National Justice For Our Neighbors
August 2015 Update 
Welcome to the Family! 
A Grand Opening and First Clinic at
Justice For Our Neighbors Houston/East Texas 
The groves that gave Pecan Park its name are long gone, replaced by tract houses, strip malls and shrubs and trees that don’t demand so much attention in Houston’s humid, sub-tropical climate. Nearly half of all residents in this sprawling East End neighborhood were born in a foreign country. The majority of residents speak Spanish as their primary language at home. Almost a third of the children of Pecan Park are living below the poverty line.

This is the community, these are the neighbors, that Mission Milby—a covenant ministry from the nearby Servants of Christ United Methodist Church—serves lovingly and faithfully. Each week, hundreds of people walk through their doors to use the computer lab, participate in the after-school program, or take classes in technology, ESL, and a myriad of other subjects.

There was one service Mission Milby couldn’t offer their neighbors, many of whom are low-income immigrants: affordable, high-quality immigration legal assistance. It was a lack that the people of Mission Milby and other advocates for immigrant justice felt very keenly. They resolved to do something about it.
Last month, after four years of planning, hoping, praying—and a huge fundraising effort—JFON Houston/East Texas (HETX) finally celebrated its grand opening and its very first clinic. This newest JFON site is not only located in the neighborhood where its clients live, but in Mission Milby, a trusted and beloved institution of Pecan Park and the surrounding East End.
The importance of this trust cannot be overstated. Far too many immigrants have been swindled in their home countries, by employers, by corrupt officials, by the people who may have led them across the border. Once here, they are often victims of the notarios, the so-called “immigration consultants” who prey on the newly arrived and uninformed, promising them green cards and leaving them with empty pockets. Far too many of these immigrants have also experienced tragedy and fear for their lives. They need a place to feel safe. 

“Our clients have been through so much already,” explains Joy Green, JFON HETX’s new attorney. “So many are fleeing violence. They are in the U.S. because they need protection. Some of them have seen their family members killed right in front of them.”

“Here,” she adds, “they feel safe. They know they can trust the people who work here.” Houston, like all JFON clinics, also offers hospitality—childcare, food, friendly people—so the clients feel very welcome, too. “It’s a safe haven,” Joy says.
JFON HETX had a truly joyous grand opening with plenty of happy faces, good local cuisine, and lively music provided by Mariachi Guadalupano. JFON HETX Board Chair Pat Holmes was present to introduce the speakers, among whom was the Rev. Diane McGehee, Director of TAC Center for Missional Excellence and longtime JFON supporter, as well as the Rev. Will Reed, the senior pastor at Servants of Christ UMC and also a JFON HETX board member and its interim clinic coordinator.

Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church characterized the treatment of immigrants in our society as a “core religious value,” adding that “the opening of the Justice for Our Neighbors clinic is a sign of our love for the sojourner in our midst that Jesus taught and demonstrated to his disciples.”

Texas State Senator Sylvia Garcia with JFON HETX's Executive Director Brenda Diaz and Site Attorney Joy Green 
“All our speakers were very inspirational,” confirmed Brenda Diaz, JFON HETX’s executive director, when the party was over and she had a minute to breathe. “They reminded us why JFON HETX exists and the commitment we all have to our most vulnerable immigrant brothers and sisters.”

Brenda was equally content with their first clinic—a resounding and, perhaps more importantly for the very first one, a glitch-free triumph. Brenda attributes this seamless success to the hard work put in by board members, staff, and especially the many volunteers.

“The operation of this clinic could not have been a success had it not been for the overwhelming compassion and love they have for what JFON represents in this community,” she states emphatically. “All of our first clients left our office with much gratitude and appreciation.”
Not the type of people to rest on their laurels, the JFON Houston team is charging ahead, Texas-style, and is already making plans to add more clinics in East Texas. 
“Right now there is just one of me, and I am essentially wearing a lot of different hats," says Joy. “But we are creating the systems to be set up for growth in the future.”

Meanwhile, at Mission Milby, Joy already has a very special client—the 5-year old son of a family who arrived from Honduras a year ago. Eddie finished his first year of American school—kindergarten—learning English at break-neck speed. Eddie is now charming everyone in two languages. “I wish you could meet him,” says Joy, chuckling. “He gives me a hug every time he sees me. He looks at my books—he has no clue what’s in there, but he likes to see what I’m doing. He’s just so happy and so cute.” She pauses. “You would never know his family had been through such tragedy in Honduras.”

