The United Methodist program Justice For our Neighbors (JFON) is an advocacy and support group that provides legal help for immigrants and refugees. Church volunteers and staff attorneys work one-on-one with clients to navigate the complicated U.S. legal system. Common JFON cases include applications for work permits, domestic violence issues, and family reunification. This video gives an overview of JFON’s work, and shares the story of one refugee who came to JFON for help handling some huge challenges in his life.
James Makuac has mastered the art of survival.
He uses his talent to tell the story of a boy once lost to the world.
One day, tending cattle near his Sudanese village, 11-year-old James was forced to swiftly flee. Rebels of the Sudanese Civil War…one of the bloodiest in African history…were at his heels. Like 30,000 other boys, he left behind his family and everything he knew to fend for himself, wandering in the jungle for years between Sudan and Ethiopia.
James Makuac: “We don’t have weapon to defend ourselves. We were small boys.”
The handful of boys who didn’t die at the hands of rebels, starvation, disease, or weren’t devoured by wild animals, ended up in refugee camps.
When the world heard tales of their harrowing journey, they became known as the Lost Boys of Sudan. Life was still hand-to-mouth…and their future was uncertain.
James Makuac: “And then they told us we’re going to interview you to come to the United States. And they you know it come like a dream. And then I came here in 2001.”
About the time James was immigrating to the U.S., he discovered his mother and siblings were still alive. They began regular correspondence. Once he arrived in the U.S., he frequently sent money to them in Kenya, where they lived as refugees.
And, after more than 25 years isolated from his family, in the summer of 2013, James finally had enough money to visit his mother, brother and nephew in Kenya. But violence following an election closed off the road to the refugee camp where his beloved sister and her children lived. Phone calls had to suffice.
James Makuac: “I call my sister every night in refugee camp and she said ‘It’s been a long time. We need to see that you are still alive.’”
Just a few months after his visit, James received a text: His sister had been murdered …leaving behind four children ages 3 to 16.
James Makuac: “My sister, she is really, I miss her a lot, my sister.”
Without their mother- and their father long deceased- the children were in danger.
James Makuac: “Nobody take care of the kids, they were wandering in the camp. I send money to my brother. ‘Go right now and get the kids back to Nairobi where my mom lives.’ And he went immediately.”
But this is a short-term solution. As a naturalized citizen, James can adopt the children and bring them and his mother to the U.S. to help care for them. But it’s complicated and expensive– especially for a man working two jobs…so, his friend Lilla Marigza contacted Justice for Our Neighbors…JFON…and asked for help sorting out his legal issues.
Lilla Marigza: “James and I have a special friendship. And when I think of the fact that we’re about the same age and what he has gone through in his life, you know, here I am with a husband and you know, children who are growing up. And he doesn’t have any of that. Yet he has this family that he’s supporting with these wonderful children back in Kenya. And I really want to see that family reunited. He should be with his mother for the years that she has left. He should be with those children. So, anything I can do to help him see that happen, I have to do that for him.”
(Meeting with lawyer) Adrienne Kittos: “There is a process that we can complete to bring the children here in order to be adopted under the U.S. law.”
Lilla Marigza: “You want an attorney that you can trust; who’s not just going to waste your time and money. And, they spend hours in preparation for their clients. I’ve seen them work and this is not a casual commitment.”
Justice for Our Neighbors, founded by The United Methodist Church, provides immigration legal services to low income immigrants, engages in advocacy, and educates communities about immigration issues.
It centers on hospitality through the efforts of volunteers who assist with the work and provide welcome and compassion to their immigrant neighbors. Regularly scheduled clinics are usually held in a church or community center.
Adrienne Kittos: “One of the great things about this model is not only that it allows us to operate with a really minimal budget for the amount of work we do. But it also gives our volunteers an opportunity to have an in-depth conversation with somebody from a background maybe very different from their own. And in learning a little bit about what our immigrant neighbors have had to struggle with in coming here and in trying to make a life here, they become advocates for that community. They spread those stories in their churches and their homes and their places of business and help change the attitudes of their neighbors.”
JFON has sites around the U.S. – usually based within a church. The network of clinics conducts more than 4,000 cases a year at little or no cost to clients. The cases vary from time-consuming asylum cases – which can literally mean life or death to a client…to unaccompanied children…to the all-important advice and counsel, where there are no options under current immigration laws.
Adrienne Kittos: “So even if we can’t begin a case for them, we can give them information. And that information can help prevent them from being victimized in the future.”
Here is a sampling of more than 2500 cases open at any given time.
Many clients are victims of domestic violence or crime, which gives them options under the law to remain in the country safely and permanently. Other cases focus on uniting families or keeping them together, such as helping refugees or preventing deportation of family members. Still other cases focus on those who need help applying for work authorization, or immigrants who are eligible for citizenship. Others are given advice and counsel. All clients are low-income and they come from all over the world.
Adrienne Kittos: “Our immigration laws are very complex. And there are little tweaks in the law that can have a vast effect on the way that a case goes. The process is intended to be user-friendly. The forms are available online with instructions. You can download them for free. But if you don’t know the law behind some of those processes you can quickly get yourself into trouble. For instance, if you apply for something you’re not eligible for or certainly if you make a misrepresentation on the form, even inadvertently, that could affect your eligibility for relief down the line.”
The vast majority of JFON expenses go toward salaries of staff attorneys. Sites operate on very tight budgets and rely on in-kind and pro bono support. But all sites cost money to operate to ensure that a staff attorney is in place and that the quality of services is not compromised. And, the network of attorneys aid one another in their expertise.
(Meeting with lawyer) Adrienne Kittos: “I am so glad that we are going to be working together to bring the kids here.” James Makuac: “Thank you very much.”
Once more James is on a long journey. The paperwork he needs to prove the children are orphans lies in Kenya and red tape on both sides of the ocean will be daunting. But this time, it isn’t a journey he will take alone.