Fleeing an abusive boyfriend, “Maria”* arrived in Grand Rapids, Mich., by bus with her young daughter one night, scared and desperate. She had fled her native Mexico because of violence, and now she was on the run again. Despite lacking legal immigration status, she needed to find safe harbor and someone who felt her fragile life was worth protecting.
At a local victim services agency staffer Nikole Krueger helped Maria get settled. Then she introduced her to West Michigan Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON), a ministry funded in part by the United Methodist Peace with Justice Sunday offering, where immigrants with little income receive help in seeking legal status or U.S. citizenship.
JFON’s immigration attorney helped Maria navigate a complex process of document filings and interviews to acquire a special Victim of Crime visa. Today, Nikole reports, the once-frightened mother is a new person. With a job and her GED she is building a future with hope for her and her daughter.
“It’s incredible to see the transformation in women who come here hurting from abuse but afraid of being deported and never seeing their children again,” says Nikole, 24, who now works part-time for JFON and attends graduate school.
Some women fear brutal retaliation if they are forced to return home, she explains. But their abusers often can hinder their efforts to gain legal status here or even get them deported. However, once JFON helps them get through the system safely, says Nikole, “they seem to blossom and become empowered.”
The West Michigan Conference JFON have served more than 1,200 clients from 60 nations since 2004, providing free legal consultation and representation for persons seeking permanent residence, citizenship, refugees status, and special visas.
Of the hundred or so clients served annually, JFON in West Michigan has rescued more than a dozen domestic abuse survivors like Maria, as well as human trafficking victims and unaccompanied minors, through the legal immigration process.
But legal aid is only half of this grassroots ministry’s purpose. It also teaches and mobilizes church and community members to offer hospitality and hope to those who desperately need both.
Staff and dozens of volunteers take their mission into the community, promoting justice and mercy for undocumented immigrants and educating others to join in the national call for comprehensive immigration policy reform.
Krueger is working to share stories with more United Methodist churches in West Michigan and to help them foster welcoming relationships and advocacy with sojourners in their midst.
It’s a long road to achieving that goal, but those who journey across perilous borders to reach this land of hope and freedom know all about long roads. What they need most is what United Methodists who give to this special Sunday offering represent: loving friends to journey with them.
* Not her real name
— by John Coleman, freelance writer
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