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Ministry to immigrants reaches one-year mark with plans to expand

Ministry to immigrants reaches one-year mark with plans to expand

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Ministry to immigrants reaches one-year mark with plans to expand

Aug. 25, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0535}

NOTE: See related article “Despite immigration debate leaders press forward with clinics,” e-Review FUMNS #0536. NOTE: A headshot of Beecher is available at

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

ORLANDO — While Congress has been debating immigration reform Florida Conference churches and leaders have been helping immigrants deal with one of their greatest challenges — navigating through the maze of immigration laws.

A clinic begun last year in Orlando has been offering free legal advice to help immigrants tackle a variety of legal issues related to their status and that of their families. This fall the conference plans to launch a second clinic in Tampa, and a third will open in the Fort Pierce area in the near future.

Called the Refugee and Immigration Counseling Center, the Orlando clinic has been operating since May 2005 at First United Methodist Church of Pine Hills, also home to Berea United Methodist Church, a Haitian congregation that meets there.

It’s a cooperative effort between the area’s local churches, the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry and United Methodist Committee On Relief’s (UMCOR) Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) program. The goal is to help people who can’t afford a lawyer or legal services take the next step in their legal process.

Once a month people needing help with everything from becoming citizens and legal residents to seeking asylum and reuniting with family members meet at the church, where an immigration lawyer provided by UMCOR offers legal advice. They sign in, go through a lengthy series of questions with a volunteer, then meet with the attorney.

About nine to 12 people visit the clinic each month. They’re typically a combination of new clients and those needing additional assistance after their initial visit. It takes hours to go through the process, and it’s not uncommon for the clinic, which begins at 6 p.m., to end around 11 p.m.

Rev. Marilyn Beecher

Under the direction of the Rev. Marilyn Beecher, a Church and Community Worker from the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and director of outreach for the conference’s East Central District, and Renda Carter, chair of the local JFON team, a coalition of about nine United Methodist churches provided support to get the clinic up and running. Those located in Central Florida provide the volunteers needed for each monthly clinic. They make copies, prepare files, provide child care and refreshments when needed, and anything they can do to let people know the clinic is there.

Beecher says most of the volunteers are from the district’s Haitian and Hispanic United Methodist churches and recent immigrants who are “turning around to be in ministry with their brothers and sisters in the community who they know are in need.”

So far, the clinic has helped about 75 people, most of whom heard about it from their pastors or friends. Recognizing legal help with immigration issues is one of the greatest needs in their congregations and communities, Haitian and Hispanic pastors and leaders helped the conference identify the JFON program as a viable solution.

“It’s been wonderful to see people from different ethnic backgrounds, different churches, come together for a common cause of serving people with the love of Christ,” Beecher said.

Helping those without other options

On the night last October when Tom Mills, a lawyer with UMCOR’s JFON program, filled in for fellow lawyer Panravee Vongjaroenrat, who typically meets with the clinic’s clients, Mills saw mostly Haitians and Cubans who needed help renewing work permits, filling out green card applications and applying for asylum. At the Orlando clinic he attended prior to that he worked with people from Haiti, Trinidad, Jamaica, Costa Rica and other Caribbean countries.

Beecher says most of the clients who visit the clinic are “very poor.” The goal is to help people who don’t have the resources to hire an immigration attorney. If they do, they are referred to other sources. Many have already registered in the system, but have never heard back from officials, or have been waiting in the process and don’t know how to proceed. Some have been working toward citizenship for years.

Clinic volunteers have seen clients who lived in New Orleans and lost all their belongings and legal paperwork during Hurricane Katrina, then had to start the process of gaining permanent residency all over again. Others have fled their countries and are seeking political asylum after seeing family members killed back home by the prevailing political group or having been caught in the gunfire themselves.

Typically, the only cases the clinic doesn’t handle are those in which a client’s employer is applying for a visa from the U.S. Department of Labor on behalf of the client, a process with its own funding sources. Additionally, because Vongjaroenrat, the primary lawyer working with the clinic now, does not live in the Central Florida area some cases needing immediate attention are referred to other organizations, like Catholic Charities, which provides immigration services. 

While not all clients are documented, Beecher says many are and are working with the clinic to take the necessary steps to proceed, at whatever point in the process they find themselves. “The reality is folks are here in our community, so if there are ways for them to get a card and become official then that will benefit them and the whole community,” she said. “We’re trying to let the church be a place to help people find accurate information.”

The conference is following “biblical principles of offering hospitality, shelter to people who are here,” according to the Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of the conference’s Global Missions and Justice Ministries office.

“We’re not talking about helping people cross the border,” he said, “but once they’re here, what do these people do?” Rankin says the clinic is trying to help people become legal “through an acceptable process that the legal system in the United States offers.”

The Rev. Janet Horman categorizes the clinic as being “in the business of letting everyone know if there are legal options.”

