son, Jorge,* who was 10, to join her.  Maria rents a room and works part-time at McDonalds to support her family.  Jorge is able to petition for asylum.

But even the best intentions can cause pain for the immigrant parent.  Martin* talks about his teenage son with regret for what he’s lost.  “My son stayed in Mexico, on the ranch with my parents, and he goes to school and rides horses and helps my dad with the cattle.  He talks about girls.  He’s a great kid — almost a man,” said Martin.  He can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen his daughter.  Martin’s wife eventually divorced him and remarried.  While he thought of bringing his children to the US, he decided they were better off in Mexico.  They’re healthy, happy, and safe; they do well in school; and his son will one day manage the family ranch.  And the kids are a big help with his aging parents.  “It seems to have worked out well for everyone but me,” says Martin, who is an undocumented roofer.  “I just work and send money so they can all live well.”

The decision to bring children later on to join parents doesn’t always work out well, either.  Cecilia* was almost 16 when she joined her mom, stepdad, and four younger siblings in the US.  Coming from a rural part of El Salvador where she had lived with her grandparents, she missed the freedom of the country.  “Here, I can’t go outside — there’s no place to go, and I don’t feel safe.”  She doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t relate well to her siblings.  “I don’t even like them; they’re so spoiled and self-centered,” she says.  While Cecilia worked the land and helped grow beans and corn and vegetables until coming to the US, that concept is totally foreign to her US-born siblings.  They seem to her to be unappreciative of her parents’ hard work to provide a good home for them.  “I think they make fun of me.  I hate it here, I just want to go back home.  I didn’t know it would be like this,” she said.  Cecilia’s mom agrees that perhaps it was a mistake to bring Cecilia to the US.  “But I wanted to make things right, to have us live as a family.  I always felt guilty for leaving her behind.”

The decision to emigrate is a highly individual decision based on a number of factors, including violence, safety and security, poverty, economic and educational opportunities, and the desire to provide the best for one’s children.  It is never made lightly, and it isn’t without sacrifice, for both parents and children.  It changes the family dynamics forever.  The children, like Ana, grow up quickly and adopt a mature attitude regarding their parents’ reasons for emigrating.  On an intellectual and practical level, she knows her dad made a good decision for his family.  But her tears are evidence of the pain and heartache involved.

*names changed

Where Do Immigrants Come From? And Why Do They Come? Understanding the Context for Immigration

Marcos* was a Salvadoran immigrant in his late 20s whose story caused me to dig deeper in order to understand his home country.  Since then, I’ve studied the history of El Salvador and last year, I visited there.  I’ve made Salvadoran friends both in the US and in El Salvador.  It’s fairly easy for non-immigrant Americans to look at immigrants who struggle in our country and wonder — often aloud — why they are here.  But perhaps if more people had the opportunity to visit their countries of origin, they would understand a little better.

I met Marcos in the homeless shelter following his 2-week stay in the local hospital.  He was traveling from Texas to New York and became seriously ill.  His “friends” called 911 and dropped him at a rest stop along I-95.  He was totally alone, with nowhere to go, and he didn’t know anyone in Virginia.

Marcos was 14 when he came to the US, fleeing increasing threats to his family if he didn’t join a local gang.  “They threw rocks on our tin roof every night, and no one could sleep.  And they threatened my family.  The gang leader said they would rape and kill my mother, and kidnap my sister if I didn’t join. So I left to keep them safe.”

He was alone in a large city, surviving on the streets, and was soon involved in drugs.  And now, 15 years later, Marcos has AIDs. I asked him if he would have emigrated had known how life in the US would turn out.  “Yeah, I would have still come.  I’d rather live with AIDs than face what I was facing in El Salvador.”

masacre-listApproximately 1 of every 5 Salvadorans lives in the United States, making Salvadorans the 6th largest immigrant group in the US.  A large number came as a result of the civil war, which ended in 1992; others came as a result of natural disasters that affected the country; and relatives have joined immigrants through family reunification.  Today, much of the influx is due to violence and the growing control of Salvadoran communities by gangs, like Marcos experienced.

In my last visit to El Salvador, I couldn’t help but think of Marcos.  I experienced first-hand the reality of life in impoverished neighborhoods where gangs rule.  I saw the fear of engaging in simple routines like travel to a neighboring community, where one can inadvertently cross from one gang’s territory into another’s.  I was surprised when friends chose to meet me for dinner at a restaurant rather than in their home, because “my neighborhood wouldn’t be safe for you.”  I secretly wondered if my presence would have put them more at risk for extortion if gang members knew they had an “American” friend.

a-momOne of the things that Marcos most wanted to do was to contact his mom in El Salvador.  He hadn’t spoken to her in years because he was ashamed of his life.  We called “to let her know I’m OK,” — even though Marcos knew he wasn’t OK.  “I know she loves me and prays for me.”  And Marcos wanted me to go with him to church.  As we worshipped, prayed, and talked about God’s grace and unconditional love, Marcos made peace with his life.  Soon, he was well enough to move on to his waiting job in New York.

