ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) — Though politicians and pundits on TV often dominate the national stalemate on immigration reform in the United States, several churches, government and private agencies, and individuals are facing the complex issues first-hand. Among them are Mennonite Voluntary Service participants.
Eight MVSers are serving at agencies that work to empower refugees and immigrants. The MVSers help to provide services such as food, clothing, housing, language classes, and legal and employment aide. As a result, the MVSers have a clearer understanding of the complexities of the broken immigration system in the United States. They also learn how they might positively affect lives and long-term change to the system.
According to the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act, a refugee to the United States is any foreign-born person with a special humanitarian concern and "a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." Immigrants are people who leave their native land to live permanently in another country. Undocumented immigrants are defined as all foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents in the United States. Most undocumented residents entered without being inspected, or remained after the expiration of their visas. Among the complexities of U.S. immigration policy is that many undocumented immigrants say they fled persecution, but are unable to get refugee status. While being processed, many refugees are often detained in facilities, which can make them feel as though they have done something wrong.
Neil Richer, MVS program director, said that the MVSers are gaining valuable experiences and stories from real people that they'll be able to share with the broader church. It's also a chance for them to be a part of immigration reform to potentially bring together diverse groups of people in the church who can rally around an important cause.
Among the eight MVSers is Elsa Goossen, who is serving a two-year term as an immigrant advocate at the San Luis Valley Immigrant Resource Center in Alamosa, Colorado. In a blog post series about her experiences, Goossen wrote:
"The human-to-human connections here help mitigate the callousness of the legal process, a system of racial control that spits out 'alien registration numbers' and holds immigrants to unreasonable (and often unattainable) standards."
Luz Varela and Neal Brubaker are volunteers at Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). Varela is a family advocate and Brubaker is a legal assistant.
Varela, who as a child emigrated from Mexico to the United States with her family, said that before her assignment at RAICES, she didn't know much about the statistics or facts regarding refugees or immigrants. She's well informed now. For example, contrary to popular belief, many immigrants are not coming to America just for employment, but they are fleeing their homelands with their children on their backs in order to survive, Varela said.
She said that it is heartbreaking to witness the "little confused faces" of children who do not understand why they had to leave home or why they were put into a detention center with their mother. Listening with compassion and love is one of the most important lessons Varela has learned. She said that sharing meals with the mothers is the most impactful activity that she does.
"We all sit around the old, rickety table and share whatever has been prepared by their hands," Varela said. "They always make sure to leave a place for me at the table, where I can sit and listen to all their stories and adventures. Sometimes they're funny and sometimes they are hard to listen to.
"This meal time is a sacred time for me," Varela continued. "The food preparation, the sitting at the table enjoying a meal together, the stories, and even the cleaning up all remind me of Jesus' foot-washing story. It centers me in my mission, which is to serve with love."
Brubaker said that in the United States the perception of refugees has been skewed by divisive political rhetoric, racial discrimination, and unfounded fears of job losses and terror attacks. He said the border crisis is tied to the violence, lack of safety, and lack of economic opportunities in countries from which thousands of people flee. Brubaker said that the refugees and immigrants need protection and support.
"I am inspired by the mothers that I work with each day," said Brubaker. "To experience unspeakable violence in their home countries, to make the difficult journey north, and at the end of that to be rejected by a country you seek help from, shows strength beyond what normal people possess."
MVS will sponsor Brubaker and Goosen to participate in a 10-day solidarity walk in California - El Camino Del Inmigrante, hosted by the Christian Community Development Association.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are 65.3 million (one person in 113) refugees worldwide. According to the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics, 69,975 refugees were admitted to the United States in 2014, the most recent year available. Most of them are from Burma (Myanmar), the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia – nations that have been plagued by war. About 1 million immigrants became lawful permanent residents in 2014, according to Homeland Security. Pew Research estimates there are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, comprising about 5 percent of the workforce.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, was passed in the U.S. Senate in 2013 to reform the U.S. immigration system. The bill would address some of the complexities, such as providing a pathway to legal status and to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, and increasing the number of border patrol agents. The bill has been blocked in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Mennonite Church USA has offered a voice of peace and reconciliation to urge Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform.
"We renounce the indifference to and mistreatment of undocumented and documented immigrants that has occurred and continues to occur in our congregations, our communities, and this country. We are committed to joining God's reconciling mission (Isaiah 58:6-9, 2 Corinthians 5:16-19) and to live and act as sisters and brothers in Christ regardless of our legal status," the church's statement says.
"In MVS, we have the ability to actively and practically live out a part of this vision by partnering with placement agencies committed to working for a more just immigration system," Richer said.
Last week, the Supreme Court failed to build consensus on a case concerning President Obama's 2014 executive actions on immigration, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The divided vote means that the programs will remain blocked from functioning and providing services to more than 4 million undocumented immigrants.
MVSers currently work with these immigration agencies: