By Bethany Anderson
When Solidarity started almost 15 years ago in a troubled neighborhood of Fullerton, California,1 we were simply an idealistic group of college students eager to change the world in the name of Jesus. That desire, although rooted in privilege and a slight savior complex, led us to a deeper understanding of Jesus, his heart for us, and specifically his heart for immigrants.
It also led us to move from an organization that just runs after-school programs in immigrant neighborhoods to one that acts as a bridge between the local churches and immigrant neighborhoods throughout our city.
As we’ve grown, we have adapted our programs and services to the needs of the community. We’ve provided leadership development, job training and placement, church planting, parenting programs, English classes, gang prevention and intervention, and our latest endeavor, immigration legal services. As we’ve journeyed with our neighbors, it has become increasingly clear that the biggest obstacle in their lives is immigration status.
There are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, with an estimated 1 million living in California. As followers of Jesus, we have a biblical mandate to love and care for immigrants, regardless of how they came or why they are here. As an organization and community of believers, we feel strongly that we must respond to this call in the most tangible way possible.
In 2012 with the announcement of DACA, we had our first opportunity to step into this call. (The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is an option allowing certain undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.2) We partnered with a local attorney to provide workshops for the youth in our neighborhoods.
Under the attorney’s supervision, our staff had the opportunity to sit, one-on-one, with countless youth and help determine their eligibility for DACA. In each of these encounters, we were able to share the love of Jesus, pray, and speak into the hope available to this vulnerable population. Client after client sat across from us and shared the details of their journey into our country and the burden of growing up here with no rights and an uncertain future.
As we fought back tears with each encounter, it became increasingly clear we were in a sacred space. We had found a niche in the kingdom that allowed us to provide a tangible and much needed service, while pointing all those with whom we interacted to Jesus.
In our years of work in the community, we had never shared the gospel more directly and more effectively. We realized that providing quality legal services was an incredible way to share the love and hope of Jesus.
Because of this, we began to pursue our Board of Immigration Appeals recognition and accreditation. BIA is an opportunity for churches and nonprofits to become authorized to practice immigration law as a service to the community. Upon our BIA approval in 2015, we opened our doors as Camino Immigration Services, a bona fide immigration law office, able to provide the community with quality and affordable counsel.
Since that launch we have been able to help nearly 100 families determine their eligibility for immigration relief. On top of that and even more importantly, we have sat in the sacred space of hearing stories of trauma, desperation, pain, and rejection, and have walked with our clients into the hope of Jesus.
We function very much like a typical law office, but without the focus on making money. Our efforts are entirely and wholeheartedly in our clients’ best interests. We screen potential clients for possible forms of relief, advise on best options moving forward, walk through whatever process is decided upon, prepare applications, represent clients in front of immigration officials, and advocate for their rights.
We do all this for a fraction of the cost a law office would charge, and we get to do it all in the name of Jesus. We cry with our clients as they share the hardships they face. We celebrate with our clients when they receive a work permit or green card in the mail. We mourn with our clients when we determine there is no form of relief available to them. And in all scenarios, we pray with and seek to bless our clients.
Our job is sacred. It is important and it is impactful—not only for our clients but also for our staff and volunteers. It’s heavy at times, but the pain pushes us into the presence of God, and there we find the hope we strive to share with our clients.
Our dream at Solidarity and Camino Immigration Services is that the church in our country would see immigrants, not as a burden to be feared, but as individuals made in the image of God. Serving and loving immigrants is an opportunity for the people of God to live out the teachings of Jesus in a way that could have eternal impact.
We are called to go and make disciples of all nations. Fortunately for us, we no longer need to travel oversees to fulfill this commandment because the “nations” are here. They are our neighbors, our kids’ classmates, the ones making our food, preparing our hotel rooms, and driving our Ubers. And we have the chance to represent Jesus well to a population often desperate for belonging. For churches interested in stepping into the call of welcoming the stranger, you don’t have to look too far.
We have seen the complicated immigration systems and conflicts worldwide that push people to migrate. We have come to recognize the uniqueness of each client we serve, as well as the thread of desperation and dreaming of a better future that connects them all. Most important, we have been challenged to see the dignity in all humanity as we stand face-to-face with people who are really no different from us: equally broken and equally sanctified.
There is no greater gift as a follower of Jesus than to experience unity with the Spirit as you serve a population so close to God’s heart.
¹Read about the wider ministry of Solidarity in the November 2016 issue of CHRISTIAN STANDARD: http://www.christianstandard.com/2016/11/the-church-needs-the-hood/.
²More information about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is available at www.ilrc.org/daca.
Bethany Anderson is the initiative director and lead immigration specialist at Solidarity, Fullerton, California. She has been living and working in an immigrant community through the context of Solidarity for the last 10 years. She is the founder and director of Camino Immigration Services.