Horman is an immigration attorney, pastor at Killian Pines United Methodist Church in Miami and a member of the clinic’s planning team.

“Currently, there are undocumented people who seek help, but they have a legal way to become documented,” she said, adding the clinic is there to give them that information.

Renda Carter (right), chair of the local Justice For Our Neighhbors team, goes through an intake questionnaire with a client at the Orlando immigration clinic before he meets with an immigration lawyer. Photo by Tita Parham, Photo #06-426.

But getting information and completing the legal process can take a lot of time and depends on the complexity of each person’s case. Clients first have to work with the attorney to identify and complete the proper forms. Then there’s the wait while forms are being processed at the local immigration center. Beecher cited an Orlando Sentinel article that reported Orlando’s immigration center has one of the highest backlogs of cases in the country.

So when four clients at the July clinic were able to complete their paperwork and have it reviewed by the attorney that evening, with just the check to write in order to file the documents, it was cause for celebration. “The last clinic was just amazing,” Beecher said.

One of the clients was a Haitian woman who has permanent residency in the United States, but two small children living in Haiti. She just needed to complete the necessary paperwork and file it in order to bring her children to Central Florida. The clinic was able to “do the whole thing in one night,” according to Beecher.

“When we handed her the envelope (completed documents), she just started sobbing,” Beecher said, because she knew she would be reunited with her children fairly quickly.

Beecher estimates the clinic has been able to help about 45 percent of its clients take the next step, “whatever the next step was for them.”

Helping people from becoming ‘prime targets’

The clinic also helps people get accurate information so they don’t fall victim to lawyers and groups trying to make a profit off their ignorance of the law.

“There are lots of lawyers and organizations that promise help, and because people are desperate they are charged huge amounts of money,” Beecher said.

Vongjaroenrat says many lawyers are spending too little time with clients and offering bad advice, either because caseloads are high or they just want to make a fast buck. She said in a “great many cases” she has seen “asylum seekers that have not been fully informed and educated.”
Mills says some lawyers capitalize on rumors about laws that might pass and tell clients certain laws have passed when they have not. Others have gone so far as refusing to turn paperwork over to their clients as a way to extort more money from them. “If they pay more, they get their papers,” he said. “They play on people’s fears of being turned in.”

Mills said for many clients, getting help from the church “makes them feel safe for the first time.”

The next step

The plan has always been that the ministry would eventually hire its own lawyer, someone to serve as director of the first clinic and one or two others. In Orlando, UMCOR provided start-up assistance, including training for volunteers and a lawyer to help organize the clinic and meet with clients each month. The local team has been responsible for purchasing the necessary supplies and recruiting volunteers. Beyond a director’s salary it costs about $5,000 a year to run a clinic.

Now, the ministry is ready to move beyond the program-building and organizational stage to the next phase — hiring a director, an immigration lawyer, to oversee the Orlando and Tampa sites and eventually the one that will open in the Ft. Pierce area.

Of 30 applicants screened by the local team, three were interviewed. “We really had a broad group of people to choose from,” Beecher said. “We felt we had good choices.”

Beecher said the team felt “really called to focus on immigration issues” when looking at the experience and backgrounds of potential candidates. Beecher gave them an overview of the program, and Vongjaroenrat explained the legal issues the clinic addresses. Brenda Connelly, an executive secretary with GBGM’s Church and Community Workers ministry, conducted the interviews. Beecher expects to learn very soon from Connelly who she recommends. Once that happens the individual will meet with the conference refugee and immigration ministry team so both can decide if it’s a good fit for everyone.

The ministry team is also the sponsoring organization, providing a portion of the salary, housing and utilities. GBGM will provide the rest of the salary and benefits, with the lawyer designated a Church and Community Worker. Beecher says the money the conference must provide will come from “lots of different places,” including a start-up grant that was initially designated for a farm worker project following a disaster years ago and re-designated to help with this new ministry. “We are also looking at grant funds through local bar associations and local church support,” she said. Each new clinic will need to recruit its own volunteers.

The newest clinic is scheduled to open in September in Tampa at Faith Community Haitian United Methodist Mission. The Revs. Donna Ratzlaff, director of the United Methodist Cooperative Ministries of St. Petersburg, and Tamara Isidore, pastor of the Haitian mission, are leading the local planning team, a coalition of churches in the conference’s Gulf Central and South Central districts. Like the Orlando clinic it will focus on providing clients with information about their legal options, as well as referrals to other community resources, such as housing assistance and English language classes. Eventually the clinics will also focus on advocacy and educating churches about community issues related to immigrants and refugees. Beecher said getting the clinics up and running has “been an intense effort,” leaving little time to work on other goals.

“The hardest thing is knowing the needs are so massive,” she said. “ … staying focused to make a difference with people we can serve.”


This article relates to Outreach Ministries and Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.