In this month’s grant feature story, we highlight the Just Neighbors Program of the Eastern Shore, one of our 2019 Foundation Grant award recipients. Just Neighbors is a nonprofit organization that offers expert immigration legal services to at risk immigrants, refugees, and asylees in Virginia. Through a dedicated group of attorneys and individuals, the program assists in securing proper legal status, obtaining work approvals, and most importantly, helping to keep families together. The below story features the impact this program has on individuals’ lives while also showcasing the depth of its service in the United Methodist Church.
Dreams Come True for Neighbors on the Eastern Shore
“This means that you will represent us; we are not going to be alone in this?” The young man and his wife couldn’t believe that after everything they had been through to come to the U.S. and all the steps that they had taken to get legal status that someone was actually going to help them for free. It was so hard for them to believe that they kept asking more questions to be sure: “We don’t have to pay anything else; you are an immigration lawyer; there is no other cost?”
Juan and his wife had come to a Just Neighbors immigration legal clinic that was held at a UMC church on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Just Neighbors, a ministry of the Arlington District, provides immigration legal services to immigrants and refugees in Virginia. Last February, Just Neighbors in partnership with Una Familia, a ministry of the Eastern Shore District, and financial support from the Virginia United Methodist Foundation, held a legal clinic in order to serve their neighbors along the Eastern Shore.
Juan and his wife had fled to the United States because of the gang violence in Central America and had asked for asylum in the United States. They had gone through all the required steps at the border: they asked for asylum, they completed their “credible fear” interview with an immigration official and then each paid $10,000 for bond to be released to live with their relatives and await their court dates. Their families had raised the money to pay for their bond and so they had been working ever since to pay them back; it took three years. In the meantime, they had both stayed abreast of their court dates.
After they had paid all of their relatives back, they were finally able to pay an “attorney” that a friend had recommended to help them with their asylum case. This “attorney” had told them that he had filed an asylum claim for them but they realized they had never signed any papers even though they had already paid him $4,000. They had never received any receipts or evidence of their filed paperwork. They had been victims of fraud. Their boss, a member of one of the United Methodist Churches on the Eastern Shore had recommended that they come to the Just Neighbors clinic to talk with a lawyer. “We weren’t going to come; we were afraid, but he told us we should try.” They were so grateful that they did.
When the attorney, Mary Elizabeth told them that she would take their case and there would be no cost; they were so relieved to have someone guiding them; someone they could trust. Mary Elizabeth didn’t want to get their hopes up, but she would do everything she could to help them win their asylum case, a legal right offered to them under U.S. law. Even if they could have afforded the $8,000 in private attorney fees, there are currently no immigration attorneys on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Without a driver’s license, it would have been impossible for the couple to travel elsewhere to meet with an attorney.
The volunteer who worked with them during the interview was also part of the church. When the interpreter explained to the couple that the United Methodist churches had brought Just Neighbors to the Eastern Shore because they wanted to help their neighbors and that all of the people helping today were volunteers from this area, their eyes lit up. There was a real connection on both sides of the table. The volunteer told the couple, “It has been a dream for us to do this [hold a legal clinic] for a long time; we are so happy it finally happened.” This Saturday both the volunteer and the clients saw each other as neighbors; both were neighbors they could trust.