For the scrappy Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant finding creative ways to aid society’s most vulnerable in the most challenging of circumstances.
For example, California Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order has meant, for IRIS, virtual instead of in-person assistance with naturalization and green card applications — and even Zoom home visits.
“We want to make sure clients have what they need. That they look healthy, feel healthy. It means being able to see their faces and to make sure they have the food they need,” Executive Director Meghan Taylor told The Episcopal News recently.
“We are doing a big push for those with DACA to renew their applications now, because we are expecting the Supreme Court to come out with a decision any day,” she said. “There is a potential they will be unable to renew. But, as long as the application is in before the decision is made, they will be given work authorization documents with the longest period of time possible on it.”
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to consider the Trump Administration’s bid to end the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA program. Announced by President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA allows young people brought to the United States as children to apply for a temporary status that shields them from deportation and allows them to work. The status lasts for two years and is renewable, but it does not provide a path to citizenship.
For IRIS, the pandemic has also meant fielding calls from former and current clients who don’t qualify for stimulus checks and “who can’t make their rent, or do not have medical coverage, or want to know where to go for food pantries,” said Taylor.
“They want to know if they apply for medical coverage or for food programs, if it’ll affect their ability to get a green card later on down the road.”
Taylor said the nonprofit agency has “been fortunate enough to get a grant from the California Community Foundation for $35,000 to provide financial hardship assistance to immigrants and refugee community members who aren’t eligible for other means of support. Maybe they were working for cash, or cleaning homes and now cannot do that.”
The pandemic has also meant increased frustration, isolation, separation and danger, as families remain apart and those asylees in the pipeline slated for arrival have been delayed in at-risk, vulnerable situations.
And for IRIS, it has also meant fighting to survive.
“Three years ago, there were 10 resettlement agencies in Los Angeles,” Taylor said.
“Now, we are one of only three remaining refugee resettlement agencies in all of Southern California, except San Diego.
“We are also one of only 13 Episcopal Migration Ministry affiliates left,” down from 31 since the current administration reduced the number of refugees the United States would accept. “We touch and save a lot of lives.”
What churches can do: join Immigrant Support Circles, support IRIS
IRIS has also relied on ecumenical and interfaith networks, like the Ecumenical Collaborative for Asylum Seekers (ECAS), Episcopal churches and individuals to help support asylum-seekers and the nonprofit resettlement agency.
Sherman Oaks resident Nicole Gregory said she was asked to greet a family arriving at LAX from Afghanistan and drive them to their new apartment. That was about five years ago and Gregory, who attends All Saints Church in Beverly Hills, has been a passionate IRIS supporter ever since.
“It was amazing,” she told the Episcopal News. “After a 17-hour flight, I saw this really tired family with all their belongings. They had come so far. They were so incredibly brave. I realized I was the first American they met in America. I drove them to their new apartment. I felt it was such an honor to do that, I wanted to be a welcoming hand for them. It meant a lot to me,” she recalled.
“I also feel like welcoming the stranger is a Christian duty and I wanted to do that. It changed me. As I got to know them, I saw what they had to go through, not speaking English, trying to understand our customs, to figure out money. They were trying so hard. They really wanted to be part of the culture. I saw how IRIS helped them.”
Similarly, Karen Fencil and her husband were driving to San Diego to visit their daughter last July when she heard demonstrators were protesting conditions in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center for children there.
They joined the protest. The detention center was “horrific,” recalled Fencil, a member of St. Stephen’s Church in Santa Clarita. “I couldn’t just file it away and ignore it. I felt, this isn’t right, and we’ve got to do something about it.” She emailed Taylor and, along with the Rev. Fran Cantella and another St. Stephen’s member, Judy Ferkel, began visiting asylees awaiting hearings at the ICE Detention Center in Adelanto, California.
“I was shocked at how much it is like a prison,” she recalled. “They [the detainees]need people to help support them. Otherwise, they’re just sitting in detention.”
Ferkel, a retired Santa Clarita elementary schoolteacher, agreed. “You’re already in the middle of the desert. I knew I wasn’t visiting a dangerous place with dangerous people, but the surroundings look as if you are. There are metal fences with barbed wire on top — it’s surreal.”
