Children Find Hope in National Justice for Our Neighbors
*Ivy Couch and Yvonne Njoroge
Watch James' Story of finding a new home and reuniting with his lost family.
Horrific violence, poverty, and reconciliation are top reasons the Department of Homeland Security reports a dramatic surge in unaccompanied minors being apprehended at the United States-Mexico border. The increase in apprehensions among children ages 12 and younger has been far greater in the last two years, cites the Pew Research Center. More and more young people are desperate to flee countries like Honduras and El Salvador, both of which have cities with some of the highest murder rates in the world, egregious gang violence, and extreme poverty. The crisis for unaccompanied children does not end after they cross the border, rather it is just the beginning, a notion emphasized by Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director of the National office of Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a United Methodist Immigration Ministry, that provides immigration legal services, education and advocacy.
A DACA applicant cradles her son as she fills out the many pages of paperwork required by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Photo by Jan Sinder
Rutland-Brown speaks with passion, when talking about the role JFON plays to assist with this crisis and the work that he and his team do daily with the National office to oversee this daunting task. He, himself, having witnessed a child as young as two years old in need of advocacy, he knows this reality and humanitarian crisis all too well.
“Although I knew from an early age that I did not want to follow my parent’s footsteps to become a pastor, I knew I was called to serve,” said Rutland-Brown. Rutland-Brown attributes his upbringing in a Methodist home as a foundation to the path he took to his current role.
He began that mission in 2005 when he was asked to join Just Neighbors. Rob credits the seven years he served there, for the excellent training ground for his move to JFON in 2013. Now at the helm, Rob helps oversee nearly 50 clinics within 16 sites.
JFON was started in 1999 by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Each site operates independently, with staff and attorneys working alongside volunteers to help people understand their rights. JFON receives an annual $700,000 grant from UMCOR, but each site has autonomy, operating with its own board of directors. The goal of the National JFON office is to not just administer funds, but to help each site run independently. JFON funds are designated to go to local, on-the-ground efforts.
Another role the National JFON office has is to help sites connect with one another. Each year they organize the “Round Table” a conference that sends three representatives from each site to one location to have networking and collaborative discussion. Attendees look for greater ways to bring about change, and share common challenges. This serves as a catalyst for greater effectiveness to address the current issues.
The immediate goal and current campaign is to erect 20 sites by 2020. JFON’s annual report recorded 8,940 cases. These included advice and counsel to clients, family reunification and work authorization. The human scope of what JFON does, comes to life when Rob describes a story from Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is policy put in place through the Obama administration to aid certain undocumented immigrants to receive a two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility through a work permit. Within JFON, they nicknamed these fortunate young people, the “dreamers.”
The Rev. Kaki Friskics-Warren helps to prepare documents at Hillcrest United methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn., during a DACA clinic. Photo by Jan Sinder
“These are classmates of our own children; this is the only home that they have ever known. They speak English, they end up being the caretakers of their families,” explained Rutland-Brown.
The magnitude of Rutland-Brown’s and his colleagues’ work was further brought to life when he described a time when he visited an old seatbelt factory that was converted into a jail-like holding facility for minors. “When I first arrived, I saw a four-year-old little boy all by himself and I just knew he was not alone. When I asked, I found out he was only accompanied by his brother, who only a teenager, was still a child himself. They were both alone in the jail trying to fend for themselves.” His words expressing the passion he has for the plight of these unaccompanied migrant children.
JFON, is the organization children like the young brothers have come to find hope in. Their story, and countless others, make up the breath and scope of what Rutland-Brown and his team do to support the local attorneys that continue the fight to help people and offer a glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak situation.
In the past two months, there’s been a great shift with immigration laws that have impacted those who were and are currently in the process of trying to obtain the proper legal documentation to lawfully enter the United States. Many are afraid of deportation and separation from their families and look to JFON for clarity and guidance.
“JFON is very mindful of the vulnerability of people who are seeking refuge and better opportunities . . . whether you are a Christian, Jew, or Muslim there is a very clear message of how you should treat those traveling to your land. Our work educates people about what immigrants go through, so that those who may not agree with us can see another perspective,” explained Rutland-Brown.
United Methodists and others can support these children and their families, by volunteering, giving to JFON sites within their region, and offering a posture of welcome to their neighbors, who are often voiceless and marginalized.
*Ivy Couch is Program Area Liaison, Yvonne Njoroge is Digital Media Producer, both from Communications for Global Ministries.