Immigrants Find Legal Help at Clinic
A UMNS Story
*by Barry Simmons
April 9, 2009—The 18-year-old woman in Katherine Esquivel's office is hunched over the table and nervously wringing her hands. She speaks almost no English and hesitates to utter the few words she does know.
Police arrested her during a recent raid at a Chattanooga, Tenn., poultry plant, where she had been working illegally for five years. She now faces deportation back to Guatemala. Her only chance of staying in the United States sits across the table from her in this spare room at Belmont United Methodist Church.
"What we're doing today is preparing her for testimony," explains Esquivel, a Harvard-trained volunteer attorney for Justice for Our Neighbors, a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief that provides free legal help to immigrants.
Her client fled Guatemala as a child to escape a sexually abusive father. Now a single mother, she fears the life that awaits her if she's forced to return. Together, she and Esquivel are preparing for a hearing in Memphis where they will ask a judge to grant her political asylum.
"There are a lot of workers who don't have a lawful claim to stay in the United States," Esquivel says. "But some of the workers like our client here have very important and valid claims to be in the U.S."
Esquivel's client is lucky: most in her situation could never afford an attorney to prepare a case like this for them. Spring Miller, another volunteer, estimates a private attorney might charge as much as $10,000 for an asylum case.
"These are cases that, if you leave them to the free market, will never be picked up by anyone - or they won't be done at all," she explains.
Frustrated by Red Tape
Some who come to the clinics for help, like Java Nehhemmat, have been living in the United States for over a decade, frustrated by their inability to cut through the red tape.
"I don't know what I need to do to be here, so the help is - it just means more than anything else," says Nehhemmat, who is waiting to receive a green card.
"There are so many immigrants in this country who are working hard and want that American dream just like the rest of the citizens here," she adds. "And JFON is a window that can bring those resources to immigrants like me."
Danny Upton, who is a national program attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors, says the program exists primarily for the most vulnerable immigrants, who have fled their countries seeking refuge from domestic abuse or religious or political persecution.
"It's an opportunity for us to translate our faith and our moral and religious convictions into actions - into service," he points out.
The ministry provides an array of services to immigrants, which includes guiding them through the citizenship process and reuniting them with family members. But, as often as not, volunteers must explain to some clients that there are simply no legal options available for them to stay in the United States.
"Even that information - 'No, you're not eligible to apply for permanent residence' - that's really empowering, important information for somebody to have," says Susan Reed, another volunteer. "It protects that person from being the victim of an unscrupulous attorney."
Laws More Complex
As laws affecting immigration have grown more and more complex, the need among immigrants for legal help has grown. Justice For Our Neighbors started 10 years ago with just one clinic. The clinic in Nashville, which opened in April 2008, is the 25th clinic related to the program.
"I knew there were people out there who needed a lot of help, but I had no idea how touching it was to hear about these folks and what they're having to go through," says Kathryn Spry, a volunteer at the Nashville clinic.
"There's just so much abuse, so much misunderstanding - and just to be able to clear up some of that has been a blessing," she adds.
Esquivel tells her client that receiving political asylum is a long shot. The odds are always stacked against the defendant in cases like these. But she also knows the system, and most importantly, how to guide her client through it.
"Immigration court is difficult," Esquivel says. "But we're hopeful and we're confident that she has a strong claim. We believe in her and we'll keep fighting for her."
JFON, a ministry of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), offers free legal assistance to sojourners who are trying to navigate the complex immigration process as it affects their lives in the US. Based in the Methodist tradition of the Five Points Mission that served immigrants in New York City in the 1850's, JFON partners with annual conferences and local congregation to welcome the stranger. Your gift to UMCOR Advance #901285 will help immigrants reunite with their families.
*Simmons is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.