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National Justice For Our Neighbors
October 2015 Update 
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A Lion in the Classroom:  
From Undocumented Student to a White House DACAmented Champion of Change  
 
It was a rough day.

There was just not enough money to pay for both the rent and the food. His parents, undocumented immigrants from Mexico, worked long and hard hours, but they lived paycheck to paycheck. He couldn’t bear to ask them for money unless it was a real emergency.

So, that day in June of 2012, Luis Juárez, a student at the College of Education, University of Texas, Austin, made the only decision open to him. He took the high school graduation ring his grandmother had bought him and put it in his pocket. It was heavy; he could feel its weight rebuking him as he got out his bike and started pedaling through his East Riverside neighborhood. He was on his way to a local pawn shop when he received a call from a longtime friend.

“Luis!” His friend’s voice was bursting with excitement. “Have you heard the news?”
 
Luis was chosen to lead the procession at his University of Texas graduation ceremony. 

The news, of course, was President Obama’s announcement of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) For more than half a million undocumented young people across this country, it was as if Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Fourth of July had been rolled into one glorious moment. Luis was no exception.

“It was the pivotal moment of my life, second only to coming to this country,” remembers Luis, now a bilingual fifth-grade math and science teacher at William Lipscomb Elementary School in Dallas. “It changed my life, it changed my family’s life, and it allowed me to change the lives of my students.”

Many of those students come from immigrant families similar to Luis’s family. Many of these students have the same fears and hopes Luis had when he first came to this country 11 years ago. They struggle to learn a new language, a new school, a new country. Luis understands them because he is them.

Luis shared his story with us at our recent National Justice For Our Neighbors conference in Grapevine, Texas, where leadership from JFON sites across the country gathered to learn and be inspired. He is a gifted speaker; at turns stirring, poignant, funny—and completely at ease with his audience. He crackles with energy and enthusiasm that touches everyone in the room. It’s easy to picture him in front of the classroom.

But for Luis, it’s what he does outside of the classroom that sets him apart from other outstanding teachers. Yes, he volunteers, serves on committees, stays late grading papers and designing interesting lesson plans, and he coaches the school’s soccer team. But Luis also realized, early on, that he could do more.
 
Luis coaches the Lipscomb Lions, but intense loyalty to Los Tigres is a family tradition

Many of these parents are new immigrants to the United States. Many do not speak English. They are often unfamiliar with how our schools work. They are confused by the various rules and testing schedules. Luis started a YouTube channel to communicate with these parents.

“It’s called Lipscomb Noticias—a video newsletter that I send home to the parents once a week,” he says. “I sit down and tell my parents—in Spanish—what’s going on in my class and in my school. Some even get a text message when a new video has been uploaded. They really appreciate that.”

Looking for more ways to bridge the gap between school and parents, Luis also offers to visit the students in their homes. Yes, he makes house calls. The parents gratefully accept.

“The parents don’t have a lot of time,” he says simply. “They work multiple jobs and it’s hard for them to come to a parent-teacher conference during regular school hours. So I’ll go see them in their homes on a Saturday or Sunday.”

Sometimes the parents will invite him for dinner—home-cooked meals that evoke memories of Mexico are a side benefit for a single man. Sometimes they will share more personal things with him. “They are in the comfort of their own home,” Luis says. “It helps me create strong relationships with both the parents and the students.”
 
This past summer, after only one year of teaching, Luis was among nine educators honored at the White House as a DACAmented Champion of Change.

“Here’s the way it works,” Luis says of the experience. “They send you an email. ‘Congratulations, you’ve been nominated, do you accept?’” He shakes his head, laughing. “I mean, do you trust this? I had to go look it up.”

It’s a long way from Dallas to Washington, D.C. For Luis’s parents, flying was, of course, out of the question. They have no identification. Making the 20-hour trip in a car was equally impossible. What if they were stopped?

“The fear is something that never leaves you,” Luis explains. “You go to buy groceries and come out to find a green bus waiting to take you away.” A long road trip across state lines was just too dangerous. His mom and dad would have to stay home.

Luis invited some friends to the ceremony instead.
 
Luis with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and  his fellow DACAmented Champions of Change. Photo courtesy of the White House. 
 
Luis has just started his second year teaching at William Lipscomb Elementary, still endeavoring to find innovative and compassionate ways to improve the learning experience for his students. Some of them can’t be visited in their own homes, because they haven’t got one yet. They can’t watch his videos on YouTube because they have no access to a computer.
 
