Editor’s Note: Additional immigration legal staff are a critical need. As part of #GivingTuesday2016, Icel Rodriquez, director of Global Missions, announced the conference will provide up to $10,000 in matching grant funds to South Florida's Justice for Our Neighbors through Dec. 31, 2016. Combined with a $5,000 matching fund donation still remaining from another contribution, a $50 donation will become $150 during this time. If you’d like to donate, please click here.
She remembered meeting a group of Haitian ministers. “It was kind of heart wrenching,” said Rev. Janet Horman. Today, Janet is executive director of South Florida’s Justice for Our Neighbors (SF-JFON). “To hear the Haitian pastors say how really desperate their congregations were for an immigration ministry,” she said, kept her mindful of the plea for several years.
The ordained pastor with a law degree described the horrifying images she witnessed on cable television in January 2010. That was the year an earthquake, registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, struck the country of Haiti, a few miles outside the capital city of Port-Au-Prince. Left with few resources and living in tent cities, many fled to Miami.
|Rev. Janet Horman gives one of her clients a newly minted green card, showing legal U.S. residency, during a service at Redland Community UMC.|
“It was emotionally devastating. It was financially devastating, and people didn’t know where to turn,” said Horman.
“One of the first people I met was a woman who was visiting in South Florida from Haiti. She was on vacation at the time of the earthquake,” she said, “and she lived as a staff person in an orphanage.” Horman described the grief this woman felt when all 53 children she cared for in the orphanage had lost their lives in the quake.
“It was stories like that…made me realize, and us realize, that the church could do something.”
Working under the Branches umbrella, an outreach ministry in Miami-Dade, she helped form a Haitian emergency assistance and legal aid group called Project HEAL. It was the beginning of Janet’s relationship with South Florida immigrants and her return to the court system, immigration law and a complex and shadowed world not easily defined, after six years serving as full-time pastor at Killian Pines UMC.
The South Florida version of JFON was formed in 2014 to provide pro bono legal services in South Miami. Local Methodist churches in the area, Redland Community UMC, FUMC Homestead, Cornerstone and the UM mission at Florida City’s Branches, provide monthly clinics where potential clients form lines, clutching legal forms and other paperwork looking for answers and hope. Many seek green cards to show legal residency or other assistance. It’s often a tenuous struggle to keep families together.
“The cases can be extremely time-consuming,” Horman said. According to SF-JFON’s website, the average immigration case, assuming there are no legal entanglements, has attorneys billing up to $5,000 in fees. She considers herself fortunate to be supported by the church and not having to bill clients. Horman currently works out of the Perrine Peters campus of Cornerstone UMC in Cutler Bay.
“It’s not uncommon for typical applications (for a visa) to take seven months to a year,” she said. Horman described a world of South Florida immigration courts filled with non-English speaking clients, some who “had never ridden on an elevator,” coming and going and waiting up to three years for a case to be settled. Their lives remain in seemingly permanent limbo, many living in fear of being deported with little warning.
|Roland Robinson, a lawyer assisting SF-JFON part-time, provides advice to clients needing legal assistance with his wife, Sandy Paredes-Robinson, translating. Nationally, JFON serves more than 3,500 clients annually.|
“In my life, I see my primary vocation as being a pastor and the law as being a tool to help me be a pastor in a way, I believe, all of us are called to serve the communities and our country and our nations around the world,” she said.
With contributions from the Florida Conference and South East District, Janet Horman’s role has transcended from part-time pastor in a church to a full-time legal counselor.
“JFON is a beacon of hope for the immigrant community in South Florida,” said Icel Rodriguez, director of Global Missions at the Florida Conference. She remembered coming to this country in 1999 with “uncertainty and fear of the unknown” and receiving assistance from an immigration attorney.
“JFON was the instrument God used to help us carry our heavy load through those difficult days,” she said.
In what Horman termed a personal reflection on the SF-JFON website, she shares about her 20 years practicing immigration law and the day she observed a group of (legally) unrepresented mothers that looked “dazed, frightened and utterly lost” inside a courtroom. To her, most appeared unable to read the documents placed before them.
“Since immigration law violations are considered to be civil and not criminal,” she reported, "immigration courts are not provided counsel if they cannot afford such help.” She added that they’re often given a list of free or low-cost attorneys, but most Miami non-profit waiting lists extend beyond 500 people.
“Our caseload is full, too,” she said. “Every week, we receive calls from people desperate for help.”
--Doug Long is managing editor of the Florida Conference.