MCC boosts immigration work with churches

Legal aid offered as fear rises due to enforcement

Jul 2, 2018 by and

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As the U.S. government increases immigration enforcement, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. has been expanding its legal training and resources for immigrants and their advocates.

People living in the U.S. without official documentation are increasingly fearful they will be separated from their families by detention or deportation, according to Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. coordinator of immigration education. This includes members of Anabaptist churches, who are part of MCC’s supporting denominations.

Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator, center, discusses a case study with, from left, Elizabeth Castillo, Jane Curschmann and Alina Kilpatrick, immigration legal training participants. — Brenda Burkholder/MCC

Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator, center, discusses a case study with, from left, Elizabeth Castillo, Jane Curschmann and Alina Kilpatrick, immigration legal training participants. — Brenda Burkholder/MCC

“Everywhere I travel, people tell me about their personal fear for themselves or their families,” Padilla said. “I also hear people whose ancestors immigrated centuries ago express more concern for today’s immigrants than I ever have before.

“At MCC U.S., we are responding to Christ’s instructions to love our neighbors and following the Bible’s instructions to welcome the stranger by helping immigrants know their rights and find legal ways of living in this country.”

In light of the need, the MCC U.S. board of directors approved a $200,000 above-budget expenditure in the spring of 2017 for a project that has bolstered MCC U.S. work in immigration in 2017 and 2018.

As part of the project, MCC U.S. has provided scholarships to more than 30 Anabaptist church members to attend its weeklong legal training. The first 17 attended a training in September 2017, and others in January and February. A few scholarships are still available for the September training.

Although 800 immigration professionals have paid to complete the training since 2002, MCC wanted to make it more accessible to laypeople. By learning about the complexities of U.S. immigration law, graduates can better accompany immigrants in their churches and communities.

“The training helps members of our constituent groups . . . identify legal immigration options that may be available to members of their congregations and strengthen their ability to identify fraudulent immigration scams and service providers,” Padilla said. “Many of our brothers and sisters are vulnerable to individuals committing fraud and costly unlawful immigration practices.”

Learning the law

Ellen Morey of Prairie Street Mennonite Church in Elkhart, Ind., participated in the September 2017 training.

“Before the law training, I didn’t know some of the most basic concepts of immigration law,” she said, though she had volunteered at an immigration law office. “After the law training, I felt qualified to become accredited” by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The training is a step toward DOJ accreditation, which allows the recipient to represent immigrants in immigration court. Morey has developed a business plan to start a legal aid ministry to immigrants in Elkhart.

Providing low-cost legal advice is a critical need, Padilla said. Only 3,000 nonprofit attorneys and others accredited by the DOJ are practicing in the U.S., where 22 million foreign-born noncitizens live. A person with limited financial resources has few affordable options for legal representation in immigration court.

MCC is offering grants totaling $70,000 to churches or organizations that want to start or to strengthen legal documentation programs.

One grant recipient is College Hill Mennonite Church in Tampa, Fla., where Cindy Cumberbatch sees clients who seek permanent residency or who want to apply for citizenship.

“My greatest joy in my immigration work is seeing the excitement and relief on my clients’ faces when we’ve come up with a plan of action, and they know there is a positive solution to their problem,” she said.

“I believe churches engage in immigration work because it is simply the right thing to do. Even throughout biblical history, there have been countless stories of foreigners in a strange land who were there for a purpose. It is no different in this day and age.”

Resources for rights

MCC also has two new resources: a pen with a pullout panel, and wallet-size cards that summarize immigrants’ rights when dealing with law enforcement.

If immigrants are confronted by law enforcement officers, they can hand the officer this card, written in English and Spanish, which says they exercise their right not to speak, sign documents or allow officers to enter the house without a warrant.

Danielle Gonzales, immigration project coordinator, has given the cards and pens to immigrants she works with.

“It gives them more autonomy in a political climate that is out of their control,” she said. “Because of the cards or pen, an immigrant can say, ‘I have the ability to say I know where I stand when someone comes to my home. I know I have rights.’ ”

Subscribe to see more about MCC-supported immigrant resettlement in Canada in the July 2, 2018 issue of MWR.

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