Posted: 1/13/16 at 8:30am. Article by Greg Smith.
She called our Fredericksburg office late in the afternoon. “I live in another town,” the caller began in rapid-fire Spanish, “but I understand that you help Latinos, and I need help with an immigration matter.”
Her cry for help was not new. LUCHA Ministries had received the same plea before from Latinos asking whether they qualified for an immigration benefit.
I explained to her that, yes, LUCHA Ministries does help meet a number of social, spiritual and physical needs Latino immigrants have but, unfortunately, our agency was not capable of helping with immigration legal questions. The call ended with Dios le bendiga (“God bless you”) and the hope someone might be able to help.
United States immigration law provides a number of ways legally qualified immigrants – Latino or otherwise – may seek to apply for an immigration benefit allowing them to live and work lawfully in our country.
Yet immigrants face several major hurdles. For one, the complexity of immigration law makes it impossible for immigrants to navigate it successfully without expert help, especially those for whom English is not their native language. On top of this, there are not enough immigration lawyers to handle the need, especially those whose fees poorer immigrants can afford.
Plus, unwary immigrants are often scammed by notarios, a word in Latin America synonymous with “attorney,” but in the US often this term denotes untrained and unscrupulous individuals who prey on Latino immigrants’ ignorance while promising help they can’t deliver, all for a high price.
This is why the Baptist General Association of Virginia, in partnership with the Poarch Immigration Law firm in Salem, Virginia, is sponsoring a Basic Immigration Legal and Procedure Training, March 14-18, at the Virginia Baptist Resource Center in Richmond. This intensive, week-long training provides a complete overview of US immigration law, including family-based petitions, avenues of humanitarian relief, the grounds of inadmissibility and deportability, and recent changes such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Significant to the training is that it is specifically designed for staff and volunteers working in non-profit religious, social service, and other charitable organizations, including local congregations. Through the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) of the US Justice Department, non-profits may apply to become “recognized,” and their personnel to become “accredited,” to provide low-cost immigration legal assistance.
LUCHA Ministries is seeking BIA recognition. Founded in 2004, the agency has served the first-generation Latino immigrant community. “For years we considered investigating the possibility of becoming BIA-recognized,” commented Sue Smith, LUCHA Ministries’ executive director. “From the beginning we have been strong advocates for immigration reform and immigrants’ rights. But with the increased attention given to immigration over the past few years, we decided now was the time to act.”
Encouragement came from a far-away source. In 2013, Sue and I met Jesús Romero, executive director of the ISAAC Project in San Antonio, Texas, which has been a BIA-recognized agency since 2011. Dr. Romero not only introduced us to the BIA’s recognition and accreditation program, he accepted our invitation to come to Virginia to explain the value and benefits of being BIA-recognized, both for the immigrant community and for the service providers as well.
“Wouldn’t it be great,” Dr. Romero shared with his Virginia Baptist audience, “if the immigrant community, when they needed immigration assistance, thought ‘Let’s go to the Baptists. The Baptists care about us. The Baptists will help.’” While the immigration legal services ISAAC provides are for everyone regardless of race or religion, Dr. Romero explained that he and his staff will often ask clients if they can pray with them, especially before paperwork is mailed or responses received.
“When cases are resolved and immigrants receive the benefit they applied for, often they will come back to thank us and praise God,” Dr. Romero shared.
At the conclusion of Dr. Romero’s presentation, one of the Virginia Baptists in attendance broke into a wide smile. “This opportunity is more than a ‘Band-Aid approach’ to meeting immigrants needs,” David Donahue, now senior pastor at Manassas Baptist Church, enthusiastically exclaimed. “It meets real long-term needs that immigrants face.”
The March 14-18 Basic Immigration Legal and Procedure Training costs $315, which includes the price of the course textbook, A Guide for Immigration Advocates, published by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Registrants will gather each day, Monday through Friday, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. No prior legal knowledge or experience is required to register.
Churches and other non-profits are encouraged to send a staff member, volunteer or member who has a passion for immigrants and their welfare. At the end of the training, participants who attend all sessions and pass a take-home exam will receive a certificate from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. The training serves to fulfill one of the requirements for application to become BIA-recognized and accredited.
I sometimes wonder if the lady who called that afternoon eventually received the help she needed. What I do know, though, is that I look forward to not only saying “God bless you” to people seeking immigration assistance, but also being able to say “LUCHA Ministries is happy to listen to your question and try to help.” My hope is that God will use us as a channel of blessing in this way.
You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.