Actions Have Consequences The Decision to Leave a Child Behind

“How do you feel when your parents migrate to the US . . . and leave you behind?”  This wasn’t an easy question for students to answer in El Salvador.

We were visiting an inner-city high school, Instituto Isaac Newton, located in the heart of San Salvador.  The seven of us, all Baptists, were seeking to better understand this country and how churches and individuals in the US can come alongside and help with the challenges faced by families there.  And to learn more about immigrants in our own country in the process.

The challenges of the neighborhood were apparent just outside the entrance of the school, where we saw young men being cuffed and interrogated by the police.  We walked through busy streets lined with vendors and learned that many were parents of students at the school.  It was a section of the city rarely seen by tourists.

Many students asked to meet with us, to tell their stories and ask questions about the United States.  Approximately 25% of the students said they had a parent living in the United States, and more than 75% had a close friend or family member in the US.  Only a few had not been directly touched by emigration.  Public education is free through secondary (9th grade).  Isaac Newton and other similar schools seek to provide a high quality private school education for upper-level students at minimal cost (less than $40/month).  These students are studying for careers in healthcare, tourism, business, etc., largely thanks to assistance from parents and other relatives in the US who send money back.

Ana*, a petite girl standing in the back of the packed classroom, raised her hand and bravely answered our question.  “It’s hard, really hard” when you don’t have both parents with you.  “My dad is in the US, and I miss him so much.  But I know he’s away because he loves us and we need the money he makes there.”   There’s no work for him here, Ana said, and she wouldn’t be in school if her dad wasn’t sending money back home to support the family.  She said she was very appreciative of the sacrifice he had chosen to make for her and for her family.  And then Ana broke down and sobbed uncontrollably as another student hugged her.  Other students swiped at teary eyes.

While the kids often feel hurt, abandoned, or lonely when their parent or parents leave them behind, they say that they have other family around to help, and they know that the absent parent has made a hard decision that is for the good of the family.  Immigrant parents say that one of the hardest issues for them is the decision to leave a child behind.

However, Latin Americans often view children as part of a rich family tradition where the members are strongly connected and where aunts, uncles, grandparents and even older siblings all share in the raising of a child.  The decision is often a family decision, made in the best interest of the child as well as the extended family.  “How could I bring my son with me, to a place where I had no job, no place to live?” said Maria,* a mom from Honduras.  “I think it would have been too hard.  He was better off with my mom until I could get established.”  After a few years, she sent for her son, Jorge,* who was 10, to join her.  Maria rents a room and works part-time at McDonalds to support her family.  Jorge is able to petition for asylum.

But even the best intentions can cause pain for the immigrant parent.  Martin* talks about his teenage son with regret for what he’s lost.  “My son stayed in Mexico, on the ranch with my parents, and he goes to school and rides horses and helps my dad with the cattle.  He talks about girls.  He’s a great kid — almost a man,” said Martin.  He can count on one hand the number of times he’s seen his daughter.  Martin’s wife eventually divorced him and remarried.  While he thought of bringing his children to the US, he decided they were better off in Mexico.  They’re healthy, happy, and safe; they do well in school; and his son will one day manage the family ranch.  And the kids are a big help with his aging parents.  “It seems to have worked out well for everyone but me,” says Martin, who is an undocumented roofer.  “I just work and send money so they can all live well.”

The decision to bring children later on to join parents doesn’t always work out well, either.  Cecilia* was almost 16 when she joined her mom, stepdad, and four younger siblings in the US.  Coming from a rural part of El Salvador where she had lived with her grandparents, she missed the freedom of the country.  “Here, I can’t go outside — there’s no place to go, and I don’t feel safe.”  She doesn’t speak English, and doesn’t relate well to her siblings.  “I don’t even like them; they’re so spoiled and self-centered,” she says.  While Cecilia worked the land and helped grow beans and corn and vegetables until coming to the US, that concept is totally foreign to her US-born siblings.  They seem to her to be unappreciative of her parents’ hard work to provide a good home for them.  “I think they make fun of me.  I hate it here, I just want to go back home.  I didn’t know it would be like this,” she said.  Cecilia’s mom agrees that perhaps it was a mistake to bring Cecilia to the US.  “But I wanted to make things right, to have us live as a family.  I always felt guilty for leaving her behind.”

