UMCOR / Our Work / Immigration and Refugees / History

UMCOR, Refugees and Immigrants

An Afghan girl waits on at the Jalozai refugee camp near Peshawar for relocation by the UN to a camp closer to the Afghan border.Credit: Paul Jeffrey

The very heart of UMCOR's first incarnation in 1940 was refugee ministry. From that day to the present, the faith and compassion of local United Methodist churches has made possible an ongoing ministry to refugees-a warm welcome to the people of each era who were forced to flee their homelands. These included Hungarians, Indonesians, Czechs, Haitians, Chileans, Ethiopians, Cubans, Afghans, Iranians, Vietnamese Cambodians, Hmong from Laos, Romanians, South Africans, Ukrainians, Russians, Bosnians, Kosovars from Albania, Kurds, Iraqis, Sudanese, Liberians, Rwandese, Burundians, Congolese, Sierra Leonians, Somalis and Meskhetian Turks.

United Methodist response to government action

The 1980 Refugee Act formalized the US Resettlement program. Incorporated into the law was the Geneva Convention definition of refugee. The legislation established 50,000 as the minimum number of efugees to be admitted to the US for resettlement each year. The law required that refugees be approved in their country of asylum. Upwards of 100,000 refugees, almost all from Indochina, were admitted each year in the early 80s through this program.

Also in 1980 120,000 refugees from Cuba and Haiti arrived on US shores unannounced, in what was known as the Mariel boatlift. UMCOR and local United Methodist churches joined Church World Service and its affiliated denominations in a response offered to these asylum seekers. UMCOR assisted United Methodist churches in Florida to serve post-Mariel Haitians released from detention in 1984.

Other asylum seekers

In the same period refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras sought sanctuary in the US. Although most of them had suffered from the brutality of their governments, they were not "approved" as refugees and most were denied asylum. Some United Methodist churches declared themselves "sanctuary churches." UMCOR offered these churches the same support that was available at that time for churches sponsoring approved refugees. When Nicaraguans fled their country in the late 80s, and there was a need for shelter and support in the border area, an UMCOR Advance Special was created to respond to their needs, and UMCOR asked congregations to advocate on behalf of the "least of these" newcomers.

When President Aristide of Haiti was forced out by a military coup in 1994, refugees began another exodus to the US. They were held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and once they had each demonstrated a "credible fear" if returned, they were paroled into the US on condition they apply for political asylum. UMCOR joined other denominations in contributing funds to meet the high cost of providing legal services to the refugees.

A New Immigration Program: Justice For Our Neighbors

Today, the heart of UMCOR continues to beat for refugees and immigrants. When the Immigration Reform Act of 1996 imposed added burdens on immigrants, UMCOR started a legal Immigration Counseling program in 1999-Justice For Our Neighbors. In 2003, UMCOR incorporated the new Justice for Our Neighbors program into its overall emphasis on justice for both refugee and immigrant, and renamed its refugee program the Refugee and Immigration Ministries.