“Cervantes’ wisdom resonates with me,” says Virginia. “As an advocate, I don’t want to decide who is more “worthy”—is it the 20-year-old mother with a child or the journalist whose life has been threatened?” She shakes her head. “We set a priority of serving people with the most urgent need. Today, in terms of immigration, the people with the most urgent need in the Austin community are those facing removal [deportation].”
Although other JFON sites also serve those in detention facilities or facing imminent deportation, the Austin site has made it a particular focus of their ministry.
Immigrant detention is big business for America’s private prison companies. Photo: Ross D. Franklin.
Virginia’s caseload, meanwhile, includes adults in truly desperate situations: a 19-year-old Cuban political dissident who was kidnapped and raped en route to the U.S.; a Mexican campesino whose father and brothers were murdered because they refused to grow opium; a Christian minister and his family fleeing persecution in Cameroon.
At many of the immigrant detention facilities that dot the Central/South Texas landscape, you will find people who have been, are currently, or will soon be, represented by Virginia and Austin Region JFON.
A fair amount of ARJFON’s referrals come from existing clients or from people who found its name on a list somewhere. But many of its new clients come via other nonprofits that offer immigration legal services in the area.
“In other words,” explains Virginia, “people are calling us after another organization has turned them down.”
A mother sits in a cold detention facility, separated from her children, sick with worry because she has to go before a judge without an attorney by her side.
A teenaged boy yearns for a normal life, free of conflict and violence, but he has no one to guide or help him.
A refugee family struggles to understand our complex immigration laws and navigate a new and sometimes hostile country.
On Christmas, we will tell the story of a baby humbly born, far from home, taking his first breaths in a strange and inhospitable place.
We will tell the story of Mary and Joseph's desperate flight into Egypt, and the Holy Family's years of exile as strangers in a strange land.
When we tell these stories, how can we fail to see Mary, Joseph and Jesus in the faces of our immigrant brothers and sisters? How can we fail to act on the essential message of that baby boy born to us so long ago?
Iowa JFON's first executive director continues the fight for justice
In May 2008, Sol Varisco was working with Catholic Charities of Iowa. An Argentine immigrant teacher who had studied at Iowa State University, Sol was in charge of coordinating a state-wide emergency response for an immigration raid they all suspected would soon be coming.
“The Bush administration had already approved a lot of money for raids,” she states. “So we were making plans for a raid of maybe 40-50 people.”
What happened next, she says, “totally blew our minds.” Over 1,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agents, heavily armed and wearing full SWAT gear, descended upon a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, on May 12, 2008. Nearly 400 immigrant workers at the plant were arrested. Within four days, some 300 of them were convicted on document fraud charges.
It was, at that time, the largest workplace immigration raid in U.S. history, and Sol was in the center of it. Within hours, the hundreds of volunteers and a group of pro-bono immigration lawyers who had been waiting for her order began streaming into town. They and the other volunteers needed to know where to go, what to do and whom to help.
Meanwhile, ICE was stealthily moving the workers from jail to jail, scrambling to deport them within 48 hours, before Sol and her people could secure them access to qualified attorneys.
“They made the immigrants dress as criminals. They wanted to humiliate them, to diminish them.” Sol pauses, shaking her head. “But whatever message Bush was trying to send, it backfired on him. He truly opened a Pandora’s box that day.
“The worst moments,” she says, “bring humanity and justice together.”