The decision to emigrate is a highly individual decision based on a number of factors, including violence, safety and security, poverty, economic and educational opportunities, and the desire to provide the best for one’s children.  It is never made lightly, and it isn’t without sacrifice, for both parents and children.  It changes the family dynamics forever.  The children, like Ana, grow up quickly and adopt a mature attitude regarding their parents’ reasons for emigrating.  On an intellectual and practical level, she knows her dad made a good decision for his family.  But her tears are evidence of the pain and heartache involved.

*names changed

Where Do Immigrants Come From? And Why Do They Come? Understanding the Context for Immigration

Marcos* was a Salvadoran immigrant in his late 20s whose story caused me to dig deeper in order to understand his home country.  Since then, I’ve studied the history of El Salvador and last year, I visited there.  I’ve made Salvadoran friends both in the US and in El Salvador.  It’s fairly easy for non-immigrant Americans to look at immigrants who struggle in our country and wonder — often aloud — why they are here.  But perhaps if more people had the opportunity to visit their countries of origin, they would understand a little better.

I met Marcos in the homeless shelter following his 2-week stay in the local hospital.  He was traveling from Texas to New York and became seriously ill.  His “friends” called 911 and dropped him at a rest stop along I-95.  He was totally alone, with nowhere to go, and he didn’t know anyone in Virginia.

Marcos was 14 when he came to the US, fleeing increasing threats to his family if he didn’t join a local gang.  “They threw rocks on our tin roof every night, and no one could sleep.  And they threatened my family.  The gang leader said they would rape and kill my mother, and kidnap my sister if I didn’t join. So I left to keep them safe.”

He was alone in a large city, surviving on the streets, and was soon involved in drugs.  And now, 15 years later, Marcos has AIDs. I asked him if he would have emigrated had known how life in the US would turn out.  “Yeah, I would have still come.  I’d rather live with AIDs than face what I was facing in El Salvador.”

masacre-listApproximately 1 of every 5 Salvadorans lives in the United States, making Salvadorans the 6th largest immigrant group in the US.  A large number came as a result of the civil war, which ended in 1992; others came as a result of natural disasters that affected the country; and relatives have joined immigrants through family reunification.  Today, much of the influx is due to violence and the growing control of Salvadoran communities by gangs, like Marcos experienced.

In my last visit to El Salvador, I couldn’t help but think of Marcos.  I experienced first-hand the reality of life in impoverished neighborhoods where gangs rule.  I saw the fear of engaging in simple routines like travel to a neighboring community, where one can inadvertently cross from one gang’s territory into another’s.  I was surprised when friends chose to meet me for dinner at a restaurant rather than in their home, because “my neighborhood wouldn’t be safe for you.”  I secretly wondered if my presence would have put them more at risk for extortion if gang members knew they had an “American” friend.

a-momOne of the things that Marcos most wanted to do was to contact his mom in El Salvador.  He hadn’t spoken to her in years because he was ashamed of his life.  We called “to let her know I’m OK,” — even though Marcos knew he wasn’t OK.  “I know she loves me and prays for me.”  And Marcos wanted me to go with him to church.  As we worshipped, prayed, and talked about God’s grace and unconditional love, Marcos made peace with his life.  Soon, he was well enough to move on to his waiting job in New York.

Most immigrants I know have sacrificed much to come to the US: language, culture, family, social status, dignity.  When they talk with their families back home, few ever reveal the truth about how lonely or hard their lives are in the US.  And yet they still choose to be here, because for many, the worst life imaginable in the US is still better than what they faced in their home countries.

Immigrant Fears Information is Key in Addressing Immigrant Fears

Recalibrating, thinking about shutting down refugee offices.

Consoling children and comforting parents fearful to leave home.

Reminding DREAMers of the risk of applying for DACA.

Grieving for people of color.

Struggling to address questions and fears among immigrant friends.

And Praying Together.

