JFON and Texas Impact Collaborate to Mobilize People of Faith for Immigration Reform
January 6, 2020
Our New Year Spotlight shines on San Antonio Region Justice For Our Neighbors (SARJFON), which provides quality, affordable legal services to low-income immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, and its 2019 collaboration with Texas Impact, which advocates for freedom, justice, and economic opportunity for all people, consistent with the values of mainstream faith communities.
The collaboration began on July 25, 2019, when SARJFON Executive Director Matt Lohmeier, M.Div. received a single email from a young woman seeking asylum and fearing for her life as one of the first impacted by the Remain in Mexico policy (formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols-MPP).
She was pleading for legal assistance so that she could be sent to a migrant detention center rather than being sent back to Mexico. He knew that Executive Director Bee Moorhead at Texas Impact was planning an intensive event for clergy based on their Courts & Ports advocacy program that they host in the Rio Grande Valley. It was clear to both that the clergy needed to know what was happening to asylum seekers in these MPP tent courts, and SARJFON organized a panel of attorneys to share their stories with the clergy. “It became clear that when we bring people into engagement with what’s really happening, we can give them a witness experience that motivates them to become advocates for change,” Lohmeier says.
Here these passionate and faithful leaders share their insights and successes in 2019. What are you most proud of accomplishing in 2019?
Bee: Texas Impact is most proud of our work taking hundreds of people of faith to the Texas-Mexico border to bear witness to the chaotic and inhumane public policies the U.S. Administration is inflicting on suffering, vulnerable people fleeing violence and depravation in their home countries.
Matt: SARJFON is most proud of increasing our capacity to provide legal services four-fold (from 1 to 4 attorneys) in response to the violation of the rights of asylum seekers at the Texas border and and to the broader climate of hostility toward those seeking a path to permanent residency and ultimately US citizenship. We are also very excited about our collaboration with Texas Impact because our team realizes that we need to engage faithful citizens in the work of advocacy because we cannot represent all who need our services. Upstream interventions with policymakers will have a better return on everyone’s investment of time, talent and treasure.
Describe the qualities of the people who are contributing to your organization's success. As a leader, how do you sustain and nurture these qualities?
Bee: Our staff is small, and half of our staff members are under thirty. I am constantly amazed at their dedication and commitment to justice. I feel a responsibility to give these young leaders experiences and opportunities to learn that the government can function effectively; politics can be collegial, and conflict can be resolved in a spirit of mutual affection.
Matt: Our staff has grown from three to 14 this year, and the quality that they all possess is that they are passionate “down for the cause.” One way that we sustain this commitment is by helping them see how communities of faith are engaging in this mission. When the Rio Texas Conference hosted its Border Convocation, they felt more support knowing that people of faith from churches around South Texas had come together to talk about how they could better respond. I continue to seek ways to connect my staff to the broader movement.
Can you share an experience or observation that influenced how you pursue your mission?
Bee: As a young mother, I volunteered in the maternity ward at our local public hospital, which brought me into a relationship with women whose experiences of pregnancy and childbirth were very different from mine because of their lack of health insurance, family support, and other "social determinants of health." This experience led me on a journey "from charity to justice," and I became a public policy advocate so I could impact the systems that I saw created inequity and suffering.
Matt: This is how we grew in 2019. Last year a group of attorneys went down to Laredo to do a clinic – review situations and tell them what they might be eligible for, it was a simple advice and counsel session with no offer of representation. We saw 70 people in two days and immediately recognized that there’s a need for services that were much larger than our San Antonio region. We felt like we weren’t doing enough and not impacting enough people, and we need to grow and merit more support. One at a time, we met with people in Laredo, McAllen and Corpus Christi. We pitched UMCOR to get their support. We’re expanding to become a more effective legal service provider. That’s the journey we’ve been on this year.
Do you have a favorite quote, Biblical or secular, what is it, and why?
Bee: “There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: A people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death.
It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time-- or even knew selflessness or courage or literature-- but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less.” ― Annie Dillard, For the Time Being
This quote is so important in mobilizing people of faith to advocate for just public policies. People often feel disempowered in the public square, and it helps to remind them that they belong there just as much as anyone else ever has belonged there.
Matt: Two of my favorite quotes are from Archbishop Oscar Romero and William Wilberforce. Wilberforce led the movement to abolish the slave trade in the 18th and 19th century.
“You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” ― William Wilberforce
“When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” –Archbishop Oscar Romero
What are you most looking forward to in 2020?
Bee: Watching my new grandson grow, and pondering how our personal experiences of change--like becoming a grandma--help shape our understanding of collective change: how to prepare for it, how to make it happen, and how to grow into each new stage of being.
Matt: Creating witnesses. Getting people engaged and active with their legislators. Our collaboration with Texas Impact is vital. Today I am going downtown to the courthouse; we’re representing an MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols) client in Laredo. We’re doing a lot of appeals. We are pulling people in and giving them this exposure so they can know that it’s not like what they have seen on TV on Law & Order.