Arizona becomes 18th site to join the JFON Network
“It’s been crazy hectic,” says Ella Rawls, site attorney for Arizona Justice for Our Neighbors, the newest member of our JFON network. “Ever since we officially opened, the phone has been ringing off the hook.”
At their first modest clinic held at Tucson’s New Hope/Nueva Esperanza United Methodist Church in January, only five potential clients showed up.
At their February clinic, there were 11; meanwhile, the March clinic is already close to full capacity.
“This is why we are here,” says Ella with satisfaction. “The people who are calling me are the people I want to talk to, and they are the people I want to help.”
The desert shall bloom again
“Tucson is an immigrant-welcoming city,” declared Mayor Jonathan Rothschild at Arizona JFON’s official opening earlier this month. Looking at the eager faces of the people gathered to celebrate a much longed-for event, no one could doubt the truth of his statement. Tucson’s city and community leaders, Bishop Robert T. Hoshibata of the Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, board members and volunteers—all were on hand to welcome their immigrant neighbors.
But outside of Tucson, it can be a different world, one as mean and parched as the desert that skulks its way south to the border. Arizona is notorious for a peculiar nativist movement; a testing ground for incendiary anti-immigrant laws, hateful rhetoric, and high-profile officials seemingly using the playbook of the “Know-Nothing” Party of the mid-19th century.
Tucson is 45 minutes from the U.S.-Mexico border, 20 minutes from the nearest Border Patrol interior checkpoint, and home to the only U.S. Immigration Court for miles around.
It’s a place where people are in desperate need for the type of immigration legal services that Arizona JFON provides.
But it’s also a place where fair-minded people are eager for the chance to change minds and soften hearts.
“We’ve created an army of volunteers to go out to our churches and communities and directly challenge that dominant anti-immigrant voice in Arizona,” says Ella. “Yes, we can bring hope to those who are afraid, but we can also bring hope to those who support our immigrant neighbors, yet feel disheartened by the harsh voices they hear from our national immigration discourse.”
“It was a calling to my heart”
Although Ella’s mother is a retired UMC pastor, Ella didn’t know of JFON’s existence until she was in law school. Ella had already decided she wanted a career in immigrant justice. Now she knew where she wanted that career to be.
But first she would have to join the team working to open a JFON site in Arizona. This is not an easy task. Compared to other nonprofits, an organization offering legal services must abide, quite rightly, by strict rules and regulations.
“It takes someone who is willing to push and push and push,” Ella reflects. “There are a lot of people who are willing, but who say, ‘no, it can’t be done.’ There are others who want to do something, but don’t know how to go about it.”
Fortunately, none of the Arizona JFON board members fit into that category, and neither does Ella.
“God told me I could do this,” she explains with cheerful confidence. “So I did. And here I am.”
It’s early days yet, but most of the clients contacting Arizona JFON need help reuniting their families.
Others just need reliable and trustworthy information. So many green card holders, for example, are unaware that they can apply for visas for their spouses, while naturalized U.S. citizens express amazement that they are able to apply for their siblings.
Tucson also has a surprisingly large refugee population coming from all parts of the world, but particularly Somali, Bhutan, Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ella sees a time in the future when Arizona JFON will be able to help these refugees as their site expands and grows.
“It’s all humanitarian work,” she says earnestly. “It’s all about helping people.”