Mission Intern Fights for Fair Treatment of Immigrants
By Julia Kayser
If you attended General Conference 2012, you might have seen this young woman behind bars. But instead of being an inmate, she is a Mission Intern. By sitting in a simulated jail cell, Hannah Hanson was making a statement that undocumented immigrants deserve dignity, not detention. Her demonstration was part of a larger rally with the United Methodist Task Force on Immigration against the private prison system. When the government enters into contracts and agrees to fill quotas of prisoners for these facilities, it leads to wrongful imprisonment and racial profiling. In response, The United Methodist Church recently divested from private prisons.
Hannah is passionate about justice. Since her commissioning in 2009, she has spent 18 months in South Africa and 17 months in Orlando, Florida. She's been working to address issues of poverty and global migration. In South Africa, she helped to facilitate poverty alleviation courses focused on sustainable agriculture, poultry, and fish ponds. She also worked for Bula Monyako, the mission center of Benoni Central Methodist Church, serving at their voluntary HIV-counseling and testing clinic. In Florida, she's the Education and Advocacy Coordinator for the Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) clinic, which provides free legal advice to immigrants.
The similarities between immigrants' issues in South Africa and in the US are striking. Many of the people Hannah worked with in South Africa were refugees. One of her South African friends told her, "We have to be welcoming because when our leaders were in exile, they were educated and taken care of in these other countries." In spite of this, refugees often face xenophobia, poverty, and violence. "When you go away from home," Hannah says, "it's easier to have your eyes wide open…but we have to realize that these types of injustices happen in the Unites States, too."
For example, some unscrupulous legal companies in Florida are taking advantage of immigrants who are trying to apply for citizenship. They submit untruthful information or frivolous documents and count on the language barrier to keep their clients in the dark. The JFON clinic is "one of the only low-cost providers for legal advice," Hannah says, and people come from all over the state to seek legal ways to correct their status.
The clinic is staffed by one immigration attorney, and a team of volunteers who are trained to do the intake forms, some of whom are young people who would benefit from the DREAM Act. Unfortunately, until the DREAM Act passes, they have no legal status. "Some young people don't find out what their immigration status is until they want to get their driver's license." Then, at age 16, many people who have been raised in the US have to face the fact that they will not be able to legally drive, or even work. They have to decide whether to put themselves at risk by speaking out or to live in shadow. Volunteers at the JFON clinic are offered a safe space to share their stories and work towards justice.
The Biblical mandate for welcoming the stranger is clear. But Hannah recognizes that, "people don't change their minds unless they have some personal experience." Part of her calling, when she works with teams of volunteers in Orlando, is to help them have those transformative experiences.
This work has helped shape her own plans for the future, as well. In July, she will move to New York and transition into a position as Mission Interpreter for the Young Adult Mission Services Office. She will work to raise funds and awareness by connecting young adults in mission with local church communities. "It's an honor to carry people's stories," she says. "I'm excited to share not only my own story, but the stories of other young adults in mission and people in communities they serve alongside."