Most immigrants I know have sacrificed much to come to the US: language, culture, family, social status, dignity.  When they talk with their families back home, few ever reveal the truth about how lonely or hard their lives are in the US.  And yet they still choose to be here, because for many, the worst life imaginable in the US is still better than what they faced in their home countries.

Immigrant Fears Information is Key in Addressing Immigrant Fears

Recalibrating, thinking about shutting down refugee offices.

Consoling children and comforting parents fearful to leave home.

Reminding DREAMers of the risk of applying for DACA.

Grieving for people of color.

Struggling to address questions and fears among immigrant friends.

And Praying Together.

Immigration advocates and agencies – including LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia – found themselves reacting in just these ways following the US presidential election of November 8.  As a part of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Network, LUCHA Ministries has a goal to provide the most accurate information possible while reminding our immigrant friends of God’s constant love and presence.

Beyond expressing shock and dismay, advocates and organizers renewed their commitment to inform and educate the immigrant community on how best to respond to the election and its aftermath.

Some of the best advice advocacy groups can offer immigrants is the following:

  • Remind immigrants that, for now, nothing has changed.  All existing immigration benefits remain in place.
  • Immigration law is defined by Congress, and the majority of current US laws can only be changed by Congress.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is still in effect.  DACA provides eligible, undocumented young people who arrived before age 16 an opportunity to remain in the US and apply for work authorization.  Those with DACA renewal should renew it within the timeframe required, before January 2017’s inauguration if possible.  Those who have never requested DACA should consult a reputable legal provider for advice before filing a DACA application.
  • Consult a reputable legal provider to be screened for other benefits besides DACA. This can be done at the same time as the DACA consultation.
  • Refugees should apply for a green card at one year of being admitted to the United States. Seek a reputable legal provider for advice and guidance.
  • The government’s priorities regarding who is to be removed from the US have not changed.  Those who do not fall in one of these priorities are less likely (but not impossible) to be deported (current removal priorities)
  • Beware of notarios and other unscrupulous people.  Only seek legal help from reputable legal providers.

It is also important that immigrants are prepared in the unfortunate event they or a family member are detained or face deportation.  You can encourage immigrants to do the following:

Make a plan now, before such an event occurs.  Educate all family members, and especially children, on where important papers are kept; important phone numbers to be memorized; which adult is in charge of children in case one or both parents are detained; and the name of an immigration lawyer to call.

Review the “Know your Rights” factsheet, and know how to respond.  According to the National Immigration Law Center, everyone has certain basic rights under the Constitution.  Here are some recommendations:

  • Exercise your right to remain silent.  You have the right to refuse to speak to immigration officers.
  • Carry a “Know-Your-Rights” card and any valid immigration documents you have.  Show them if an immigration officer stops you (click here to link to resources in English and Spanish from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild)
  • Do not open your door unless an ICE agent shows you a warrant signed by a judge.
  • You have the right to speak to a lawyer.
  • Before you sign anything, talk to a lawyer.

Within immigrant communities, much of the news and information that they receive is in their native language.  This includes both formal sources, such as news through television, radio, or online websites, as well as informal community networks, such as people sharing information with friends and neighbors.  We can do much to calm fears and dispel rumors by remaining educated and informed, and pointing our immigrant friends to credible, trustworthy information.  And by praying.

Beyond the Band-Aid Legal Aid Ministry that Makes a Difference

Band-Aid:

ˈbandād/ noun  NORTH AMERICAN trademark

  1. an adhesive bandage with a gauze pad in the center, used to cover minor wounds.
  2. a makeshift or temporary solution: “A band-aid solution to a much deeper problem”

 

We all know what a Band-Aid is, and we all know what a Band-Aid does.  A Band-Aid covers a wound…and really not much else.  It may make the scratch feel better, but the soft, thin gauze won’t protect it from a bump, bruise, or bully; nor would it protect the wound from a bacterial infection from within.  Without the help of Neosporin, a Band-Aid would only absorb the bleeding; it would not treat, cure, or prevent the wound from bleeding—nor was it meant to.

This very same principle applies to Band-Aid solutions.  Aptly-named, these solutions are just that:  insufficient covers to the real wounds that lie beneath.  Problems covered up by Band-Aid solutions aren’t protected from bruises (obstacles) or bullies (opposition) or even “bacterial infections from within” (inefficiencies).  Without using other resources to help treat or cure the problem, temporary solutions remain just that.  Band-Aid solutions only cover up the real issue; although they may make the problem appear fixed by absorbing its initial symptoms, they do not protect or prevent the wound in the first place—nor were they meant to.