Immigration advocates and agencies – including LUCHA Ministries in Fredericksburg, Virginia – found themselves reacting in just these ways following the US presidential election of November 8.  As a part of World Relief’s Immigrant Legal Services Network, LUCHA Ministries has a goal to provide the most accurate information possible while reminding our immigrant friends of God’s constant love and presence.

Beyond expressing shock and dismay, advocates and organizers renewed their commitment to inform and educate the immigrant community on how best to respond to the election and its aftermath.

Some of the best advice advocacy groups can offer immigrants is the following:

  • Remind immigrants that, for now, nothing has changed.  All existing immigration benefits remain in place.
  • Immigration law is defined by Congress, and the majority of current US laws can only be changed by Congress.
  • Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is still in effect.  DACA provides eligible, undocumented young people who arrived before age 16 an opportunity to remain in the US and apply for work authorization.  Those with DACA renewal should renew it within the timeframe required, before January 2017’s inauguration if possible.  Those who have never requested DACA should consult a reputable legal provider for advice before filing a DACA application.
  • Consult a reputable legal provider to be screened for other benefits besides DACA. This can be done at the same time as the DACA consultation.
  • Refugees should apply for a green card at one year of being admitted to the United States. Seek a reputable legal provider for advice and guidance.
  • The government’s priorities regarding who is to be removed from the US have not changed.  Those who do not fall in one of these priorities are less likely (but not impossible) to be deported (current removal priorities)
  • Beware of notarios and other unscrupulous people.  Only seek legal help from reputable legal providers.

It is also important that immigrants are prepared in the unfortunate event they or a family member are detained or face deportation.  You can encourage immigrants to do the following:

Make a plan now, before such an event occurs.  Educate all family members, and especially children, on where important papers are kept; important phone numbers to be memorized; which adult is in charge of children in case one or both parents are detained; and the name of an immigration lawyer to call.

Review the “Know your Rights” factsheet, and know how to respond.  According to the National Immigration Law Center, everyone has certain basic rights under the Constitution.  Here are some recommendations:

  • Exercise your right to remain silent.  You have the right to refuse to speak to immigration officers.
  • Carry a “Know-Your-Rights” card and any valid immigration documents you have.  Show them if an immigration officer stops you (click here to link to resources in English and Spanish from the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild)
  • Do not open your door unless an ICE agent shows you a warrant signed by a judge.
  • You have the right to speak to a lawyer.
  • Before you sign anything, talk to a lawyer.

Within immigrant communities, much of the news and information that they receive is in their native language.  This includes both formal sources, such as news through television, radio, or online websites, as well as informal community networks, such as people sharing information with friends and neighbors.  We can do much to calm fears and dispel rumors by remaining educated and informed, and pointing our immigrant friends to credible, trustworthy information.  And by praying.

Beyond the Band-Aid Legal Aid Ministry that Makes a Difference

Band-Aid:

ˈbandād/ noun  NORTH AMERICAN trademark

  1. an adhesive bandage with a gauze pad in the center, used to cover minor wounds.
  2. a makeshift or temporary solution: “A band-aid solution to a much deeper problem”

 

We all know what a Band-Aid is, and we all know what a Band-Aid does.  A Band-Aid covers a wound…and really not much else.  It may make the scratch feel better, but the soft, thin gauze won’t protect it from a bump, bruise, or bully; nor would it protect the wound from a bacterial infection from within.  Without the help of Neosporin, a Band-Aid would only absorb the bleeding; it would not treat, cure, or prevent the wound from bleeding—nor was it meant to.

This very same principle applies to Band-Aid solutions.  Aptly-named, these solutions are just that:  insufficient covers to the real wounds that lie beneath.  Problems covered up by Band-Aid solutions aren’t protected from bruises (obstacles) or bullies (opposition) or even “bacterial infections from within” (inefficiencies).  Without using other resources to help treat or cure the problem, temporary solutions remain just that.  Band-Aid solutions only cover up the real issue; although they may make the problem appear fixed by absorbing its initial symptoms, they do not protect or prevent the wound in the first place—nor were they meant to.

Immigration Clinic

So where does that leave us when the wounds we deal with impact people’s daily lives?  What do we do when Band-Aid solutions just aren’t working anymore?

We go beyond the Band-Aid.

