By Greg Warner
The two overriding needs of Hispanic immigrants in the United States are learning English and navigating the U.S. legal system, said Diann Whisnand, CBF’s first field personnel along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although Whisnand’s assignment is broad — long-term development to reduce poverty — she focuses on teaching English and job skills to residents of the colonias, the tiny hard-scrabble barrios that dot the Texas side of the Rio Grande river.
Spanish speakers can function comfortably in the Rio Grande Valley, where almost 95 percent of the population is Hispanic. But that becomes a trap, Whisnand said.
“They can live out their lives speaking only Spanish, but they can’t get a job, or get out of the lowest-paying jobs,” she said. “Then you’re stuck. You’ve just got to know some English to get a good job, even a sales job at the mall.”
Even within families, conflict results when not everyone can speak English, she continued. Children of immigrants — including undocumented ones — go to public schools and learn English. “When you speak two different languages in your house, the kids become withdrawn from the parents,” Whisnand said.
“Parents can’t help kids with homework or read report cards,” she said. As the children get older, “it’s easy for [drug] cartels to recruit them to do their dirty work because of the barrier.”
When she and her husband, Phil, moved from Seattle to McAllen, Texas, in 2011, she discovered a shortage of language-learning opportunities. So Whisnand works with the local Pharr Literacy Center to expand those options.
About 800 adults take classes at the Pharr Center annually, where volunteers teach adults five levels of English, offer GED classes and teach some job skills. In addition to teaching, Whisnand recruits local churches to provide volunteer teachers.
After learning English, Whisnand said, the next most important need for immigrants is legal assistance with the maze of government paperwork that immigrants face in becoming legal residents or citizens.
Although in Texas and some other states, legal documents are available in Spanish, new immigrants still struggle with the legal system.
“Just because it’s in Spanish doesn’t mean you can understand the legalese,” she explained. Immigrants are especially vulnerable to exploitation from other Spanish speakers who claim to offer help with government paperwork, particularly to get legal residency. Since Mexican residents are used to paying for government documents, they are easy prey for the unscrupulous.
“All they are doing is taking their money,” Whisnand said. “They are taken advantage of for thousands of dollars.”
What they need is free legal services, she emphasized. And if immigration reform passes, opening new ways for immigrants to get legal status, the number of people needing help will increase.
Only one church in the McAllen area offers those services to the needy, Whisnand said. More are obviously needed. But it’s an expensive undertaking for a church or nonprofit because it usually involves hiring lawyers — something few churches or nonprofits can afford to do.
Suzii Paynter, CBF’s executive coordinator, wants to change that — not only in the Rio Grande Valley but nationwide. With years of experience ministering and advocating on behalf of immigrants, Paynter wants to make it easier for churches and individuals to offer legal assistance to immigrants. And she foresees a long-term commitment of CBF in this area of ministry.
As former director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, Paynter directed all Texas Baptist public policy initiatives for state and federal issues.
The stakes are high in the complicated and tricky immigration process — an application filled out incorrectly can result in deportation. While most churches can’t hire a lawyer, individuals can get accredited by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration Accreditation to become immigration advisors to those seeking legal status, confronting deportation or other legal issues.
“I want to make this kind of training available to CBF churches to pursue this ministry,” Paynter said.
At the Texas CLC, she was involved in combating “scams and unscrupulous lawyers” who promise legal assistance to needy immigrants. “They charge them $6,000 to $7,000 when the answer is going to be no,” Paynter said.
Churches can organize early retirees, military retirees and others to become immigration advisors, she said. Other congregations can hire a lawyer to give legal advice one day a month. Meanwhile, it’s important also to offer English classes, life skills, citizenship classes and other education-related ministries.
Paynter cited Iglesia Bautista Cristiana in McKinney, Texas, as a model church. Pastor Alex Camacho started out helping Hispanics fill out immigration applications. He later got BIA accreditation, a degree in immigration law and founded Immigration Services, a nonprofit that represents hundreds of immigrants each year.
Paynter said immigration ministry will be an important part of the Fellowship’s future. In addition to more church-based ministries to aid immigrants, she wants to see more cooperation with ecumenical groups, such as the Evangelical Immigration Table, to advocate and lobby to improve immigration laws, and more attention to the plight of refugees and human trafficking worldwide, by cooperating with the Baptist World Alliance to influence the United Nations.
This article first appeared in the February/March issue of fellowship! magazine. Download the PDF of this column here. Sign-up for your free subscription to fellowship! – the bimonthly magazine of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.