Immigration Clinic

So where does that leave us when the wounds we deal with impact people’s daily lives?  What do we do when Band-Aid solutions just aren’t working anymore?

We go beyond the Band-Aid.

LUCHA wants to offer more than Band-Aid solutions to the variety of issues surrounding immigration, not least legal affairs.  That’s why LUCHA is in the process of becoming recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).  [For more information on that, read our previous blog post.]  At a recent weekend conference hosted by the Baptist General Association of Virginia, LUCHA founders Greg and Sue Smith explained why providing legal aid is more than a Band-Aid approach to ministry.  “We were really moved by this [concept]” stated Sue Smith, “Legal aid is a practical, tangible, immediate way to show the love of Jesus Christ to our immigrant neighbors.”

20160430_135432
Greg Smith representing LUCHA Ministries at the BGAV Mission Matters Conference on April 30, 2016

To the 12 attendees at LUCHA’s breakout session at the BGAV’s Mission Matters Conference, it was evident that the Smiths are really passionate about getting this information out to as many people as possible.  If you are interested in legal aid ministry, or just basic immigration law and practice, LUCHA will be hosting a 40-hour Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training seminar in partnership with World Relief Immigration Legal Services on October 10-14th this year at Manassas Baptist Church in Manassas, VA.  For more information, feel free to contact us or follow this link to register.

Immigration Legal Services Taking "Welcoming the Stranger" a Step Farther

On April 15th, LUCHA submitted the paperwork to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals requesting recognition that will allow us to open an Immigration Legal Services office.  As a BIA-recognized agency, LUCHA Ministries will have the capacity to offer low-cost immigration legal services by assisting qualifying immigrants applying for an immigration legal benefit, by providing counsel on
immigration legal matters, and by representing immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security.

LUCHA Ministries Immigration Legal Services will serve immigrants applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); Temporary Protective Status (TPS); Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS); and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA)[1].  Additional services may include assistance with family-based petitions and other means for seeking legal status in the U.S.

The services LUCHA Ministries has provided to immigrants through the years are based on Matthew 25:35-36. We’ve welcomed immigrants in our community by providing food and clothing, facilitating opportunities for fellowship and personal growth, helping people obtain medical and dental care, and visiting them in ICE detention and jail.  And now, we’re taking our commitment to serve the immigrant community one step farther by beginning an Immigration Legal Services Program. “I assure you that when you have welcomed the stranger, one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” says Jesus in this passage.  And when Jesus talks about welcoming the stranger, it’s based on personal experience. Jesus was once a refugee, taken as a child to another country to escape persecution and certain death. His family was seeking asylum..

Immigration Clinic

The lack of legal status keeps people living in fear.  Maria* frantically called an American friend on her cell phone on the way to church one evening.  “There’s a police car that’s been following me, and it into the church parking lot when I did!”, she said.  Maria’s friend went outside to meet her at the car and walk inside the church with Maria and her two sons.  Maria, who is undocumented and does not have a drivers’ license, was trembling with fear and began sobbing by the time she entered the church.  While she has lived in the U.S. for over 14 years and never committed any crimes or had traffic violations, she lives in fear of being stopped and deported.

The lack of legal status prevents people from obtaining better, more stable jobs to provide for their families.   Ana,* a single mom with three children, had worked at the same fast-food restaurant for 5 years and made $9.50 per hour.  When she became pregnant, she worked as long as possible, but had to quit her job right before the baby was born.  When she returned to work two months later, she was re-hired at minimum wage, $7.25.  She was told that there was “significant turn-over” of the staff and that all personnel were new — and employed at the $7.25 “entry level” rate.  Ana didn’t have a valid work permit, and she felt lucky to have a job.

The lack of legal status promotes distrust of authority and discourages integration into community life.  Jose’s* neighbor was pounding on his door late one night.  “There’s an intruder in my apartment with a knife, threatening to kill us all!” the neighbor said.  “Please call 911!”  But when the police arrived, they went to Jose’s apartment and asked to see his ID.  They began questioning Jose about his legal status rather than searching for the intruder, who had fled the area and was loose in the neighborhood.

With over 11 million undocumented persons living in the U.S., not all qualify for an immigration benefit, or in other words, have the ability to “become legal.”  But many are like Maria, Ana, and Jose, trying to carve out a better life in the United States for themselves and for their families.  They want to participate in community activities, to earn a living and provide for their children, and to help their neighbors.  And with sound, affordable legal assistance, many can obtain legal status. While many immigrants would agree that they’re living a “better life” simply by being in the United States, legal status is the missing piece that will help them regain a sense of dignity and self-respect, and to fully engage in the life of our communities.

[1] Only if the US Supreme Court issues a favorable ruling for DAPA in June 2016.