|Immigrants find legal help at clinic|
An immigrant seeks legal assistance at a Justice for Our Neighborhood
clinic held at First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.
By Barry Simmons*
April 8, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
The 18-year-old woman in Katherine Esquivel’s office is hunched over
the table and nervously wringing her hands. She speaks almost no
English and hesitates to utter the few words she does know.
Volunteers Julie Hutchins (from left), Mary Kaye Jordan, Krysta Perez and Jan Snider
prepare to host a clinic in Nashville, Tenn.
Police arrested her during a recent raid at a Chattanooga, Tenn.,
poultry plant, where she had been working illegally for five years. She
now faces deportation back to Guatemala. Her only chance of staying in
the United States sits across the table from her in this spare room
at Belmont United Methodist Church.
“What we’re doing today is preparing her for testimony,” explains
Esquivel, a Harvard-trained volunteer attorney for Justice for Our
Neighbors, a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief that
provides free legal help to immigrants.
Her client fled Guatemala as a child to escape a sexually abusive
father. Now a single mother, she fears the life that awaits her if
she’s forced to return. Together, she and Esquivel are preparing for a
hearing in Memphis where they will ask a judge to grant her political
“There are a lot of workers who don’t have a lawful claim to stay in
the United States,” Esquivel says. “But some of the workers like our
client here have very important and valid claims to be in the U.S.”
Esquivel’s client is lucky: most in her situation could never afford
an attorney to prepare a case like this for them. Spring Miller,
another volunteer, estimates a private attorney might charge as much as
$10,000 for an asylum case.
“There are so many immigrants
in this country who are working
hard and want that American dream
just like the rest of the citizens
here,” says Java Nehhemmat.
“These are cases that, if you leave them to the free market, will
never be picked up by anyone – or they won’t be done at all,” she
Frustrated by red tape
Some who come to the clinics for help, like Java Nehhemmat, have
been living in the United States for over a decade, frustrated by their
inability to cut through the red tape.
“I don’t know what I need to do to be here, so the help is – it just
means more than anything else,” says Nehhemmat, who is waiting to
receive a green card.
“There are so many immigrants in this country who are working hard
and want that American dream just like the rest of the citizens here,”
she adds. “And JFON is a window that can bring those resources to
immigrants like me.”
Danny Upton, who is a national program attorney for Justice For
Our Neighbors, says the program exists primarily for the most
vulnerable immigrants, who have fled their countries seeking refuge
from domestic abuse or religious or political persecution.
“It’s an opportunity for us to translate
our faith and our moral and religious convictions into actions – into service,” says attorney Danny Upton.
“It’s an opportunity for us to translate our faith and our moral and
religious convictions into actions – into service,” he points out.
The ministry provides an array of services to immigrants, which
includes guiding them through the citizenship process and reuniting
them with family members. But, as often as not, volunteers must explain
to some clients that there are simply no legal options available for
them to stay in the United States.
“Even that information – ‘No, you’re not eligible to apply for
permanent residence’ – that’s really empowering, important information
for somebody to have,” says Susan Reed, another volunteer. “It protects
that person from being the victim of an unscrupulous attorney.”
Laws more complex
As laws affecting immigration have grown more and more complex, the
need among immigrants for legal help has grown. Justice For Our
Neighbors started 10 years ago with just one clinic. The clinic in
Nashville, which opened in April 2008, is the 25th clinic related to
“There’s just so much abuse, so
much misunderstanding – and just
to be able to clear up some of
that has been a blessing,” says
Kathryn Spry, a volunteer
at the Nashville clinic.
“I knew there were people out there who needed a lot of help, but I
had no idea how touching it was to hear about these folks and what
they’re having to go through,” says Kathryn Spry, a volunteer at the
“There’s just so much abuse, so much misunderstanding – and just to
be able to clear up some of that has been a blessing,” she adds.
Esquivel tells her client that receiving political asylum is a long
shot. The odds are always stacked against the defendant in cases like
these. But she also knows the system, and most importantly, how to
guide her client through it.
“Immigration court is difficult,” Esquivel says. “But we’re hopeful
and we’re confident that she has a strong claim. We believe in her and
we’ll keep fighting for her.”
*Simmons is a freelance producer in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5458 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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