Directors Visit Southeast Dallas Cooperative Parish, Learn About Immigration Issues
Directors visited the Umphress Road United Methodist Church in Southeast Dallas to hear about the legal work Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) was doing on behalf of poor immigrants in the Dallas area. They also learned about the Southeast Dallas Cooperative Parish and its ministries in the community.
The visit was part of the Women’s Division semiannual board meeting taking place in Plano, Texas, at Christ United Methodist Church, March 15-19, 2012.
Justice for Our Neighbors
JFON is a ministry for immigrants founded by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in 1999. It provides free, high-quality immigration legal services, education and advocacy, and “serves as a bridge between the native and immigrant communities.”
There are 32 JFON legal clinics in 13 states, with four in the north and central Texas region. Both the North Texas and the Central Texas Conferences of The United Methodist Church financially support the local JFON.
The North-Central Texas regional attorney for JFON, Mary Beth Garcia, told directors of the challenges of gaining legal immigrant and naturalization statuses for poor immigrants. For Mexican immigrants wanting legal assistance once they’re inside the United States, this can happen almost instantly.
“Immigrants and refugees are especially vulnerable to unscrupulous predators,” she said, especially “notarios,” known in the United States as notary public. In Mexico, a notario is a well-respected lawyer of the community, so new Mexican immigrants go to the notary public thinking that because it says “notary” they are also legitimate and respected institutions.
On the contrary, “a notario in the United States will charge large fees for processing immigration papers but often do not know the law or the correct way to process them,” Ms. Garcia said. These notarios have no accountability structure for reporting shoddy service, so often there is no consequence for the business or any way of getting money back.
When it turns out the immigrants wasted their money for nothing and the threat of deportation is serious, immigrants come to JFON to help them out of their legal predicaments.
Ms. Garcia shared one such story with the group. Ana was an immigrant adopted by her grandparents when she was 9 years old. Her grandparents both had green cards, and Ana was on a waiting list for 7 years to receive hers.
The week of her green card interview, she came to the JFON office in tears. Her grandfather had been sexually abusing her for years. She had told no one and was ashamed. Since she was applying for her green card through her grandfather’s petition, he needed to be at the interview, but interviews often ask questions of sexual abuse.
JFON helped her by appearing with her at her interview, explaining the situation, and facilitated an extension to file a self-petition. Ana received her green card in 2007.
JFON in the North-Central Texas region faces many similar cases, where the Violence Against Women Act allows self-petitions after circumstances of abuse, Ms. Garcia said. “We often deal with cases related to domestic violence and, unfortunately, the sexual abuse of children.”
JFON in Dallas is working toward becoming more ecumenical, including working with surrounding churches and refugee resettlement organizations in the area. Ms. Garcia, serving as regional attorney but also as ad-hoc executive director of the North-Central Texas regional JFON, services more than 200 families a year, she said.
Southeast Dallas Cooperative Parish
Directors also heard from pastors from the Southeast Dallas Cooperative Parish, which includes three churches in the region: Umphress Road United Methodist Church, Pleasant Mound-Urban Park United Methodist Church and St. Marks United Methodist Church (UMC). All churches are working on social justice and mission-based initiatives to help their communities thrive.
Umphress Road UMC hosted the event for directors and is the first Filipino church in Texas. The current membership of the congregation is very diverse, with Filipino, Latino, African-American and Anglo members, explained senior pastor the Rev. Levy Laguardia, who is Filipino. All work together to support a senior citizen’s nutrition program in partnership with the Dallas County Older Adults Program. The church also houses a community garden that is grown to support the Pleasant Grove Food Pantry in Dallas, serving 120 families and 4,000 pounds of food every week, said Mr. Laguardia.
Pleasant Mound-Urban Park UMC, led by the Rev. Annelda Crawford, shared the work her congregation was doing. They provide space for the Nova Academy Charter School, which has 240 students in grades K-6. They also house the North-Central Texas JFON, where Ms. Garcia works. Project Transformation is a year-round afterschool and summer program for grades 1-9 to develop reading and math skills, for which the church provides space and volunteer support.
St. Marks UMC has coat and school supply drives for the Mesquite, Texas, school district, providing 300 coats annually to five schools for needy students, said the church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Jackye Waiters-Lee.
Ms. Waiters-Lee shared how grateful she was to have the opportunity to meet with directors and share the parish’s work. “God blesses us to be a blessing to others,” she said, noting, “it is a blessing to see small membership churches engaging in community with such force. We don’t have to stay in isolation when we’re connected.”