Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor
As long as immigrants are viewed as The Other and thus seen as apart from rather than as a part of there will be a need for programs like Justice for Our Neighbors, a faith-based response to the extra challenges immigrants face in a nation that’s not always immigrant-friendly despite being built by immigrants. This is a story about some of the efforts of the Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska office led by Emiliano Lerda.
Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the Immigrant as Neighbor
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published iin El Perico
Welcoming the stranger in our midst is the mandate of Justice for Our Neighbors-Nebraska, a small nonprofit that holds monthly clinics for low income immigrants in need of legal counsel. The organization’s largely new staff held a March 25 open house.
The clinics, offered in both Omaha and Columbus Neb., provide a friendly, safe haven for individuals, couples and families stressed by uncertain legal status. For some, it may be their only recourse to try and avoid deportation. Potential complications are many. Cases can drag on for years.
Situations in which there’s abuse, illness, or poverty present, for example, make the need for action more urgent.
JFON staff offer free legal services, education and advocacy to help guide clients through the complex immigration maze. Its in-house attorney and legal assistants provide consultation. Referrals are made to community service providers as needed to address health care or employment or economic issues, for example.
Volunteers facilitate the clinics and extend the welcome mat by variously conducting the intake process, acting as interpreters, supervising children and serving food.
The agency’s part of the national Justice for Our Neighbors network the United Methodist Church on Relief Committee launched in 1999 in response to ever more complicated and stringent immigration laws. JFON clinics operate cooperatively with local churches. The Omaha clinic’s held at Grace United Methodist Church, 2418 E St., next door to the JFON-Nebraska office, 2414 E St.
The Nebraska chapter’s recently undergone a major turnover. Emiliano Lerda came on as JFON-Nebraska executive director in January. Charles “Shane” Ellison joined as lead attorney in February. The other two full-time staffers are also relatively new — office manager/legal assistant Darling Handlos and paralegal Shaun Downey.
Originally from Argentina, Lerda, 30, knows the immigrant experience first-hand. Now a U.S, citizen, he was drawn to America’s Midwest because its agricultural environment reminded him of his native Cordoba province. At the University of Northern Iowa he became the first international student elected student body president. After obtaining his law degree from Drake Law School he worked as government relations manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association.
“When I got here what really grabbed me is the fact this community here has very similar values to the community I grew up in,” he says. “I love working with farmers and I hope at some point in the future I will have the chance again to work with farmers.”
He says JFON-Nebraska allows him to remain in the Midwest while serving the community of newcomers he feels a deep connection to.
“I’m an immigrant myself. I went through the process. I know how difficult it is. I received a lot in life through people that helped me without any self-interest. For years now I have been passionate about giving back to the community. I could not ignore the needs of people that are here in similar shoes that I wore, that are new to this community, that are far away from their family and friends.
“God gave me the talents and skills and the background, and so I thought it was a great fit for me to continue to make a difference by helping people that want to be a part of this community, that want to contribute to this community but cannot because their illegal status is stopping them.”
At its core the JFON-Nebraska mission is to help undocumented immigrants comply with the law and become legal residents, says Lerda.
“Some people may be living in constant fear because their status is not legal,” he says.
Many are separated from family members.
Not everyone has a case though, Lerda stresses.
“Immigration provides very few doors for people to come through, and if you don’t fit within those doors, I don’t care how hard a worker you are or how much you want to do the right thing, you’re just not going to be able to.”
Limited staffing restricts the number of clients served per clinic to 10. Clients are seen on an appointment-only basis.
Lerda’s frustrated that the demand for immigration legal services far outstrips JFON resources. However, JFON does refer to two sister agencies — Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services — that provide similar services at a nominal fee.
He says his agency is currently cleaning out a large backlog of old cases to better focus on new cases. JFON annually handles 300 cases. By year’s end he hopes to pass the bar or receive accreditation as an immigration law attorney.
The polarizing issue of immigration, he says, is best addressed by education, including JFON-Nebraska workshops for service providers and others in the community. To him, educating people about the benefits of being legal is both practical and neighborly.
“If we don’t help people that can be helped to be here legally, so they can go to school and they can make a contribution economically or civically, then I think I’m failing to do my part. That’s why I feel like God gave me this opportunity and I have to do it.”
For a clinic appointment, call 402-898-1349 the first day of the month.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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