“This year, I have a student recently arrived,” he tells us, “I met her on Meet-the-Teacher Night. She was wearing the same clothes she wore when she came here. She’s excellent in math and has a keen eye for scientific research,” he says proudly, “but she also had such fear in her eyes.”

The room is quiet. All attention is riveted upon the young man speaking at the lectern. The people in this room—JFON attorneys, staff and volunteers from around the country—have seen that fear for themselves in the faces of the clients they serve.

“Her parents reminded me of my own parents,” he continues. “They were so optimistic, they had such faith.” He pauses. “The thing is, that night I went home to sleep in my nice bed. They went home to sleep on a floor. “

“This girl came in to school this morning with a smile on her face,” he finishes. ”Because she knows I will be there for her.”
 
His students, you think, are very, very lucky. Luis insists he’s the lucky one. He graciously thanks the audience and implores all of us to keep working and advocating on behalf of vulnerable immigrants. “People come to you for hope,” he says earnestly. “Know that you are really making a difference.”

After his speech, at dinner, Luis sits with his girlfriend, Mayra. They are holding hands and he is telling us the story of how they met. Suddenly he’s not the exceptional motivational speaker, teacher and future leader destined for great things. He’s just a 24-year-old guy, happy, secure, and in love.

He shows us his many friendship bracelets. There’s one of yellow and blue yarn, the colors of his favorite soccer team back in Mexico—los Tigres. There’s one with the burnt orange and white of his alma mater, University of Texas at Austin. Another is purple and gold for the Lipscomb Lions—the soccer team he coaches. There’s also one made by the beautiful Mayra.
 

Luis and Mayra at the 2015 Justice For Our Neighbors Annual Roundtable Conference.
 
Before she was officially his girlfriend, he says, with a sly glance in her direction, he brought Mayra to his class. She was instantly cornered by a cadre of fifth grade girls, all questioning her intentions towards their beloved teacher.

“So, are you going to be his girlfriend or not?” one girl demanded.

Mayra answered yes, of course. What other answer could there be?

Luis shakes his head at the memory. “I owe my kids a lot,” he says. “I like to believe that they helped me get my girl.”
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A Pilgrimage to the Pope 
100 strong women walk 100 long miles
 
Dateline: Tuesday, September 22, 2015
 
The Pope is coming to Washington, D.C. and the city is ready.
 
Here at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where the Holy Father will celebrate mass tomorrow, you can feel the crackle and hum of fevered anticipation. Everyone is busy. The grounds are thick with so many priests and monks and nuns that you wonder if they have been imported just for the occasion. Workers are setting up the fences and the chairs for those who have been relegated to an outside seat. Inside the huge edifice—the largest church in America—the jumbotrons are placed near the altar so even those in the back rows may catch a glimpse of Pope Francis. A multitude of singers are practicing the music they will perform for the Pontiff. They are singing something in Latin—ethereal, beautiful, the perfect papal mood music—and you can hear their voices all the way down the street at the metro station.
 
Meanwhile, the mothers, daughters, and sisters who make up 100 Women, 100 Miles are also on their way to the Basilica. These immigrant women and activists left the York Immigrant Detention Center in Pennsylvania a week ago. They have been walking ever since, 10 to 15 miles a day. They are coming to deliver a message for the Pope, for the President, for Congress, for the American people and for the world. It’s a message of faith, hope, and justice; it’s an appeal for welcome, dignity and respect for all immigrants.
 
We are here to join them for the last three miles of their remarkable journey. We wait on the steps of the Basilica as they slowly come into view. There are some stragglers; their banners are drooping and they look bone-weary. But that’s only for a moment. As soon as they hear our cheers, they stand straighter, walk faster, and raise their arms in salutes of victory.
 
They join hands in a huddled group on the steps of the Basilica, sharing prayers and then singing a few familiar songs—We Shall Overcome in English and Spanish. There are smiles, tears, and lots of hugging. A woman who works for the Basilica comes out in a flutter and demands to know who is in charge. She wants the women to leave. They are disrupting the preparations.
 
The 100 strong-hearted women aren’t fazed in the slightest. They are focused on each other and the last few precious hours of their pilgrimage. They hoist their banners and start to walk.
 
 Photo courtesy of Hope in Focus Photography. www.stevepavey.com
 
“I am walking for a better future for my children,” says Alejandra, from Phoenix, Arizona. She has five children, 4 are DREAMers, and one is a U.S. citizen. Alejandra and her husband are both undocumented immigrants. They have lived here for fifteen years, working, contributing to the economy, paying taxes, raising their kids, and living under the constant threat of deportation.
 
