JFON introduced in Traverse City

April 21, 2012

Church looks into immigration services

By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS, mdrahos@record-eagle.com

TRAVERSE CITY — All Alline Beutler’s brother and his bride wanted for their wedding was her U.S. green card. But obtaining one turned out to be a long, frustrating process.

“I saw how challenging that was for them, and they both have higher degrees,” said Beutler, director of adult Christian education at Central United Methodist Church in Traverse City. Beutler’s sister-in-law immigrated from China.

“I can’t image how people who are vulnerable, trying to flee violence or poverty in their country, would negotiate this,” Beutler said.

Now Beutler and fellow congregant Susan Norkowski are spearheading an immigration ministry at the church. They’re looking into ways the church might lend a helping hand to low-income families navigating the maze of rules and laws.

The church will host a U.S. Citizenship Clinic Saturday, April 28. People with green cards who qualify for naturalization can get help with forms, copying documents and putting packets together for review by an onsite immigration lawyer.

The clinic is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pre-registration at 946-5191 is required; free child care and translation services will be available.

“There’s a huge immigrant population in our region,” said Norkowski, a former immigration and state department caseworker for Congressman Bart Stupak. “People come for all sorts of reasons, whether they’re sponsored by a family member or employment, whether they’re refugees, were evacuated from their home country because of natural disaster, or are military spouses moved around from base to base.

“And U.S. immigration laws are extremely complex and difficult for the average person to navigate. Their immigration journey doesn’t end when they cross the border,” Norkowski said.

The mass of paperwork is complicated and the process is expensive, she said.

Add to that, immigration services aren’t that common north of Grand Rapids, meaning there’s the added expense of travel and child care.

The task force at Central Church is looking into establishing a local chapter of a national program, Justice for Our Neighbors.

The faith-based ministry provides free legal services, education and advocacy and was formed as a response to the immigration reform act of 1996.

It kicked into high gear after stricter laws were passed following 9/11 and the Patriot Act.

Church-based clinics help with everything from visas and naturalization to family petitions.

Justice for Our Neighbors of West Michigan was established in 2004 and has helped more than 1,200 immigrants from 60 countries.

“There are more and more immigrants settling in small communities,” said coordinator Laura Rampersad, who married a man from Trinidad and then struggled to help him obtain his green card. “That’s why JFON started. They can’t get to Detroit to see the attorney.”