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In the fight for justice, immigrants are our neighbors

In the fight for justice, immigrants are our neighbors

Social Justice

The Rev. Janet Horman’s young daughter likes to purchase cherry tomatoes in the produce section of their grocery store. Sometimes they are more expensive than others.

This affects the menu for the night, but it also provides Horman a grim explanation regarding the status of undocumented residents in the United States.

“The reason I can usually afford to buy my daughter tomatoes is because we have people bending their backs over, 10 miles from where I live, in the hot sun, getting paid almost nothing,” she said.

Sometimes the workers are abused by their bosses because they are undocumented, but the victims are afraid to file a report.

To Horman, “that’s the sin of many of us who are Christians, to criminalize the people who are doing the work that we don’t want to do ourselves.”

Florida has a population of 656,000 “unauthorized people,” according to the Migration Policy Institute. Recent stories about undocumented children in Texas forcibly separated from their families have had an emotional impact across the globe.

“Many of us who are Christians want to condemn the people who come into the country without papers – doing it illegally, as they say – and we’re ripping their children out of their hands, and we are getting rich because (many undocumented adults) are doing the work that they are doing,” Horman said.

‘Law and ministry’

Horman, an immigration attorney and ordained United Methodist minister, is director of Miami-based Florida Justice For Our Neighbors.

Ordained in 1985, she later decided that having a law degree would help in her quest for justice for those with low incomes.

This Haitian couple just received a Work Authorization Card for their oldest son.

People were asking for help. Some were in deportation proceedings and did not understand why. Others were eligible for citizenship but needed assistance finding the correct immigration forms, and then filling them out.

In 1998 Justice For Our Neighbors was founded in association with Just Neighbors, with help from a United Methodist Committee On Relief grant. Florida JFON’s mission was to provide education, advocacy, and immigration legal services.

The two organizations later became independent of one another but continued to work in partnership.

Horman is a single mother of three adopted children and a native of Plantation. She grew up in Plantation United Methodist Church, but moved to Miami in 2004 and served a church there. After the 2010 Haitian earthquake, she returned to immigration law. She accepted an offer to run Florida JFON in Dade County about five years ago.

Consistent with UMC teachings

Florida JFON’s clients typically are immigrants who want to stay in the United States or to bring family members here. Many come to Miami from Central America and the Caribbean.

They consider living in the United States a better option than returning home. But few find the going easy. They are unintentionally caught in an intense domestic political battle in the United States between at least four groups:

  • People who support immigration on humanitarian grounds;

  • People who want to cap legal – and thwart illegal – immigration for national security purposes;

  • Businesses that hire undocumented residents to work at or below minimum wage and often pay them off the books;

  • Businesses that hire and rely on highly skilled immigrants, many of whom have college degrees. These immigrants have resources from their employment and typically don’t need Florida JFON’s services.

In the immigration debate, the words “justice” and “advocacy” mean different things to different people. On one extreme, people protest, boycott, or get arrested to support a cause. They construct fences around nativity scenes to make a point.

A meeting in Homestead with eight clients, including minors.

Horman respects these organizations’ deep convictions and is quick to remind people that Jesus was a refugee. Florida JFON often focuses on legislation affecting immigration communities consistent with the teachings of the UMC.

Immigration law is not like criminal law. With burglary or assault, for example, the laws governing the offenses and the punishments rarely change. Instead, Horman says, it’s like tax law, complicated and evolving.

It’s legal for people to come to the border without papers and ask for asylum, and many do. But Horman says Florida JFON can’t help unless there is a remedy, a legal solution to the problem.

A Florida JFON attorney’s role is to help clients sort through confusing and sometimes contradictory laws and rules. There are dozens of different types of immigration benefits and classes.

Florida JFON lawyers tell their clients where they stand in terms of making a change to their current status. When the news is bad, they remain encouraging and remind clients that the laws and rules swing like a metronome.

Lilies and poinsettias

A federal law passed in 2001 makes it a misdemeanor to cross the U.S. border without documents. However, the law was not enforced.

Almost 20 years later, though, it’s a common practice for officials to enforce that law as a misdemeanor. When people are found without documents, they may be arrested. Then their families may be separated.

The stricter enforcement can have unintended consequences.

For instance, after undocumented workers flee town following a raid at a meat-packing operation, there are not enough laborers to operate the plant. That leads to economic hardship and forces business owners to regroup. Horman also pointed out that several businesses that grow the Christmas trees and flowers that churches display employ some undocumented labor.

“I know where the Easter lilies come from, and I know who tends them,” she said, concern showing in her voice. “Some businesses may well include undocumented labor. When we get Easter lilies and poinsettias in our churches, we seldom think about those who make it possible.”

Cheap labor

Horman believes countries have a right to determine how many people cross their borders.

“What I don’t think is OK is to have a quiet little secret where we don’t tell people that the reason that you get your strawberries so cheap in a grocery store and your tomatoes so cheap in a grocery store is because – like we always have in this country – we’re using free or cheap or enslaved labor,” she said.

Horman compared the exploitation of undocumented residents today to the plight of Native Americans, African Americans, and child labor workers in factories, who came before them.

“We’re criminalizing, punishing, demeaning, abusing the folks who are making us rich,” she said. “I think that’s where the sin is. We like having people who are undocumented. We just don’t want to admit it.”

Today the National JFON office in Virginia supports 17 affiliate sites across the country in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Together, these sites operate more than 50 clinics, many of which are located in United Methodist churches.

Florida JFON has hired two part-time immigration attorneys, including Orlando lawyer Nicole Leon, who conducts Florida JFON clinics in Central Florida.

Leon represents vulnerable communities in obtaining rightful immigration status or benefits. She had 45 active cases at the end of 2019. A native of Chile, she pursued her own documented immigration status while in a Florida law school after 9/11.

In addition to Miami and Lakeland/Kissimmee, Florida JFON has an operation in Tampa/St. Petersburg, as the organization partners with UMC Suncoast to help people become citizens.

They teach English as a Second Language and civics to people who are eligible for naturalization but also need attorneys to do legal work.

Florida JFON’s long-term vision includes also offering clinics in West Palm Beach and Jacksonville.

Leon encourages churches to host Florida JFON clinics throughout the Conference. Having a staff of volunteers with different skills, from legal work to research to hospitality, is essential, she said.

Horman is available to speak at churches to help members learn more about Justice For Our Neighbors and the neighbors they serve.

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--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.

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