A Duty to Pay it Forward

JFON of the Delaware Valley serves at-risk rural immigrants

You are a migrant farmworker on one of South New Jersey’s many blueberry farms. You’re en route to meet with an immigration attorney in Philadelphia—more than an hour’s drive, if the traffic isn’t too bad.

It’s an important meeting—there is so much at stake for both you and your family—and you’re feeling anxious, your mind racing with worry. Will you be able to find the office in the city? How will you make up for the pay you lost this morning? Did you remember everything the lawyer told you to bring? Where will you park and how much will it cost?

South Jersey is famous for providing produce to the cities of the Eastern Seaboard—including blueberries.
South Jersey is famous for providing produce to the cities of the Eastern Seaboard—including blueberries. The short and intense harvest would not be possible without immigrant farmworkers. Photo credit: NJSpotlight.

You don’t notice that your tail light is broken—not until the New Jersey state trooper pulls you over and asks to see your identification.

Two days later—40 hours since you missed your appointment—you are in ICE detention, facing deportation.

“Even though New Jersey is a ‘sanctuary state,’ many do not believe this applies to state and local police,” explains Rev. Mark Salvacion, executive director of JFON of the Delaware Valley and pastor at Philadelphia’s Historic St George’s United Methodist Church. “They will often hold immigrants for longer than the legal 36 hours until ICE can come and pick them up.”

JFON DV already has several removal clients in ICE detention as a result of routine traffic stops. It’s one of the many reasons our newest JFON site decided to focus on rural immigrants of Southeast Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey—even though their offices are located in the very urban Historic St George’s Church.

“Our model is to go where the rural workers are,” says Mark. “We want to eliminate the ICE highway risk.”

JFON DV’s first legal clinic was on February 20, in Bridgeton in Cumberland County of South Jersey, aka the “garden spot” of the “Garden State,” with more than 70,000 acres of farmland.

“This is ground zero for rural farmworkers,” says Mark. “There are three nonprofits working in South Jersey and they can only meet one-third of the demand for immigration legal services.

“So this is where we need to be.”


Following a Different Path

He didn’t start out wanting to be a pastor. Or the executive director and counsel for a nonprofit providing immigration legal services to underserved communities. That wasn’t supposed to be his life.

In 2014, Mark was making a six-figure salary as a securities attorney for a well-known investment management group.

“It was nirvana for lawyers like me,” he reflects. “I was at the top of my profession. And then one day, I woke up, and realized it wasn’t enough.”

Pastor Mark at Historic St George's UMC.
Pastor Mark at Historic St George’s UMC.

Mark’s spiritual journey eventually led him to seminary and then to Historic St. George’s, the oldest United Methodist Church in continual use in the United States, and one that ministers to a large homeless community. Here, Mark knew, he would have many opportunities to fulfill his calling to be a force for social and racial justice.

Bishop Peggy Johnson, of the Eastern Pennsylvania and Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conferences, was particularly interested in Mark’s pastoral assignment. Bishop Johnson had wanted to start a JFON site in the area for at least a dozen years, and here was the perfect candidate for the job. He was an attorney, he understood financial matters, and he was a newly minted pastor with an intense desire to serve.

There was one more thing: Mark is himself the son of immigrants. His parents had left their native Philippines in 1951, having survived the ravages of World War II. His mother had spent the war hiding in the jungle from Japanese soldiers. His father, a doctor, was given the opportunity to come to the U.S. to begin a surgical residency.

And all these years later —in the Spring of 2019—their son, a licensed local pastor in the United Methodist Church, sat across from Bishop Johnson while she contemplated his new future.

“Tell me,” she asked him abruptly. “Do you want to start a JFON?”

“What’s a JFON?” Mark answered.


Opening a JFON office in the time of COVID-19

Opening a JFON site to provide immigration legal services to low-income immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers is not a task for the faint-hearted at any time. But opening a JFON during the pandemic? That feat takes commitment, courage, and a giant leap of faith.

JFON Delaware Valley currently serves Southern New Jersey, but they will expand to include underserved rural immigrant communities in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in coming months
JFON of the Delaware Valley currently serves Southern New Jersey, but they will expand to include underserved rural immigrant communities in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the coming months

Interestingly enough, JFON Delaware Valley is our third JFON site to open during the pandemic. (See Fayetteville, NC and Kentucky) But it is the only one, so far, that will serve four states and receives support from three separate UMC conferences.

Currently, JFON DV has 34 clients—from Romania, China, and other countries. Most of them, however, arrived here from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

They are, Mark notes, fleeing conditions similar to those in post-war Philippines.

“That parallel is not lost on me,” says Mark, with feeling. “There are so many people in the same place as my parents were all those years ago.”

He takes a moment and then tells us the rest of his immigration story.

It was 1961—three years before Mark was born. The time on his father’s visa was about to run out and he had received a notice of deportation. His parents and older siblings were preparing to return to Manila.

But the people in the community his father served would not hear of it. There was an outpouring of support; drives to raise money for attorneys and an extensive letter-writing campaign – to President John F. Kennedy and New Jersey politicians—ensued. In the end, a local congressman introduced a bill for Mark’s father to become a naturalized citizen. His father would go on to serve in his New Jersey practice for nearly 40 years.

“If it hadn’t been for this community effort, I would have been born in the Philippines,” says Mark. “And my life would have been completely different.

“Some have a tendency to look at immigrants as having no value or providing no benefit to society,” Mark continues.

“But my parents gave back so much to the community and to the parish. They never forgot their duty to pay it forward.”

‘This is,” he adds earnestly, “my duty, too.”


Photo of strawberry farmworkers from “New Jersey’s Dangerous Harvest,” NJ Spotlight News.



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