Twenty years ago in October, The United Methodist Church created a ministry called Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON). Founded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), it grew out of that agency’s long-standing commitment to refugees and immigrants, dating to the 1940s.
It also became an affiliate of a similar grassroots agency that originated in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is known as Just Neighbors.
Like JFON, it offers free legal services to low-income immigrant families, advocacy for the rights of immigrants and educational programs to help educate communities of faith and others about the immigration system in the United States and the needs of our immigrant neighbors.
|Maytha, a Jordanian immigrant takes the oath of citizenship. As a citizen, she will have the right to apply for employment to support herself and her two daughters.|
In the 20 years since its founding, JFON has opened 17 offices in 15 states, including two in Florida. And, according to the National JFON website, it had its busiest year in 2018, serving 4,395 new clients from 112 different countries.
Among the milestones compiled in 2018: asylum cases increased by three percent, work to help eligible immigrants become U.S. citizens increased by six percent and the influx of unaccompanied migrant children increased by 13 percent. Overall, JFON nationwide has served approximately 20,000 immigrants, refugees and asylum-seeking neighbors since 2014.
In Florida, the need for JFON’s services is acute, according to Rev. Janet Horman, executive director.
The primary office is in Cutler Bay, a suburb of Miami, and serves low-income immigrants from Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
“We always see a spike in immigrants after a natural disaster such as the earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Dorian the Bahamas,” Horman said.
“For those who have basic needs, like food and shelter, we partner with Church World Services,” she said. “Our primary support comes from UMCOR and United Methodist Women and from the generosity of local churches and private donors.”
Florida JFON began in 2014 as a mission of the South East District.
A Florida native, Horman has a rare combination of skills. She is an ordained pastor in the Florida Annual Conference and has a degree in immigration law.
She is the only full-time immigration attorney in the South Florida office, which relies on grants to help it expand its services. It recently hired a part-time staffer for cases in Central Florida. A second grant led to the hiring of an attorney to help with the South Florida caseload.
Another grant will allow Florida JFON to hire a half-time attorney to assist in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area. An additional three-year grant will allow it to hire an attorney to work full-time on asylum cases.
That is 100 asylum cases a year, and Horman said some have been pending for more than five years.
Unfortunately, because of its limited capacity, Florida JFON can’t represent the families of children detained in the Homestead Detention Center and two other centers that house migrant children.
“In most cases our clients are referred by local pastors,” Horman said, “or their cases arise through intake clinics hosted by local churches.
“At these clinics, lay volunteers screen applicants to see if they have a way forward. If they do, one of our staff or volunteer immigration attorneys gets involved.”
Horman points out that many of the people who come into the U.S. have a better chance of achieving their goals if they have a college degree and/or a green card or work visa.
However, those who are fleeing violence and oppression may not be as fortunate.
“Many are from poorer countries where they may be starving and unable to break the cycle of poverty,” Horman said.
Some of the many complexities of immigration law occur when countries have a quota regarding how many immigrants will be allowed to enter within a given time frame or within a specific category, Horman said.
“For example, the door has already closed on Bahamians seeking refuge from Hurricane Dorian,” she said, “and the timeframe for Haitians entering the U.S. following the devastating earthquake will expire in January.”
Recently Horman helped a 70-plus-year-old woman who is now a naturalized citizen file a petition to have her unmarried daughter join her in the U. S. While the paperwork was approved, Horman had to explain to the mother that her daughter’s name had been placed on a waiting list and would likely remain there for up to 22 years.
Horman said she first became aware of the plight of immigrants and refugees as a child growing up in a United Methodist church in Plantation.
“A missionary came to our church and told a story about how his own son had starved to death,” she said. “I was shocked by these conditions, and I wanted the church to do something. That was when I began to realize that we are called to help the stranger and the marginalized.”
JFON is dependent on volunteer help from individuals and churches.
“We can use all kinds of skills,” Horman said. “We need volunteers to help translate the various languages we see. We need volunteers to help with intake, to screen clients and to fill out legal forms and petitions.
“We need people with business office skills to help us with filing and organization.”
How volunteers can help
As Director of Casework and Constituent Services in the Sunrise office of U. S. Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bettyanne Gallagher, a member of Miramar United Methodist Church, is all too familiar with immigration issues.
“It accounts for about 95 percent of the cases I handle week in and week out,” she said, “I help people apply for federal government services.”
|Our Central Florida Staff Attorney hard at work volunteering her time to help applicants with their citizenship applications at AILA’s National Citizenship Day clinic.|
So when the South Florida office of JFON set up an intake clinic at her church, she was more than happy to help.
For the past two years, Gallagher has been on call to Horman and her staff as a translator, helping to serve the needs of Spanish-speaking clients. She typically works with JFON on weekends and has traveled all over the state to clinics and events.
Born in El Salvador and raised in Guatemala, Gallagher came to this country as a legal immigrant, following family members who immigrated ten years earlier. She applied for and received U. S. citizenship.
“I am proud to be an American,” she said, “and I really believe Americans are kind people who want to help others.”
Gallagher also is proud to attend a multi-cultural church that supports the work of JFON.
“Janet has been a mentor to me,” she said. “I have learned to explore all options available to my clients and then determine which will work best for them. I also have learned to think with my head and not my heart.”
“Some of these stories are simply heartbreaking,” she said, “but I have learned for the sake of the client, to maintain my composure and think things through.”
Edith Zewadski-Bricker, a member of Burton Memorial UMC in Tavernier, is both a volunteer and board member for Florida JFON.
“It is the most professional board I have ever served on,” she said. “It includes many attorneys,” she added. "I admire their professionalism, their sincerity and selflessness.”
She came to JFON through her service to United Methodist Women, where she has served as district president and immediate past president.
Zewadski-Bricker also has the expertise as a fundraiser for non-profit organizations, so her duties in the South Florida office at JFON include compiling donor lists, acknowledging gifts and hand-writing thank-you notes.
“I am in awe of the clients JFON serves,” she said. “They are humble, faithful and hard-working people. They come with a faith system, a love of family and a community spirit.
“They are exactly the kind of people we should want in our country. They have initiative and gumption. I find them patriotic. They love this country.”
—Suzanne McGovern is a freelance writer based in Orlando.
United Methodist Social Principles
Although immigration policy is considered a political hot potato by some, the call to care for one another, including the stranger, is a biblical concept and one of the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church. Here is the social principle from the 2016 edition of the “Book of Discipline,” paragraph 162.H, “The Rights of Immigrants”:
We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, healthcare, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and Society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all. We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.