LUCHA wants to offer more than Band-Aid solutions to the variety of issues surrounding immigration, not least legal affairs.  That’s why LUCHA is in the process of becoming recognized by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).  [For more information on that, read our previous blog post.]  At a recent weekend conference hosted by the Baptist General Association of Virginia, LUCHA founders Greg and Sue Smith explained why providing legal aid is more than a Band-Aid approach to ministry.  “We were really moved by this [concept]” stated Sue Smith, “Legal aid is a practical, tangible, immediate way to show the love of Jesus Christ to our immigrant neighbors.”

20160430_135432
Greg Smith representing LUCHA Ministries at the BGAV Mission Matters Conference on April 30, 2016

To the 12 attendees at LUCHA’s breakout session at the BGAV’s Mission Matters Conference, it was evident that the Smiths are really passionate about getting this information out to as many people as possible.  If you are interested in legal aid ministry, or just basic immigration law and practice, LUCHA will be hosting a 40-hour Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training seminar in partnership with World Relief Immigration Legal Services on October 10-14th this year at Manassas Baptist Church in Manassas, VA.  For more information, feel free to contact us or follow this link to register.

Immigration Legal Services Taking "Welcoming the Stranger" a Step Farther

On April 15th, LUCHA submitted the paperwork to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals requesting recognition that will allow us to open an Immigration Legal Services office.  As a BIA-recognized agency, LUCHA Ministries will have the capacity to offer low-cost immigration legal services by assisting qualifying immigrants applying for an immigration legal benefit, by providing counsel on
immigration legal matters, and by representing immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security.

LUCHA Ministries Immigration Legal Services will serve immigrants applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA); Temporary Protective Status (TPS); Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS); and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA)[1].  Additional services may include assistance with family-based petitions and other means for seeking legal status in the U.S.

The services LUCHA Ministries has provided to immigrants through the years are based on Matthew 25:35-36. We’ve welcomed immigrants in our community by providing food and clothing, facilitating opportunities for fellowship and personal growth, helping people obtain medical and dental care, and visiting them in ICE detention and jail.  And now, we’re taking our commitment to serve the immigrant community one step farther by beginning an Immigration Legal Services Program. “I assure you that when you have welcomed the stranger, one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me,” says Jesus in this passage.  And when Jesus talks about welcoming the stranger, it’s based on personal experience. Jesus was once a refugee, taken as a child to another country to escape persecution and certain death. His family was seeking asylum..

Immigration Clinic

The lack of legal status keeps people living in fear.  Maria* frantically called an American friend on her cell phone on the way to church one evening.  “There’s a police car that’s been following me, and it into the church parking lot when I did!”, she said.  Maria’s friend went outside to meet her at the car and walk inside the church with Maria and her two sons.  Maria, who is undocumented and does not have a drivers’ license, was trembling with fear and began sobbing by the time she entered the church.  While she has lived in the U.S. for over 14 years and never committed any crimes or had traffic violations, she lives in fear of being stopped and deported.

The lack of legal status prevents people from obtaining better, more stable jobs to provide for their families.   Ana,* a single mom with three children, had worked at the same fast-food restaurant for 5 years and made $9.50 per hour.  When she became pregnant, she worked as long as possible, but had to quit her job right before the baby was born.  When she returned to work two months later, she was re-hired at minimum wage, $7.25.  She was told that there was “significant turn-over” of the staff and that all personnel were new — and employed at the $7.25 “entry level” rate.  Ana didn’t have a valid work permit, and she felt lucky to have a job.

The lack of legal status promotes distrust of authority and discourages integration into community life.  Jose’s* neighbor was pounding on his door late one night.  “There’s an intruder in my apartment with a knife, threatening to kill us all!” the neighbor said.  “Please call 911!”  But when the police arrived, they went to Jose’s apartment and asked to see his ID.  They began questioning Jose about his legal status rather than searching for the intruder, who had fled the area and was loose in the neighborhood.

