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Despite immigration debate leaders press forward with clinics

Despite immigration debate leaders press forward with clinics

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Despite immigration debate leaders press forward with clinics

Aug. 25, 2006    News media contact: Tita Parham* 
800-282-8011    Orlando {0536}

NOTE: See related article “Ministry to immigrants reaches one-year mark with plans to expand,” e-Review FUMNS #0535.

An e-Review Feature
By Tita Parham

ORLANDO — Despite the uncertainty surrounding immigration reform and how that might affect church ministries to immigrants, leaders in the Florida Conference plan to continue offering an immigration clinic begun a little more than a year ago, plus additional ones being developed.

The clinic, called the Refugee and Immigration Counseling Center, has been operating at First United Methodist Church of Pine Hills in Orlando since May 2005. It’s a cooperative effort between local churches in the area, the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry and United Methodist Committee On Relief’s (UMCOR) Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) program. Both the conference and UMCOR provide funding.

Once a month people needing help with a variety of immigration issues — from becoming citizens, to seeking asylum, to reuniting with family members — visit the church, where an immigration lawyer provided by UMCOR provides free legal advice. It’s designed for people who don’t have the resources to hire an attorney on their own, and its goal is to provide accurate legal information so people can make informed choices about how to proceed at whatever stage of the legal process they find themselves. Since the session in July the clinic has helped about 75 people.

The next step is to open a clinic in Tampa in September. Another one will be launched in the Ft. Pierce area in the near future.

The debate among legislators that has caused concern for clinic organizers is how enforcement-heavy immigration reform should be. The House favors stronger penalties; the Senate approves of legislation that is more comprehensive, offering immigrants paths to citizenship.

Sondra Wheeler (left) professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., Kelly Ray-West (center) and Ruth Balderas, both from First United Methodist Church, Hyattsville, Md., join the March 27 protest against the immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives but eventually rejected by the Senate. The rally of religious and community leaders drew 4,000, including 50 United Methodist clergy. The House bill would have made it illegal to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants. A UMNS photo by Magdalena Balderas, Photo #06-427. Web photo only.

For the religious community the most worrisome piece of legislation has been a specific section in The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437) passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last December. It went before the Senate in March and did not pass, but was the catalyst for the current debate. Several sections were troubling to leaders within The United Methodist Church, as well as those of other denominations, because of the language used and the uncertainty of how it might be interpreted by law enforcement agencies. Section 202 of the bill made it illegal to “assist, encourage, direct, or induce” a person to come to, enter or remain in the United States.

At issue was what the word assist really meant and how broadly it could be enforced. Depending on the interpretation, individuals providing assistance through such hospitality ministries as food and shelter after a hurricane, health and legal clinics, food banks, and homeless shelters could be considered in violation of the law and prosecuted.

That provision was removed from subsequent proposals in part because of protests from the faith community and immigrant groups, but legislators have not yet been able to approve a final bill. Whether or not that provision will be included in whatever finally does pass is not certain.

When HR 4437 went before the Senate for a vote the Rev. Marilyn Beecher asked the clinic’s planning team and volunteers how they felt about the contentious provision and the possibility of being in violation of the law if they participated in the clinic’s work. Beecher, a Church and Community Worker from the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) and director of outreach for the East Central District, has been providing support and leadership to help the clinic get up and running.

Beecher said the volunteers told her they felt that offering the clinic was “a call from God” and they would be willing to continue serving “not defiantly, but prayerfully.”

The Rev. Dr. Larry Rankin, director of the conference’s Global Missions and Justice Ministries office, agrees with that assessment. “My impression is that, come what may, we’ll continue until we’re told not to.” He concedes the conference does not advocate breaking the law, however. “If the law is that any kind of contact with people of questionable definition regarding their status is against the law, we’d have to close down,” he said.

There’s disagreement among leaders regarding the likelihood section 202 in the original bill will resurface.

Panravee Vongjaroenrat, the immigration lawyer from UMCOR’s JFON program who has been helping the team set up the clinic and meets with its clients most every month, is concerned. Although many senators voted in favor of a compromise between enforcement and ways for immigrants already in the country to become citizens, Vongjaroenrat is worried they may “yield their position” to the “many anti-immigration voices” in the House if they don’t hear from people in support of comprehensive reform. “The best possible thing would be no agreement … better than what we have now,” she said.

Beecher doesn’t believe that part of the original bill “will come back.” She says she’s more concerned about a final bill including stiffer penalties for immigrants and a tightening of security, which will cause “more living in fear” among immigrants.

“It’s important to protect our borders and have policies, but it seems like many provisions of the law at this moment are very harsh,” she said.

If there are significant changes in the final bill she said it will be very important for the clinic to respond to questions from clients so they can make the right choices as they move forward in their legal process.

Judith Pierre-Okerson (right), chair of the conference's refugee and immigration ministry, updates delegates attending the annual conference event in Lakeland last June about the work of the clinic and recognizes the Revs. Marilyn Beecher (left) and Steve Nolan, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Pine Hills, the location of the Orlando immigration clinic, for their efforts in helping set up the clinic. Photo by Caryl Kelley, Photo #06-428.

Judith Pierre-Okerson agrees that particular provision will likely not affect the clinics and their work, but she says everyone who cares about the issues “should be very concerned.”

Pierre-Okerson, who lives in Miramar and serves as chairwoman of the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry team, said it has been months since the original House bill was presented to the Senate and there are fewer reports of deportations and arrests of immigrations, but “it does happen and is still happening.” She said she was recently told about a Haitian father in her area who was deported to Haiti, leaving his family behind. “I’m more concerned for people and their livelihood when heads of families are being deported,” she said.

And with limited resources, she says the clinics “can’t help everyone we’d like to.”

Reaction to and details regarding the original House bill are included in “Immigration reform bill has potential to jeopardize church ministries,” e-Review FUMNS #459 at


This article relates to Outreach Ministries and Church and Society.

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