G&P: TELL US ABOUT THE ORGANIZATION YOU WORK WITH AND ITS MISSION.
TS: IC Compassion is located in Iowa City, Iowa. IC stands for Iowa Communities when we speak in Iowa. Outside of Iowa, it is known as Immigrant Communities Compassion. We’ve now been in existence for about 11 years, working mostly with immigrant and refugee populations. In 2011, we were accredited with the Department of Justice to do immigration law, so that significantly changed our mission. Most of our programming became about responding to the unique needs that come with immigrants. A little over a year ago, we were awarded a grant to work with refugees. So now, a significant part of what we do is related to refugees but certainly impacts all immigrants.
G&P: TELL US MORE ABOUT THE IMMIGRATION LAW PORTION OF YOUR MISSION.
TS: That’s the only area of law the Department of Justice will accredit non-attorneys to do. There are a couple of reasons for that: First, there are not enough immigration attorneys and also, because immigrants are such a vulnerable population and are often taken advantage of in the United States.
G&P: HOW DO PEOPLE GET THIS ACCREDITATION?
TS: According to the Department of Justice, if you’re non-profit, are willing to learn immigration law, and have good moral character, you can apply to be accredited and recognized. After qualifying, you can do everything an immigration attorney can do, based upon the level of accreditation.
G&P: WHAT ARE THE LEVELS OF ACCREDITATION?
TS: The Department of Justice has two levels. The initial accreditation is called partial accreditation. It does not allow you to represent clients in federal court (immigration court), but you serve as an adviser and facilitator. You can also apply to be fully accredited, which allows you serve as a representative in immigration court. I am working on the full accreditation. I have gone into immigration court, but not as the main representative.
G&P: DO YOU HELP THOSE SEEKING ASYLUM IN THE U.S.?
TS: We have been approached about taking these kinds of cases. If someone is trying to prove to the U.S. government that they can’t go back to their country for a valid reason, including the risk of death, or for religious or political reasons, we can now work with those cases.
G&P: HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE SOMEONE SEEKING ASYLUM TO BE GRANTED PROTECTION AND ASYLUM?
TS: Currently, it can take up to three years! However, we recently assisted in a case where a man had experienced significant persecution–including torture–in his home country and was seeking asylum. We were able to get his case successfully resolved in just under nine months. Recently, he has gotten a job and has even asked us for a Bible! Not all of our stories end that way, of course. Some end in disappointment. But these kinds of cases keep us encouraged.
G&P: HOW HAS YOUR DISTRICT SUPPORTED YOU, AND WHAT CAN OTHER DISTRICTS DO TO ENCOURAGE THIS KIND OF WORK?
TS: I started as a parish nurse in a local Nazarene church, and though our organization has its own separate non-profit incorporation, we have a provision in our articles of incorporation that at least half of our board would be comprised of Nazarenes. Our district superintendent and the churches on our district have been incredibly supportive, and we see ourselves as a resource for our district and local churches. They have helped both through prayer and through finances, and our D.S., Kim Smith, has made me our district compassionate ministries director. So, our work has great accountability from the Church of the Nazarene. It is not unusual for me to get several calls per month from Nazarene districts here in the Midwestern U.S. that are dealing with specific immigration issues, sometimes among Nazarene clergy who need assistance to make sure their paperwork is properly processed.
G&P: WHAT IS THE MOST COMMON INITIAL QUESTION THAT CHURCHES STRUGGLE WITH IN REGARD TO IMMIGRATION?
TS: At first, they mostly get questions about what I call “Immigration 101.” That is, someone will walk into a pastor’s office and say, “I’m not legal,” or “I am having immigration problems, and I am concerned for my family.” Immediately the pastor faces a wide range of political, legal, and theological questions that we can assist him or her with. This is an issue that affects more and more of our communities, and we want to help local churches and districts with resources that are theologically and legally sound.
G&P: WHAT IMMEDIATE RESOURCES DO YOU PROVIDE AS IMMIGRANTS, REFUGEES, AND OTHERS WAIT FOR THE LEGAL PROCESS TO UNFOLD?
TS: We can assist in learning English comprehension and speaking skills. Most churches have retired teachers or others who have teaching experience, and it’s pretty low-cost and easy to start an English class. If you don’t know the language it’s hard to function within this culture and within our communities. Food and shelter are also very big needs. Since most immigrants cannot work legally, they face the same poverty-related issues that other populations face.
G&P: HOW CAN WE OVERCOME FEARS ABOUT THE IMMIGRANT POPULATIONS IN ORDER TO MINISTER EFFECTIVELY?
TS: It starts with simply being educated about the situations out there. Most of these people are, like all of us, trying to provide for their families and trying to find a place where they can live, work, and contribute in safety. They have left behind much of the support and familiarity they had, and we as Christians can help provide that.
G&P: WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
TS: God’s ways are not our ways! I am an Iowa farm girl who was trained as a nurse, so this is out of my comfort zone, for sure. So, for me, it is a calling from God. My initial response to this calling was, “I’m not a lawyer. I grew up in a community that was all white!” So the foundation and the reassurance of everything I do is the desire to be in the center of where God wants me to be. I like to say that God probably said, “If I can do this with Teresa, I can do it with anyone!” And if Iowa City needs this help, then it also needs to be done in Los Angeles, Chicago, Phoenix, Florida, and New York. We are showing that this kind of work is also very realistic for the small churches and states all over the United States. This is a real need, and it’s an incredible ministry opportunity.
G&P: WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED FROM BEING INVOLVED WITH THESE VULNERABLE PEOPLE GROUPS?
TS: More than any other issue, this challenged what I believed and who I was foundationally as a follower of Jesus Christ. I hope pastors continue to get into the Word, to look at this issue, and to respond not based upon politics, but upon what Scripture says. I have learned also that people migrate for a variety of reasons. I began to realize it wasn’t as simple as someone saying, “Hmm, I want to cross a border illegally and break the law!” When I started actually hearing the stories, as I now urge pastors and church members to do, I realized that it is much more complicated than that.
G&P: WHAT ARE SOME LONG-TERM GOALS FOR THIS MINISTRY?
TS: Our goal is that every district would have an immigration resource center. I think at the heart of this is how we are loving our neighbors and how we are responding to those who live right in our community. Everything we do is legal, and we do it with prayer and with compassion rooted in Scripture, especially in the example of Jesus. Because of this, we have witnessed many opportunities to expose people to message of Christ, and many of them have, through this process, discovered that this faith is worth embracing.