For much of the summer, media reports have been filled with disturbing images and accounts of thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents or other adults at the southern border.
On the campaign trail, immigrants are routinely denounced as dangerous criminals.
In some pockets of the United States—including the White House—anti-immigration sentiment is on proud display.
But in South Florida, a nonprofit ministry of the United Methodist Church is intentionally bucking this trend. Florida Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) is choosing to serve the immigrant population with compassion, love and free legal expertise.
“It’s been a discouraging, frustrating time, but, ultimately, our hope is in God. We know that He is in control,” said Rev. Janet Horman, director of Florida JFON and a long-time immigration attorney.
Florida JFON, which is part of the national JFON network, serves immigrants and their families primarily in southern Miami-Dade County, Homestead and Florida City.
Since 2014, critical volunteers, including interpreters and experienced immigration lawyers, allow the agency to provide a wide range of services including advice and counsel, assistance with family petitions, naturalization, asylum, deportation defense and adjustment of refugee status.
While many of their clients are from Mexico, a large number are now coming from Central America, fleeing countries such as El Salvador and Honduras where gang violence is on the rise.
|JFON takes its services on the road to meet with clients. If your church is interested in hosting the mobile unit for free advice and counsel, email info@FLjfon.org.|
Florida JFON partners with local churches in Florida City and Homestead to host free clinics once a month and started offering an additional monthly clinic in Lakeland in the fall of 2017.
“We are unfortunately so full we have to turn away a lot of people,” Horman said. “We can’t provide for them all.”
In the past two years, Florida JFON’s work has become more challenging and far more urgent, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s hardline stance on illegal immigration as well as his administration’s push to limit legal immigration.
“The immigration laws themselves have not changed drastically, but the protocols and policies have changed,” Horman said.
“In some cases, before this current administration, I was able to give a client an idea of how long a case would take. Now I feel like I’m almost standing on quicksand. Now it’s much harder to predict how a client’s case will turn out.”
Rob Rutland-Brown, executive director of National JFON, agrees. He pointed out that the organization is seeing an increased demand among immigrant and faith communities for presentations that outline an immigrant’s rights and a general understanding of how the legal system works.
“(Immigration law) is complicated and ever-changing,” he said. “And it’s understandable that immigrants are fearful right now.”
The recent family separations, a direct result of the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, were especially difficult for JFON to stomach.
Even after the separations were officially halted June 20, hundreds of children remain detained, unsure if they will be reunited with their families and with cases existing in a complex legal limbo.
“It’s horrific,” Horman said. “Any parent, if their child is snatched from them, they’re going to be beside themselves. It’s just unimaginable how there could be such recklessness.”
Yet Horman and Rutland-Brown refuse to despair. They keep the faith and cherish each success when it comes.
Horman and her team recently celebrated the U.S. citizenship of a Mexican man in his late 30s.
“He was thrilled, and that’s what makes us so happy,” she said. “And it does allow him to potentially bring in a parent.”
At the national JFON office, Rutland-Brown said he’s constantly reminded that there are people out there who love their neighbors. He recently received from a group of children at a United Methodist Church in Mississippi who had raised $515.11 for JFON because they were concerned about the family separations at the border.
“They said they wanted other kids to be with their moms and dads just they’re able to be,” he added. “And I got a letter from a 70-year-old; he and his wife don’t speak much Spanish and they can’t handle any babies or teenagers, but they would be willing to foster an immigrant child who has come across the border and needs to be somewhere safe until they’re reunited with their family.
“We see people come out of the woodwork who feel strongly that they want immigrants to be welcomed. That really keeps me going.”
Horman and Rutland-Brown agree that while financial and volunteer support for JFON is needed, it’s important for individual Methodists to reach out to immigrants in their own communities and be the voice of the church.
“That’s what I want Methodists to do first, build relationships with someone who is hurting,” Horman said. “Get into these difficult conversations with your neighbors and talk to them as much as possible from a faith-based position.”
WANT TO HELP?
Florida JFON needs a wide range of volunteers to help set up clinics, serve as drivers and welcome clients. Volunteer attorneys are needed to provide clients with advice and counsel and free representation. If you’re interested, call 786-470-0302 or go to http://fljfon.org.
—Kari Barlow is a free-lance writer based in Pensacola.