By Emily Hart*
Special to the UMConnection
Ms. Fay, center, after her swearing in with some of her church family.
L-R: Kathi, Rev. Emily, Nathanial, Fay, Kelly, Ellsworth.
Photo courtesy of Emily Hart.
“So, how long have you all been on this journey?” asked the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officer.
“Two years and 7 months.”
Two years and seven challenging, frustrating, and at times painful, months.
That’s how long it took for Ms. Fay to navigate the immigration system, become a naturalized citizen of the United States of America, and finally sleep well at night again.
Like many immigrants of her generation, Fay did not need to aggressively pursue citizen status. She had her green card, 54 years-worth of experiences, a strong support system, and no strong desire to travel internationally. Why go through the bother of citizenship? The financial burden and complicated legal paperwork, not to mention the civics test, were plenty of a barrier to pursuing more.
Until January 2016. Suddenly, Deaf green card carriers receiving government services started to get anxious as anti-immigrant rhetoric ramped up.
In order to become a citizen, one must pass a civics test and an English test to prove their ability to fulfill their civic duties. People who don’t know English can be exempted from the language test but not from the civics test. Many Deaf individuals do not have access to early language acquisition. This can cause permanent delays in reading comprehension.
American Sign Language, a language as unique as Spanish or Mandarin, can help to overcome these delays through establishing the necessary brain-ties to language and meaning. For Deaf individuals who don’t get access to strong language development — how can they cope with complex legal language for immigration paperwork?
Enter Justice for our Neighbors (JFON) and Deaf Shalom Zone, Inc. (DSZ).
DSZ exists to forge connections between Deaf individuals and the hearing world. They provide free support for Deaf and DeafBlind individuals and their families in the Baltimore Washington area. DSZ focuses on the “CARE” model: Case management, Advocacy, Referral services, and Education. This can be as basic as translating a letter that comes in the mail (“that’s a charity, not a bill; your choice to pay;” “That’s an ad for hair plugs, not a note of medical necessity from your doctor;”), or as complicated as navigating the immigration system.
Praise God for JFON. JFON is a legal group founded by The United Methodist Church that provides free legal services for individuals and families navigating the immigration system. They have offices all over America. What a blessing that one is in Baltimore.
Between the Rev. Sandi Johnson, the lead pastor of Deaf Ministry and an American Sign Language interpreter with legal interpreting certification, and Anglea Edman, the Baltimore JFON lawyer, they provided Fay with quality legal help that met her needs in a uniquely culturally sensitive way. Ms. Fay would soon be a citizen.
Or so we thought.
The immigration process is not straightforward. It twists, turns, and loses documents in the mail. Her process seemed simple: naturalization has 20 questions on the civics exam and she only needed to get six right. Edman deftly submitted form after form to make sure Ms. Fay had every advantage she qualified for. DSZ case managers studied the civics exam tirelessly.
Question: “Why does the flag have 50 stars?” Answer: “The Statue of Liberty.”
Her first interview came, and something went wrong. She didn’t pass.
Angela worked, DSZ worked, and Fay studied, but it was clear she would not pass the test the second time. We were despondent. How can we support her in overcoming all these barriers of late language acquisition, culture, and education? What could we do?
We decided to reach out to Highlandtown Community Health Center to try to get a formal medical exemption for the civics exam. We are thrilled the doctor understood and filled out the exemption.
And just in time! Almost immediately, Fay got a summons to re-interview. The day after Christmas we overnighted the original documents for her exemption and prayed they would arrive in time for her interview.
The day of the test. We all arrived, Johnson as legal interpreter, Edman as legal counsel, and myself as pastoral support. Fay arrived as a potential citizen.
When called, we walked down the hall praying fervently.
They didn’t get the forms.
She had to take the test.
You could have cut the tension and fear in the room with a knife. We all start sweating and our officer begins the test.
And she gets the first question right.
And the second.
And the third.
We hold the fourth.
Fifth, right, sixth right... “wait, is this really happening??”
She only needed one more right answer to pass naturalization.
“Why are there 50 stars —“
We leapt to our feet cheering and crying. Fay, happy and bewildered by our reaction, hands everyone tissues while our officer looks on with a small smile.
“How long was this journey?”
“Two years, seven months.”
Ms. Fay, left stands with the Rev. Emily Hart, attorney Angela Edman, and
the Rev. Sandi Johnson.
This journey — long, painful, challenging — has blessed me beyond measure. What a God we serve. When we all use our gifts and graces together, we can move mighty mountains. Those who support JFON and DSZ with financial gifts, thank you for making this work possible. JFON and DSZ needed each other for this interdependent, beautiful work. What else can we accomplish to bring the Kindom to earth? What other skills and passions can overlap with such force and beauty that the Enemy doesn’t even have room for a whine, let alone a protest?
Praise God, Fay was sworn in on Jan. 8, amidst a room filled with eager immigrants excited to take this new step. What a way to begin the new year.
*The Rev. Emily Hart is pastor of Magothy United Methodist Church of the Deaf in Pasadena.