By Erik Alsgaard
When the U.S. government announced in early September a proposal to end DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, hundreds of thousands of people suddenly faced the possibility of deportation.
DACA is a program started in 2012 where undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States before they turned 16, and who have lived here since June 15, 2007, were eligible to apply for drivers’ licenses, enroll in college, and get a job, depending on the state where they lived. An estimated 800,000 people are DACA recipients.
Bishop LaTrelle Easterling spoke out against repealing DACA at a rally in front of the White House Sept. 5. The bishop said that DACA “really is an issue that tears at the fabric of who we are and who we say we are as Americans.”
The bishop said that the United States is a nation of immigrants and that the children affected by DACA are some of the most vulnerable.
“The individuals protected by DACA were brought here under no control of their own, and no fault of their own,” Bishop Easterling said. “I think it would be a travesty if this country, if this administration, turns its back on these young people now.”
CNN quoted President Donald Trump shortly after the repeal was announced. “We will resolve the DACA issue with heart and compassion – but through the lawful Democratic process – while at the same time ensuring that any immigration reform we adopt provides enduring benefits for the American citizens we were elected to serve,” the president said. “We must also have heart and compassion for unemployed, struggling and forgotten Americans.”
One critical way the church is responding to this immigration crisis is through JFON, or Justice For Our Neighbors. JFON provides free immigration legal services to low-income immigrants throughout the Washington, D.C., metro region.
JFON was established by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in 1999. JFON grew out of UMCOR’s long-standing work with refugees and immigrants. Today, there are 17 JFON sites in the United States, including one in the Baltimore-Washington Conference that operates four legal clinics.
The DC-Maryland JFON has an annual budget of $115,000, of which $72,000 comes from BWC apportionment dollars. The rest, according to the Rev. Ken Hawes, pastor at Hughes-El Buen Samaritano UMC in Wheaton and chair of the JFON Board, comes from donations and fundraisers. The Hispanic Ministries Committee of the BWC has also been very supportive, he said.
“We hope to continue to expand staff and services and are seeking donors, grants and other funding to increase the size of our office and personnel,” Hawes said.
Angela Edman is the one and only staff attorney for the DC-Maryland JFON. A graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law, she’s been in the position two years and has spent the last nine years working in immigration law, mostly with people seeking asylum because of persecution or torture.
“We do a lot of humanitarian-based claims,” Edman said, “with asylum-seekers, refugees, and with people seeking temporary protective status.” JFON also helps with instances of human trafficking, violence against women, victims of crime, and people fleeing “all sorts of violence,” she said. Additionally, DC-MD JFON works on family-based claims, green cards, naturalization, removal defense, and of course, DACA.
Edman said that DACA has been “problematic” since the 2016 election. That’s because, she added, candidate Trump ran on a platform of ending many immigration benefits. With DACA in particular, candidate and then President Trump continued to vacillate between pledging to end the program and pledging to maintain protection for DACA recipients. That inconsistency made it difficult to determine whether it was safe to help eligible immigrants to apply for DACA, Edman said.
Edman, who attends St. John’s UMC in Baltimore, said that her faith plays an important part in her work.
“When I pay attention to what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,” she said, “it’s this.” Her faith also enters when she is dealing with the ugly side of human behavior, such as torture.
“You can kind of go one of two ways when you see that,” Edman said. “You can sort of think, ‘How can there be a loving God when all these horrible things go on?’ or, you can see the face of God in your clients. What I saw and continue to see now, are these groups of people who have nothing, absolutely nothing to their name, but they always go out of their way to help one another. That is not something you see elsewhere often.”
“In such a diverse area,” Hawes said, “with a large immigrant population, it is vital that we continue our call as people of faith to welcome and care for the strangers and foreigners in our midst. Hospitality is a key element of JFON and striving to do justice. Helping people be an integral part of God’s kin-dom is at the center of who we strive to be.”