Joy doesn’t elaborate. She doesn’t need to, not really. She has heard so many horrific stories of tragedy and unimaginable loss. How does she cope with it?

“I don’t think anybody gets used to it,” Joy says carefully. “It’s not a life we see so much in the U.S. But I can’t get too caught up in the emotions of it. I have to take that…” she searches for the word "...passion and use it to do my best as an attorney for my clients.”

Seeing the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication of Joy, Brenda, the board members and volunteers, it’s obvious that everyone at JFON HETX is being driven by a similar passion: working towards justice for all our immigrant neighbors.  
The Micah Corps Takes the Hill
Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with God. Micah 6:8 
Each summer, the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church brings together a group of outstanding college-age students and sets them to work to live out the words of Micah 6:8. Over the course of 10 long and productive weeks, the Micah Corps interns tackle the tough social justice issues of our day through prayer, study and, most significantly, action.

Leaving their home base of North Omaha, this year’s team came to Washington, D.C., to advocate for laws and policies that positively impact the issues important to them—poverty, food security, nonviolence, the environment and immigration.

See the Hill, Take the Hill

Led by Andrea Paret, Great Plains Peace with Justice Coordinator and a tireless advocate for Justice For Our Neighbors Nebraska, four of these excellent young people prepared to lobby their Nebraska representatives on various immigration issues.

Ama Agyabeng, from Ghana, is a rising senior at Iowa’s Ashford University. She hopes to go on to medical school next year. Amy Kenyon, a native Nebraskan, plans to teach high school English when she finishes her studies. She believes her Micah Corps experience will help her become a better teacher. Ella Sherman is intense, passionate, and very smart. This is her second year with the Micah Corps and her first opportunity to really focus on immigration issues. Elysee Mahangama, soft-spoken and thoughtful, studies industrial systems technology in Atlanta. He has been focused on peace and non-violence issues this summer, particularly significant for a young man coming from the Republic of the Congo. 

“Back home, it’s kind of impossible to meet with someone in power and voice your concerns,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “If you express an opposing opinion you might find yourself in the hospital.”
It’s a hot July day as we walk past the Supreme Court and toward the Cannon House Office Building. Ella is recounting some of the conversations she and her fellow interns have had with people about migrants coming across the border. The “us vs. them” mindset of too many Americans, she says, has effectively stripped these immigrants of their humanity.

“We don’t think about people dying in the desert. We don’t think about the women and children seeking asylum.” Ella adds, “We also don’t consider that immigrants who come here oftentimes don’t want to.”

People look at the pictures of the harsh conditions at the border, she says, and seem genuinely perplexed. “Why would these migrants do that to themselves?” they demand. “Why would they put their children in so much danger?”

“You’re right,” is Ella’s answer. “It was a horrible experience. Why do you think they would take that risk?”
Fighting the Good Fight

Our first stop is the office of Rep. Brad Ashford, (D-NE 02) representing the greater Omaha metropolitan area. The Micah Corps interns have an appointment with the congressman’s legislative director (LD).

Ama takes the lead, asking for the congressman’s support for HR 2798: The Strengthening Refugee Resettlement Act of 2015.  Ama, graceful and poised, reads her prepared talking points, powerfully representing the values that require us to support all families, both immigrant and non-immigrant.

Others chime in, reminding us that Nebraska has become a magnet for many refugee communities, including the mostly-Christian Karen ethnic minority of Burma, fleeing persecution and violence in their home country.

A bill to streamline refugee processing abroad and provide resources for them to more quickly integrate into their new communities may not seem very controversial. In the present congressional climate, however, anything that smacks of immigration appears to have little hope of getting very far. 
The interns then ask the LD about the future of immigration reform in general. They’re very good. Remembering their training (provided by our friends at the General Board of Church and Society) they pause frequently to listen and give the LD plenty of opportunity to talk.

The LD is sympathetic, but his prognosis for comprehensive immigration reform isn’t an encouraging one.

“This is one issue which will not go anywhere,” he says. “It’s unfortunate, because it’s the right thing to do and the system we have in place obviously does not work.”