“If I am deported or my husband is deported, what will happen to my children?” she asks. “How will they finish their studies? How will they grow up?”
 
It’s a worry she revisits several times during our conversation. Each person deported, she states, means a family separated. There are many women walking here who are separated from their children, husbands, and parents.
 
“When I am tired, when I feel I cannot take another step, I remember the mothers who are already separated from their families,” Alejandra says. “And then I walk for them, too.”
 

 
We’re walking towards McPherson Square, just a short distance from the White House, where the organizers are planning a candlelight vigil. For most of the day the sky has been bleak and gray, but the sun has finally overpowered the clouds. People cheer the women as they walk by, honk their horns and give the “thumbs-up” sign. It’s a scene that has been repeated throughout their walk; they have rested each evening in rooms provided by churches, and have been fed by generous volunteers.
 
The 100 women have formed a sisterhood, encouraging and supporting each other as they walk along. There are a few cancer survivors in the group. One woman is walking with a cane. Another saved the shoes she wore crossing the border with her children. She is wearing them now. The women keep walking. They insist on walking.
 

 
“It’s beautiful to see the solidarity between generations,” says Samantha, an earnest 23-year old from South Texas. ‘We draw strength from each other.”
 
Samantha was born in the United States, but as a child worked in the fields with her parents every summer. Presently, she is a part-time domestic worker and a volunteer with the Fuerza del Valle Workers Center in Alton, Texas. She speaks of the exploitation of undocumented domestic workers—wage theft, threats of deportation, sexual harassment, even physical violence—that compelled her to join these women.
 
“Domestic workers are excluded from protection,” she explains. “They work in the shadows, separated from each other. Even if they have the courage to report wage theft or abuse, there is no one to report to—they have no community or organization to support them.”
 
Samantha wants to thank the Pope for speaking on behalf of all immigrants. She seeks to elevate his message of compassion to the world.
 
“We are protected by a bubble of privilege. We don’t see the violence, poverty, and the urgency of life in other places,” she says. “We should be leaders of the world. We should welcome immigrants and take care of our neighbors. We are all people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”
 
 
We have finally reached McPherson Square. Music is playing. Sweet Honey in the Rock, a well-known local acapella group,  is singing. There is a crowd waiting to welcome the women. Each woman is given a white carnation and a candle as she enters the square. This event has been billed as a vigil; we are meant to be reverent. But spontaneous applause breaks out as the women enter. They’ve made it to the end. How can they hide their exuberance? How can they keep from singing?
 
The night before this final walk, the 100 women were at St Camillus Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. The parishioners threw them a party—dinner, music, and dancing. They also held a lottery for ten tickets to see the Pope. Everyone here wants to see the Pope, of course, even if it’s from a distance while standing in a vast crowd. Every woman wants to ask Pope Francis for help, to urge him to speak forcefully to Congress, and most of all, to say “thank you.”

Ten lucky women won the tickets. Several of them gave their tickets away to their new sisters.
 
“I don’t need to see the Pope,” explains Kim, a woman from Minnesota walking for her undocumented husband. “We see the Pope in each other.”
 
 
Photo courtesy of Hope in Focus Photography. www.stevepavey.com

100 Women, 100 Miles continues! Starting on October 11, the 100+ women and their supporters will walk 1 mile on the 11th of each month for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows in the United States. If you would like to join a walk, plan your own, or just need more information, please visit: We Belong Together
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Responding with Love 
NJFON Executive Director Rob Rutland-Brown on the Pope's message to all of us.  
 
Washington, D.C. was abuzz two weeks ago when the Pope arrived to speak with the President, hold an unprecedented address to Congress, and minister to residents not in a position of power. Those of us engaged in serving immigrants were particularly enthusiastic about the Pope’s message of compassion towards migrants.
 
Pope Francis said of immigrants coming to the United States, “We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal.”
 
I was proud of the Pope for speaking so directly about how Americans should treat immigrants in our midst, and I was also proud of Justice for Our Neighbors, because we seek to carry out a mission each day that bears out this call.
 
Although JFON is not perfect, our ministry understands the importance of meeting immigrants face to face. We yearn for their stories not only so that we can identify forms of legal relief, but also so that we may come to know our neighbors. Even for those not eligible for immigration legal assistance, we strive to bring a message of welcome and respect.
 
The Pope reminds us that the magnitude of showing this love transcends one’s political affiliation or religious denomination. I hope JFON, and all Americans, can remember his message.
 
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