With over 11 million undocumented persons living in the U.S., not all qualify for an immigration benefit, or in other words, have the ability to “become legal.”  But many are like Maria, Ana, and Jose, trying to carve out a better life in the United States for themselves and for their families.  They want to participate in community activities, to earn a living and provide for their children, and to help their neighbors.  And with sound, affordable legal assistance, many can obtain legal status. While many immigrants would agree that they’re living a “better life” simply by being in the United States, legal status is the missing piece that will help them regain a sense of dignity and self-respect, and to fully engage in the life of our communities.

[1] Only if the US Supreme Court issues a favorable ruling for DAPA in June 2016.

“Compared to the situation at hand…there is a big need.” Reflections on Immigration Law: Quotes from BGAV's Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training

*All quotes are direct from anonymous participants at the BGAV Law Training

Representative from Poarch Law Firm led the training seminars
Representative from Poarch Law Firm led the training seminars

In the middle of last month, LUCHA’s administrator and co-founder Greg Smith facilitated a Basic Immigration Law and Procedure Training event at the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV). Co-sponsored by the BGAV and Poarch Law Firm, this 40-hour training seminar was designed for staff and volunteers serving through non-profit religious, social service, and charitable organizations who wish to provide legal services to qualified immigrants.  This training fulfilled one of many requirements to receive Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) recognition and accreditation—without which a person, representative, or organization cannot officially provide legal services or counsel to immigrants.  Considering that Virginia “has the ninth-largest immigrant population in the U.S., with 11 percent of the state’s population being foreign-born[1],” and only 16 BIA-recognized organizations[2], there is indeed a big need.

“These people [immigrants] have been stigmatized by the media and politicians…”

The participants of this training spanned numerous states and careers, some motivated to learn more about immigration law by their church’s Latino immigrant ministries, others by the dismaying stories of undocumented children, and others still by the work of LUCHA and their hope of becoming BIA accredited.  Regardless of the various reasons why they were there, the participants were collectively motivated by the human faces behind the media coverage of immigration stories.  Undocumented immigrants in particular have receiving the brunt of adverse and untrue media, and the extremely polarizing election season this year has only exacerbated antagonistic media coverage of immigration issues.  Consequently, the rhetoric of this hot-button issue has overshadowed its humanity and our responsibility, as Christ-followers, to love and serve our neighbors.  As one seminar participant noted, irrespective of political affiliation, that: “There are a lot of good people—a lot of good Christians—who have been spun into the narrative of the media.”  This training brought back into focus the rights of immigrants and the opportunities we all have to protect and uphold those rights.

“I don’t want to know this stuff and not be able to use it.”

Law training 3
Nearly 20 people from various career backgrounds attended the Basic Immigration Law Training in Richmond, VA

Participants left the Immigration Law Training at the end of the week with heads and hands full of information on how to (and how not to) help immigrants regarding legal issues.  If you are interested in immigration law or issues, here are some great resources to check out suggested by this training’s participants:

Enrique’s Journey, by Sonia Nazario found here

The Stranger, a short film by the Evangelical Immigration Table

Immigrant Legal Resource Center website

Recognized Organizations and Accredited Representative Roster by State and City

 

[1] http://www.thecommonwealthinstitute.org/2013/04/25/the-facts-on-virginias-immigrant-communities/

[2] https://www.justice.gov/file/439431/download

#11for11million 11 Days for the 11 Million: Recapping LUCHA's first Instagrampaign

On April 2nd, we finished our first-ever social media awareness campaign, #11for11million!  What does that hashtag mean, you wonder?  With the introduction of our Instagram account, we took 11 days to highlight immigration issues in the U.S. and to give you an inside look into who we are and why we do what we do.  …And where did we get 11 million from?  ~11 million is the Center for Migration Studies’ estimated number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, the vast majority being from our Spanish-speaking neighbors, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.)
So, if you joined along during our Instagrampaign, THANK YOU!  And if this is your first time hearing about it, THANK YOU, TOO!  We are so excited you’ve come this far to learn more about us.  In case you missed our first Instagrampaign, have no fear!  Here is a quick recap of #11for11million:
(Of course, you can always go follow us on Instagram @luchaministries and go check it out for yourself!  And while you’re at it, check out our Facebook and Twitter accounts, too.) 

Day 1:  We initiated our Instagram account with a dedication to the near 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, as well as introduced our campaign, #11for11million.