They are, however, not to give up hope, he tells them emphatically. “It has to change,” he says. “We can’t just keep kicking the can down the road.”

Our next stop is the office of Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE 01), representing Lincoln and other areas of Eastern Nebraska. We meet with his senior legislative assistant (LA).

Amy, the future teacher, tells us that Lincoln has 32 languages spoken in its public schools and that no school district in Nebraska is without its share of immigrant students. Both Lincoln and Omaha—the two major cities in Nebraska—are centers for refugee relocation, including those fleeing horrific violence from Sudan and South Sudan.

Rep. Fortenberry’s LA quickly points out that her boss is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan and is the author of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. She promises to give the congressman their information about the Refugee Resettlement bill.

As for the undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, she tells the interns that border security is the most pressing problem. Her prediction for the future of meaningful immigration reform is decidedly bleak.

“The issue,” she tells these young people so full of hope and promise, “is too polarized and too politicized.”

Ama, Andrea Paret, Elysee, Ella and Amy at Rep. Fortenberry's Capitol Hill Office

The meetings are over. The Micah Corps interns are kept very busy, and it’s time for them to move on to the next activity. Although they didn’t receive any optimistic news from either office, they don’t view the day as a defeat. This was their first time in a sit-down meeting on Capitol Hill. It won’t be their last. They aren’t giving up and they are absolutely coming back.
They are still talking excitedly about their meetings as they walk back to their home base at the Methodist Building.

“Amazing experience,” says Ella. She looks ready to take on the world.

“Incredible,” Elysee agrees. “To be able to voice your concerns at any time and for someone to listen.” He stops as we wait at the crosswalk. The U.S. Capitol, the shining beacon for justice and democracy, is right above us. Once again, the building is undergoing some much-needed renovations. The dome is covered in ugly scaffolding. But it remains the City on the Hill.

“It’s such a wonderful opportunity that Americans have,” Elysee says. “They shouldn’t take it for granted.”
The Immigration Game
Are you on the path to citizenship or stuck in the "limbo loop?" 
Ama Agyabeng and Ella Sherman came to their Micah Corps internship with a very particular interest in immigration reform. As part of their social justice outreach, they visited a church congregation to lead a discussion on the realities of being an undocumented immigrant in America.

But first they showed their elders how to play the Immigration Board Game.

Six teams (or players) get a story card. Four are in the U.S. without documentation for various reasons, and two are on their way to becoming citizens. The four undocumented players start on the “limbo loop” and the two documented ones start on the path to citizenship.

“The loop and the path do not connect,” says Ella. “At no point do they connect.”

Players roll dice and move through the brightly colored bubbles, experiencing normal life events—marriage, birth of a child—as well as the normal-for-the-undocumented events—ICE raids, being caught driving without a license because your state won’t issue you one.
“The events are supplemented by cards with real immigration stories,” explains Ella. “In addition, players may have to draw a card which either states that there are no visas available, or that their waiver for marriage was denied or something like that.”
After a few rounds Ella and Ama stopped the game and asked the players what they thought.  
There really is no good news in this game. There is no way for the loop (undocumented) and path (to citizenship) to connect. No, you can’t just go “get a visa.” Many members of the congregation hadn’t realized that.

“It was a very divided classroom,” remembers Ella. “Some said, ‘Yes, we should do something about immigration reform.’ Others said, ‘They’re illegal, that’s their problem.’ The discussion kind of got out of hand.”

At the end of the discussion, Ama read from Scripture, because “it’s hard to argue with the New Testament in a church setting.” She chose, of course, Matthew 25, putting firm emphasis on the section 44-46:

44 They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?

45 He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.

46 Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

Ama and Ella lead the discussion. Photo courtesy of Mustard Seed.
“The room went very quiet,” remembers Ella. “It was definitely an ‘uh-oh’ moment. People were thinking, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I just said.’

“I’m not sure we changed any minds,” she concludes, smiling. “But at least we got them thinking!" 
Please visit The Alliance for a Just Society to download the game Ama and Ella used to demonstrate the difficulty of being an undocumented immigrant in the United States. 
Ama blogged about a presentation provided by Justice For Our Neighbors-Nebraska at The Micah Corps Journal
Ella reflects on the issue of Immigration and its link to Scripture in her blog.

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