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Miami conference tackles immigration issues

Miami conference tackles immigration issues

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Miami conference tackles immigration issues

July 11, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0700}

An e-Review Feature
By John Michael De Marco**

The recent defeat of a controversial immigration bill did little to improve the overall situation of those who would be most affected by the legislation.

But far from the halls of Washington, the Rev. Janet Horman and others continue to advocate for immigrants to receive a fair opportunity to have a good quality of life in the United States.

Horman, pastor of Killian Pines United Methodist Church in the South East District and an immigration attorney, participated in an interethnic dialogue on immigration sponsored in May by Church World Service. Held in Miami, the event came on the heels of efforts in recent years by several United Methodist churches in South Florida to help resettle Haitian and other immigrants or refugees in the area.

Thousands of immigrants and supporters rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in March 2006. United Methodist leaders sent a letter to the U.S. Senate opposing the recent immigration bill that did not pass and calling for genuine reform. A UMNS photo by Rick Reinhard. Photo #07-0622.

Church World Service is a global humanitarian aid agency. The event was one of a national series of interethnic dialogues scheduled nationwide through mid-July. The intent of the gatherings is to provide a forum in which a broad cross section of participants — from immigrant and U.S.-born communities, as well as businesses, labor, social services, government agencies and faith communities — may speak out, listen to each other and generate unified community action on issues affecting immigrants.

In an interview with e-Reivew, Horman said members of a number of churches have voiced concerns about how immigrants are treated, especially those who fall outside the boundaries of current laws and are excluded from any benefits.

“There’s been a lot of attention drawn to the plight of the Haitian community in South Florida,” she said. “There are a large number of immigrants in the Cuban community who are sensitive to the fact that the Haitian community doesn’t have a similar foothold. There’s a fair amount of sensitivity that the plight of those arriving from Haiti is desperate in many cases. They are simply, many times, turned back.”

Horman previously worked in Virginia and helped launch the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s (UMCOR) Justice for Our Neighbors initiative, which helps conferences and districts establish immigration clinics that provide legal assistance. The Florida Conference operates two clinics, one in Orlando and another in Tampa, and a third is planned for the Fort Pierce area.

Horman said one of the reasons she moved back to her native Florida was to help the church strengthen its advocacy and response to immigrants’ needs. She has served on the conference’s refugee and immigration ministry task force and the Haiti/Florida Covenant committee.

The Rev. Deborah McLeod, superintendent of the South East District, invited Horman to attend the recent interethnic conference.

“Once we arrived at the meeting, each person stated their concerns, the issues they really felt needed to be addressed, and began a process of networking,” Horman said.

The issues were then grouped together on poster board, and Horman said participants “huddled up to meet and talk about how the different agencies, organizations and persons with immigration experience could begin to strategize together.”

The gathering’s main focus was the now-defunct legislation that was making its way through the U.S. Congress at the time. Horman said it was so problematic there was little consensus on whether it was “better than nothing.”

The proposed measure was a response to lingering problems with immigration laws rooted in the latter 1990s and the beginning of this decade, according to Horman. She said changes in the law removed options for undocumented immigrants to pay a fine and establish their status, effectively barring them from returning to the United States for many years if they were discovered.

“They couldn’t adjust in the country, and they couldn’t leave because they’d be barred from re-entering,” Horman explained. “Their option was to stay under the radar. The numbers have been building and building of people who have no way to get out of the mess they were in.”

The result, Horman said, is people afraid to send their children to school, to call the police if they are victimized, to report crimes happening in their neighborhood.

“People become afraid of those protections we have in our society,” she added.

In response, Horman said, there’s been a cry for legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants, “who are doing jobs that us people don’t want to do and thus their presence is benefiting us,” to become legal.

“There’s been a rallying cry from religious communities and other civil activist groups to say it’s not fair, it’s not good for society, it’s not good for the next generation because their children are not raised with the opportunity to go to college or get out of the cycle of poverty,” she said.

The other side of the coin, Horman asserted, is people who are misinformed about immigrants and the issues associated with the current situation or misled by scare tactics or simply tired of the overcrowding in large urban areas.

“You basically had the legislators trying to settle (between) those who felt hostile toward the immigrant communities and those who felt they needed more opportunities,” she said. “The people in Congress were trying to come up with something to make everyone happy, and what they came up with was a real mess.”

Participants at the interethnic conference also expressed concern about new federal immigration fees for various services and benefits needed by newcomers to the United States that go into effect July 30.

“The costs are just horrendous. They’ve tripled in some cases,” Horman said. “When you have a family of four, you’re talking about $4,000 just for the application itself, and usually there’s an attorney needed on top of that. It becomes a $10,000 or more cost to people.”

Even if some churches offer free immigration clinics to help with the paperwork, Horman said many immigrants will not be able to afford to apply for the immigration benefits they are entitled to receive under the law.

The gathering in Miami also addressed the backlog on naturalization applications, day laborers experiencing physical attacks and the need for temporary protective status for the Haitian community, a Department of Homeland Security designation for immigrants from countries mired in political turmoil. People with such protective status can work, pay taxes and receive a driver’s license, for example.

Horman said her church hopes to begin an immigration clinic like those offered through the Justice for Our Neighbors program, perhaps in conjunction with the conference’s South East District. The clinic would focus first on helping people complete the necessary documents to qualify for newly granted immigration benefits. Horman said it is easiest to train church volunteers on how to fill out one particular form and the documents that must be attached.

“It’s the broader issues and figuring out what loopholes people might fit through that get pretty complicated,” she added.

In the meantime, Horman urges United Methodists in Florida to get connected with the Justice for Our Neighbors clinics in Orlando and Tampa. In addition, she said people must speak up when they hear immigrants becoming the victims of hostile talk and language.

“Every time someone blames a certain segment of the population or ethnic group or makes comments that add to an air of hostility, United Methodist Christians can say, ‘That’s not been my experience with that community,’ or ‘I’m offended by the way you talk about them,’ or ‘I know I would never want that job of picking beans,’ ” Horman said.

Horman also encourages United Methodists to talk with friends and neighbors of other ethnicities, as well as the pastors of their churches, to learn about their needs and experiences.

“The pastors and lay persons of our ethnic churches are a valuable resource,” she said. “And we need to be listening and hearing and finding out what it’s like as they seek to live and serve the church in this conference.”


This article relates to Church and Society.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a commissioned minister of the Florida Conference and a freelance writer, speaker and consultant.