Day 2:  For our first post on #MakingAMinistry, we highlighted our commitment to human rights through our daily services and advocacy efforts.

Day 3:  Go local!  We shared our desire for increased community awareness and engagement with the Latino immigrant population who are our neighbors in the greater Fredericksburg area.

Day 4:  This #MakingAMinistry post focused on our training & education services for both our clients and the greater community in which we serve.

Day 5:  Our final post on #MakingAMinistry recognized our identity as a faith-based nonprofit motivated by the life and love of Jesus Christ.

Day 6:  We met Greg & Sue Smith on Day 6 of #11for11million!  This husband and wife team founded LUCHA Ministries in 2004 after returning from a 12-year stint in Costa Rica.

Day 7:  We continuegreg and sued to #MeetTheMakers of LUCHA by highlighting our incredible support from individual donors, churches, and faith-based organizations (like the BGAV and CBF), whose support makes LUCHA’s ministries possible!

Day 8:  In a switch from Who We Are (our motivations) to What We Do (our ministries), we called attention to the various services we provide to our clients, including immediate relief as well as long-term support to holistically address the needs of the Latino immigrant community.

Day 9:  Project ¡Adelante!, our women’s empowerment group, was our first #MinistryMoment, and you can read more about them in the “A Beloved Community” below!

Day 10:  The highlighted #MinistryMoment of the day was our after-school study buddies program, Bridges of Hope.  Bridgestudy buddies 3s of Hope is our educational service “umbrella” that also provides other educational trainings, like ESL and computer literacy seminars.

Day 11:  Our last day emphasized how grateful we are that you joined us for #11for11million!  So, a huge shout-out goes to YOU for being a part of that!

Thank you, again, for joining us in our #11for11million campaign and for your interest in immigration issues in your community and country.  Be on the lookout for more news and updates from LUCHA!

As a special thank-you for getting this far, here’s a heads up for you full-length readers:  #11for11thousand is coming soon!  Keep up with us for more details!

 

A Dangerous Journey They know the dangers and they come anyway. What does that say about the situations they left?

Decision to immigrate to the US aren't made lightly
The decision to immigrate to the US isn’t made lightly, no matter what the circumstances are in one’s home country

 Since 2014, Central Americans have been fleeing their homes en masse in hopes of making it to the United States. Officially recognized by President Obama as a humanitarian crisis , the Northern Triangle region (including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is plagued by dangerously high rates of gang-related violence, political insecurity, and organized crime groups; in fact, this region hosts some of the most violent countries in the world, with El Salvador noted as “the world’s most violent country not at war” (http://on.cfr.org/1PTk574).

Contrary to Popular Belief

This violence is one of the most critical factors for the rise in Central American immigration to the U.S. in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll found that in 2014 undocumented immigrants comprised 3.5% of the total U.S. population, of which Mexican immigrants make up 49% . Contrary to popular belief, there has actually been a decrease in Mexican nationals immigrating to the U.S.; but, the rise in Central American immigration has kept the percentage of undocumented immigrants around a steady 3.5% of the total U.S. population.

Once these asylum-seekers finally reach the United States (if they even do), their dangerous journey does not get any easier. The proliferation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and action within the public and political realms has given undocumented immigrants little chance of hope for reprieve.

So, why don’t they immigrate legally?

Greg Smith, co-founder and coordinator of LUCHA Ministries, explained the four pathways for legal immigration to the U.S. at the Cooperative Baptist Foundation’s annual Advocacy in Action event in Washington, D.C. last week. Legal immigration can occur through family ties, employment opportunities, a diversity lottery, or as asylum; however, each of these methods has a very long process with limited chance of success.

Family ties: This option has many stipulations that the immigrants must go through to take place successfully, most importantly having a petitioning US citizen or legal permanent resident relative, and even then there is very limited availability for legal immigrants this way.

Employment opportunities: Probably one of the better-known pathways to immigration, this option provides only 10,000 visas for unskilled workers annually through the Third Preference EB-3 category, with the backlog for filling these visas sometimes a decade or more.

Diversity lottery: This lottery provides the chance for people from underrepresented nationalities to immigrate to the United States with the possibility of citizenship. As you can guess, this is not a likely option for Central American immigrants.

