Protecting the Vulnerable in Los Angeles Immigration Court
Friends, I have not been writing nearly enough updates lately! Please know that I am so grateful for your patience and understanding. This is very late, but still really amazing!
In February, David & I got to visit Los Angeles! Even though we didn’t need our passports, this was still a very cross – cultural trip from Detroit. Los Angeles is 35% Immigrant born – most of whom arrived in my lifetime. These immigrants come from all over the world, but mainly Latin America and Asia. There isn’t a huge Lutheran population in Southern California, but they are working to welcome and advocate for immigrants in the area.
This update is a few years old, but gives a great overview of their work.
The main initiative we wanted to see in action was the Guardian Angels Program. This unique ministry trains volunteers to accompany individuals in immigration court. Check out this video for a great overview:
I had heard Pastor Alexis speak at the 2015 National Youth Gathering in Detroit, so I wanted to also meet her in person, and I did!
She was kind enough to meet me for coffee in between her immigration work, and a biking injury, and grading seminary exams. She is a wealth of knowledge, and I wish she had a clone to write a book for all of us! Here is just a short overview of what she told us.
- Churches have been working towards comprehensive immigration reform for my entire life. Occasionally, this becomes more or less news-worthy, but for some of us, this is our primary grace & justice issue.
- In the 1980s 500 churches nationwide began a ‘sanctuary’ movement to shelter victims of violence from Central America’s deadly conflicts. This movement led to an immigration policy change championed by President Reagan.
- In 2006, Catholics were asked to serve everyone, regardless of immigration status. This was one cultural change which led to…
- In 2007, congress considered a comprehensive immigration reform bill, and 70% of Americans were in favor of it, but 83% of White Evangelicals were against it, and congress was afraid to pass it just before the presidential elections.
- Now, nearly 74% of white evangelicals are in favor of immigration reform (maybe, like these farmers in Michigan, would rather have legal employees)
In the meantime…
While we’re all arguing about how we got to 11 million undocumented people, and what to do about the 70,000 children asking for asylum at our southern border each year, Pastor Alexis and the Christians of Southern California wanted to do something.
I wish we could wave a magic wand and “fix” the problem…
But, seriously, that’s not going to happen.
Instead, a group of volunteers shows up in immigration court each week. You see, while Immigrants have the right to an attorney, one will not be provided to them. They will need to fund their own legal representation. The average immigration court case is $10,000-$20,000 per person; this includes legal representation in court and filing of appropriate paperwork. Those with a lawyer have a 77% chance of their asylum status being granted. Those without a lawyer are almost always deported. (Also, while court hearings are translated, individuals do not have access to translation services for their paperwork or interpretation services for legal appointments.)
We couldn’t take pictures in court, but it looked almost exactly like this. Immigration judges are often asked to rule on 150 different cases each day.
- If someone is facing domestic violence, gang violence, or other persecution, the average wait time for a legal visa to the US from Central America is about 20 years.
- If someone arrives at the US border and immediately asks for asylum they can expect to spend 2 weeks in jail and then 2 years in court before their case is finalized.
- The court process will cost up to $20,000 per person, and they will likely not have a legal work permit during that time.
- Even if they marry a US citizen and have US citizen children, they are not protected from deportation. (Housewives can be deported, even though they aren’t working or receiving any US benefits).
We were there while a woman in active labor arrived for her court date. No lawyer was there to help her. No translator arrived to help her. But, she asked her friend to drive her to her court date before taking her to the hospital because she is trying to follow the rules. Thankfully, the female judge gave her a 3-month extension so she could come back once she’s recovered from delivery. This kind of desperation is common in immigration court.
In other words, “following the rules” is dangerous, expensive, and very difficult.
OTOH, a trafficker will often request only $5,000 per person to get them across the border and provide false work permits.
I would prefer comprehensive immigration reform. I’d prefer that people who follow the rules have a safe and legal and affordable way to become tax-payers and public residents. But, I’m not a politician. I’m a pastor. I can’t fix the laws, but I can accompany people through some tough times, and I can stand up for the vulnerable.
The love of God does not have borders. Don’t call me foreigner – I am your brother.
What I can do is support the ELCA’s AMMPARO program. I can advocate for greater immigration reform. I can volunteer at J-FON’s legal clinics in my area. I can pray for immigration reform and ask my church to do the same. I can donate to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, the largest faith-based agency for immigrants’ rights in the US.
Maybe you’ll decide to be a guardian angel too.