“For the LORD your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. So you, too, must show love to foreigners ...” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19, NLT)
The sixth annual Immigrant Connection Conference commenced with a reflection on the above passage. Immigrant Connection (IC) National Executive Director Zach Szmara reminded attendees that these verses convey one of three commands in the Old Testament to love: (1) love God, (2) love your neighbor and (3) love the immigrant. And for those who are part of the Immigrant Connection Legal Network, it is also a calling.
The IC Legal Network is made up of 18 church-based immigration legal services (ILS) sites across the country. Daily, Department of Justice (DOJ)-accredited legal representatives and other legal staff at these sites serve immigrant and refugee families by providing much needed immigration legal services in their communities at low cost. For these IC staff members, loving and serving immigrant families is the way they live out their faith as well as their commitment to loving the foreigner and the immigrant — as God loves the foreigner and the immigrant.
Over 70 people gathered in September for the three-day IC conference. Two years had passed since the last conference, and there was much anticipation and excitement leading up to the 2021 gathering. The IC Conference is the only one of its kind in the nation and the only church-based immigration legal services (ILS) conference. It is a focused time of training, peer-to-peer learning and best-practice sharing, as well as a time for the IC community to connect and share in encouragement and fellowship.
“As a new IC site just starting out, this conference was incredibly beneficial to get connected to other site directors and other DOJ reps. I learned so much in just a few days, and I feel so connected to this community.” – IC Site Director Molly Brunk, Be Hope Immigration Center, Ohio
“It was a great time of not just learning but also connecting with people and learning from them. I felt really affirmed in my calling and a renewed sense of hope that we’re making a difference.” – DOJ Legal Representative Ilsia Muñiz, IC at Greenville Multicultural, South Carolina
The past eight years, DOJ-accredited legal reps like Molly and Ilisa, as well as other legal staff and volunteers, have served over 11,000 immigrant families — 1,000-plus people have become citizens, 700-plus families have been reunited, 1,200-plus people secured employment and 500-plus students received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. The IC Legal Network is making a tangible difference in thousands of lives across the country!
As more churches join the IC movement and establish new IC sites, and as more people become DOJ-accredited legal reps, the number of immigrant families IC can serve is on its way to multiplying. The IC movement has been experiencing exponential growth in the last couple of years, and this conference reflected just how much the organization has developed.
“It’s wonderful to see how this work has exploded in the last several years — and all signs are that it will continue to exponentially grow. Having 19 more sites in the launch pipeline is astonishing, and it’s exciting to see all the new people that are a part of this. (IC) is one of the greatest innovations in the church!” – IC Board Co-Chair David Drury
“Of all the conferences I’ve been to, this has been the best one. IC has been on an upward trajectory, but now it feels like we’re on a rocket ship! It’s exciting for me to meet the new site directors and accredited legal reps and, especially, to see the diversity. It wasn’t that long ago that we were all white. It’s exciting to see the growth in the movement — different parts of the country and different demographics becoming involved.” – IC Site Director Nathan Hedge, May Avenue, Oklahoma
IC has also been growing in diversity of staff, partner churches and regions served. Across the IC Legal Network, more than half of the staff and volunteers are people of color and many are first generation immigrants. More than half of the churches that host IC sites are church plants or church revitalization projects, a third are multiethnic and a quarter are immigrant or non-English language. The IC movement has expanded beyond The Wesleyan Church to partner in other denominations and organizations including Church of the Nazarene, World Gospel Mission, Church of God and nondenominational.
Immigrant Connection is growing in exciting ways! It is a movement of people who are answering God’s call to love the immigrant. It is a movement of diverse people, cultures and churches. It is a movement of love and welcome.
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Sera Han leads Communications for Immigrant Connection.