By Erik Alsgaard
As the immigration debate intensifies in the United States, one way United Methodists are supporting immigrants is through its Justice for Our Neighbors program. The DC-Maryland JFON, which offers four clinics in the Baltimore-Washington Conference, held a "Welcoming the Stranger" meeting in mid-November at the BWC Mission Center to offer updates on its ministry, raise awareness and raise funds.
DC-Maryland JFON works with about 300 clients every year, said the Rev. Ken Hawes, senior pastor at Hughes-El Buen Samaritano UMC in Wheaton, and chair of the DC-MD JFON board. He said that their case load is growing due to several proposed changes in immigration and refugee laws.
"We’ve doubled the number of calls to our office this past year," Hawes said. "Unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity to double the number of clients we see. That’s one of the reasons for the fundraiser."
The Baltimore-Washington Conference funds about two-thirds of DC-MD JFON’s budget, Hawes said, and the other third comes in from donations or churches making contributions.
"The climate of fear has increased," said Angela Edman, the lone attorney for DC-MD JFON. "In the current climate, under this administration, life for the immigrant is tougher."
Things were not easy under the Obama Administration either, she said, noting that many people called him "the Deporter in Chief," but the climate of hatred today is much greater.
"Arrests are up 35 percent under President Trump," Edman said, adding that 10,000 more deportation officers are scheduled to be hired. She also noted recent presidential executive orders banning immigration from several countries that critics claim is a ban targeting Muslims.
Edman also talked about DACA – the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – and how the Trump administration is seeking to rescind that program. DACA, which started in 2012 under Obama, could affect roughly 800,000 young people registered under the program. It gives children who immigrated with their parents a two-year period of protection from deportation and allows them to work in the United States, according to CNBC.
Edman said her DACA caseload has greatly expanded. "It’s up to Congress to enact a law to fix this problem," she said. Those affected the most, she said, are children who have grown up in this country, contribute to society, follow the law and feel safe here.
Emma Escobar, coordinator of Hispanic/Latino ministries for the BWC, said that passing a "clean" Dream Act is important. "Whatever Congress does to fix DACA," she said, "it must not include money for a wall and no money for detention centers, and no money for hiring more Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers."
Cindy Harding is the Clinic Coordinator at First UMC in Hyattsville. A volunteer with JFON for nearly 15 years, she sets up the clinic every day, ensures files for the clients are ready, schedules other volunteers and provides refreshments. Harding sees the legal aspect of JFON but focuses her ministry on hospitality.
A typical client, walking through the door for the first time, is often experiencing fear, Harding said, because they don’t know what to expect. "But you almost see a kind of relief on their face because they are greeted, welcomed, given some refreshments and we talk to them just like we would talk to each other," she said. "There’s a relief that they know that they’re in a safe place."
Harding said that volunteering for JFON is placing her beliefs into action.
"I believe that everybody deserves a chance," she said. "People need to feel welcome. I know what it feels like to not feel like you belong somewhere, or that you’re not welcome somewhere, and that’s a horrible feeling."
Hawes said that Christians have a biblical basis for caring for the immigrant. "It begins with the people of Israel wandering in the desert, and God telling the people, ‘welcome the stranger,’" he said. "Practice hospitality because you might be entertaining angels unaware."