Immigrant Legal Service Centers Growing Out of Twin Cities Churches
Twin Cities Churches Close to Offering Church-based Legal Centers[dropcap]A[/dropcap] pproximately 13 percent of people living in the United States are immigrants. For many of those 41 million immigrants, they are living life in the shadows, uncertain about their rights and roles in this country.
“A lot of immigrants end up in trouble because they don’t know the law, so they don’t know how to follow the law,” said Ben Johnson, of Immigrant Hope, a legal assistance training institute for churches. Immigrant Hope is hosting a week-long training session this week for individuals and churches interested in opening up Immigrant Legal Service clinics.
Two churches in the Twin Cities are on their way to offering these church-based legal centers; seeking to help immigrants in our state navigate the confusing and costly process of becoming legal citizens or residents in America.
Bridgewood Church in Savage[dropcap]S[/dropcap] andee Wright of Bridgewood Church in Savage finished her 40-hours of training and shadowed a mentor for 40+ hours to become a legal representative. Sandee is most excited about building trusting relationships with refugees as they try to get their green card, apply for citizenship, or sponsor family members.
“It’s a very intimate process, it creates relationship into communities that we otherwise would have had no opportunities to get to know,” said Wright.
It’s a way of engaging and interacting with immigrants, this extremely vulnerable part of our culture.
-Jeff Groen, Pastor
Already Bridgewood Church has opened up a homework help center for students whose parents don’t speak English at home, and through it they’ve established friendships with some Somali parents.
“We got to know each other, we shared food, we shared stories. Our paths wouldn’t likely cross otherwise,” said Wright. Sandee believes by opening up a church-based legal assistance clinic, she will regularly get to know immigrants and refugees in Scott County and southern Minnesota.
Evergreen Church in Bloomington[dropcap]J[/dropcap] eff Groen of Evergreen Church in Bloomington was trained on immigration law through Immigrant Hope. He says oftentimes immigrants get scammed by people who promise to work on their immigration issues, but then actually fill out the paperwork fraudulently. Through Evergreen’s proposed clinic, Jeff wants immigrants to feel cared for by members of the church.
“Immigrants serve us in so many ways through their jobs, many of them pay taxes, and yet they are afraid of the law because they don’t know what they qualify for and what they don’t,” said Groen.
Groen estimates the proposed costs for an immigrant going through a church-sponsored clinic will be one-tenth of the cost of hiring immigration attorneys. He believes this to be a unique ministry opportunity because the Board of Immigration Appeals (or BIA) is so swamped with paperwork, they allow non-profits and churches to provide legal services for immigrants.
“We will be free to share our lives, churches and faith with these folks. It’s a way of engaging and interacting with immigrants, this extremely vulnerable part of our culture,” said Groen.
Transform Minnesota Connects Churches and Immigration Legal Service Clinics[dropcap]T[/dropcap] ransform Minnesota has been connecting churches with opportunities to serve our immigrant and refugee population for the past couple of years.
Sandee Wright and Jeff Groen both attended a Transform Minnesota conference on immigration in 2013. Groen credits Transform Minnesota with connecting him to Immigrant Hope and Ben Johnson’s training program.
It’s a great opportunity to share the gospel, to pray with people, be able to provide spiritual and emotional support and connection with the church.
-Ben Johnson, Immigrant Hope
“Transform Minnesota’s sponsored immigration conference was a terrific opportunity for churches and other non-profits to dialogue about immigration,” said Groen. “Transform Minnesota collaborates with evangelical churches wanting to train with Immigrant Hope.”
Ben Johnson has also found Immigrant Hope’s partnership with Transform Minnesota to be beneficial.
“We partnered with Transform to do a conference in 2013, and we’re still working with some of the churches, so we value the network very much,” said Johnson.
What’s Next for Church-based Immigration Legal Service Clinics[dropcap]B[/dropcap] oth Sandee Wright and Jeff Groen have taken the necessary training workshops and have shadowed staff at Transform Minnesota’s refugee affiliate ministry Arrive Ministries.
Sandee Wright says the next phase of Bridgewood Church’s process could take 3 months to 1 year, depending on how quickly the BIA approves their application.
Evergreen Bloomington is converting an old media recording space at the church into an immigration office space. Once Groen and a handful of other volunteers become BIA-accredited, he anticipates they’ll open up their center in the newly renovated part of their church next spring.
Evergreen Bloomington plans to be a franchise clinic of Immigrant Hope, and Johnson says he expects Evergreen will be a springboard for other churches; a place to get the training they need to set-up their own church-based clinics.
“This is a way for churches to get involved with immigrants and the immigration system that is practical and biblically-grounded, without being political,” said Johnson. “It’s a great opportunity to share the gospel, to pray with people, be able to provide spiritual and emotional support and connection with the church.”
For these churches, the hope is through helping these immigrants find a pathway to legal residency, they will not only find a home in America, but also a church-family.