Asylum: The U.S. provides asylum to refugees fleeing humanitarian crises in their home countries. Although President Obama has recognized the violence and organized crime of the Northern Triangle to be a humanitarian crisis, Central American immigrants fleeing violence at home are often not recognized as refugees and are therefore not automatically granted humanitarian asylum in the United States.

Take Action. Advocate.

Greg Smith and his wife Sue, executive director of LUCHA Ministries, asked the 30 people in attendance at their Advocacy in Action seminar to visit or write to their state representatives about immigration reform, particularly in the case of Central Americans. Among many issues facing Central American immigrants (not limited to ICE raids, deferred action status, and detention center treatment) is legal representation. Because US immigration law does not grant an attorney to immigrants at government cost, Miranda Rights are not afforded to them; therefore, children who appear in immigration court who cannot afford proper legal representation (i.e. the vast majority) must defend themselves.

Greg Smith and others talk with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about current legislation that affects immigrants
Greg Smith and others talk with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about proposed legislation that affects immigrants

With little to no knowledge or resources to guide them in immigration law, children must try to navigate their court proceedings for one of the most unmistakably confounding areas of U.S. law.

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016 proposal by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and others calls for the provision of legal counsel to unaccompanied children as well as a general review of immigration court efficiency, including reducing costs and increasing access to legal information. (Read the full draft here: http://1.usa.gov/1QY59mc)

Take action with us and ask your representatives to support the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act. Advocate alongside the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, LUCHA Ministries, and the many others who believe that Central Americans deserve the chance to have a happy ending to their dangerous journey.

Is my Daddy a bad person? LUCHA Ministers to Families in Times of Crisis

 

“Is My Daddy A Bad Person?”

By Sue Smith, Executive Director

It was a beautiful fall day, and Eduardo*, his sister Yessenia*, and I were sharing Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets. We were on our way home from an all-day trip to Farmville, Virginia, where I had taken the kids to visit their dad at the ICE detention center. Somehow McDonald’s didn’t seem like the ideal place for such a serious discussion.

“Ms. Sue, is my daddy a bad person?” asked “Little” Eduardo. Looking into the 6-year-old’s small face was like looking at his dad at that age. Same slight features, same big brown eyes, same black hair. “No,” I responded, “your dad isn’t a bad person. He’s a really good person, and he loves you.” “Then why can’t he come home with us? I miss him so much!” Little Eduardo said as the tears started to flow.

For nearly 20 months, Eduardo’s dad (also named Eduardo) was incarcerated, much of that time in a detention facility for immigrants while the courts decided whether he would be deported or not. The final court date was looming, and with an uncertain outcome. I couldn’t promise that Eduardo’s dad would come home soon, or come home ever. And how do you explain the difference in “jail,” where “bad people go” and immigration detention? That’s a lot for a 1st-grader to comprehend.

From the beginning, LUCHA Ministries has offered a variety of programming to help improve the lives of immigrants in our community: ESOL, tutoring, computer literacy and skills training, counseling, help in obtaining affordable healthcare, food assistance, and more. But it’s on days like this one, talking with Little Eduardo, when I am most aware of the impact of our ministry. What we do is important — vitally important — but how we do it, our holistic approach that extends to the entire family ,is what distinguishes us from other agencies in our community. The folks among whom we work aren’t simply participants in our programs, or clients, or immigrants. They are our friends, our neighbors, and fellow children of God.

Over the years, LUCHA Ministries helped “Big” Eduardo obtain emergency dental care, provided food assistance, and encouraged him to obtain his GED. When he was away, the care extended to his family, making sure they had their basic needs met and providing emotional support. And for those 20 months, I visited Eduardo regularly in detention, praying with him and reminding him of God’s continuous love and care in spite of difficult circumstances.

As Executive Director, I am thankful for LUCHA’s many board members, program directors, volunteers, and donors who share our passion to love and care for the immigrant community. They go above and beyond what is expected, and when they take responsibility for much of the daily administration of our programs and activities, they allow me to spend extra time with families or individuals who are going through a crisis.

I am also thankful for God’s amazing love and care for families like Eduardo’s. “Big” Eduardo is now back with his family and will soon receive his Green Card as a Legal Permanent Resident He’s attending church, working, and enjoying his children. He’s even considering college in the future. Like he recently told me, “I am so blessed, God is good. Thank you for not giving up on us.”

Many Ways to Welcome Immigrants Campers at Passport support ministry efforts among immigrants

The camp offering from Passport Camps this summer will go to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship work in the Rio Grande Valley, to Touching Miami with Love in Miami, Florida and to Virginia-based LUCHA Ministries.  “We’re honored to be featured by Passport,” says Sue Smith, Executive Director of LUCHA. “We’re glad to have had a part in shaping this summer’s focus and helping campers learn how to reach out to new immigrants in their schools, churches, and communities.”

What we do at LUCHA is Connected to a Larger Network

After learning about thousands of unaccompanied children traveling north from Central America last June, Passport called on Rick McClatchy, Coordinator of CBF TX to learn more. He introduced Passport to Diann Whisnand, CBF field personnel working in the border town of McAllen, Texas. Whisnand, who works involves literacy training and English as a Second Language, became involved in joint efforts of local ministries responding to the influx of people overwhelming the city. “Cooperative Baptists provided pallets of water,” says Whisnand, “Catholic Charities provided a welcoming space, and the Salvation Army made soup. We all worked together.”

Many of those who came from Central America last year have now made their way to families in New York, Virginia, Florida and California.

Sue and Greg Smith, co-founders of LUCHA, work among the Latino community in Fredericksburg, VA. “Many of the people from Central America are fleeing gang violence and crime.” said Sue Smith. “Unlike others who have immigrated to the United States, many now arrive traumatized by violence and are in need of a different kind of support.” One report estimates that there are ten murders in the city of San Salvador every day. It is not uncommon for children to have witnessed a murder.

In Homestead, Florida Wanda Ashworth Valencia works at Touching Miami with Love, under the direction of Jason and Angel Pittman. “Sometimes Miami is called a first-third world city,” says Jason Pittman, “because of the large discrepancy between the extremely rich and the extremely poor.” The Pittmans work in Overtown, an historic African American neighborhood, while Wanda offers similar community development work in Homestead, which serves a largely Hispanic population.

“What’s with the Dolls?”

Passport 2015 Emphasis 2These handmade dolls are a symbol of welcome for the many immigrant children who come to the United States.  The Welcome Dolls were created by a Women in Ministry group from College Park Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and sent to Diann Wisnand in Texas, where they were distributed to newly-arrived immigrant children.   Each child also received a note of encouragement, reminding them to think of God’s love and care as they hug their dolls.

Many Latino children who arrive in the US are reunited with their parents after many years of being apart.  They’ve been living with grandparents or other relatives while their parents came to the United States to work and establish a home before sending for them.  They don’t speak English, they don’t know their parents personally, and they’re grieving over the people and things they’ve left behind.

“The adjustment is hard on everybody,” says Sue Smith of LUCHA.  “Ministries such as ours focus on helping the whole family understand that it’s not an easy process. It takes time.”  Programs focus on practical aspects of adjustment, such as homework assistance to help children in school, ESL to encourage language proficiency, and adult language and literacy programs to help parents become more engaged in their children’s education.

And then there’s the emotional adjustment.  Parents have dreamed of having their children with them, and children have dreamed of coming to the states to live with Mom and Dad.  But there are challenges.  The kids are essentially entering a “new” family, learning the rules and getting to know each other.  It’s frustrating for parents, and it can be lonely for the new children.

Maria*, who arrived from Guatemala at age 12, says that it was really hard to adjust.  “I didn’t know my parents or my little brothers.  I felt stupid in school because I couldn’t speak English.  People laughed at me.”  But she says it was her church friends and youth leaders who made a difference.  Some helped with homework, others practiced English with her.  “They didn’t laugh at me, and they made me feel welcome.”

Today, Maria is 16 and is one of the young people who attends Passport with her church.  Not only has Passport taught campers about welcoming immigrants, but they’ve modeled it by welcoming many of these children and youth in camp.

*name changed to protect identity