Once inside, “We went to visit our guy. He came in with his hands handcuffed and he’d done nothing except save his life.”
They are all members of the San Fernando Valley Immigrant Support Circle, guided and advised by IRIS. The group encompasses members of a variety of faith traditions.
Together, they have formed a circle of support around “Alyssa,” a single mother escaping domestic violence in Guatemala, and her 9-year-old son, who was born in Mexico. Resilient, she came through El Paso to Los Angeles, where she has requested asylum for them both. “She had managed to find work and was able to make her rent through various means, until COVID hit,” Taylor said.
Asylees do not qualify for benefits refugees receive upon their arrival in the U.S., such as food stamps, cash assistance, medical coverage, case management and authorization to work.
“We have been fundraising to help them cover their rent,” said Taylor. “There is one volunteer who goes twice a month to deliver groceries, personal items, cash, gift cards, and checks in with them to make sure they have what they need.”
The Rev. Catherine Wagar, a deacon serving at St. Mark’s, Van Nuys, is also part of the San Fernando Valley Immigrant Support Circle.
“When people immigrate to the U.S. under any circumstances, it is not an easy process,” said Wagar, who served as director of IRIS in 2009. “It takes a lot of community support to help them get their feet under them.
“Even if parishes cannot provide housing, if they can provide support and contact and relationship and encouragement,” she told The News. “This is about encouraging people to move ahead and helping them find connections to be able to do that, and standing back and letting them create their new lives in the U.S. It is filled with all the frustrations of bureaucratic systems in immigration courts … but it is still a very enriching, exciting process.”
What individuals can do: host families, write letters, give to IRIS
Additionally, the Wagars have also hosted at least 13 asylum-seekers and refugees in their home for more than a decade.
Currently, a 35-year-old Nigerian woman is living with them. “She has been taking courses in the adult school, but they’ve now ended because of coronavirus,” Wagar said.
She recalled once hosting a family of four. “It was amazing. When they moved out, they moved right around the corner,” Wagar said. “We still see them. They are like family. They are doing great. It takes a village, especially in terms of people needing funding or help finding jobs or connecting to English as Second Language classes or to whatever they need before their cases are decided.
“Once they receive asylum, there’s a whole post-asylum process of getting them connected with refugee benefits — all of which is what IRIS does.”
“We have met some of the best people you would ever want to know,” she added about her houseguests. “We got to know them and something about the culture they came out of, who they are, how they function. That, to me, if there’s a benefit to do this — aside from the fact that it’s the right thing to do — is you get to meet such good people.”
Judy Ferkel said St. Stephen’s Church was in the process of creating an immigrant support circle when COVID-19 forced the state to go on lockdown.
So she began an individual letter-writing campaign.
Since then, the Castaic resident has begun corresponding with eight new people at Adelanto and was so inspired, “I went to church with a list of 10 people and said, would you like to take a name, do you want to write to someone. There are many English speakers there, from Cameroon and Haiti, so you don’t necessarily need to speak Spanish.”
But she is concerned that has not received responses to her letters. Several weeks ago, detainees had launched a hunger strike to protest conditions and to call for protections at the privately-run facility where more than 120 people had tested positive for coronavirus.
“I have no idea if the letters are getting through on a timely basis,” said Ferkel, 66. “Yesterday, I got a panicked call from a woman who got a letter that said, ‘I’m sick, I’m in isolation, locked up 23 hours a day. What can I do?’ We spent the day advocating for him.”
She believes that letter-writing — any possible point of connection — is crucial for those detained. “These are real people, that have a right to a good life. I just feel like, but for an accident of birth, we’d be there. I just feel that the people there, they’re us. They’re people. Immigrants are such a major part of Southern California. We’re from everywhere, that’s really who we are.”
Connecting neighbors, support to the vulnerable continues
Nicole Gregory said helping detainees and asylum-seekers feels “really good in in this terrible, terrible time. People are being extra-generous, extra-kind and I just feel like it’s really a positive side of what’s happening.”
The Sherman Oaks resident added: “The outpouring of generosity from All Saints [Beverly Hills] has been incredible during this coronavirus time. I just sense that people really want to help those who are really in trouble. Some of us are still employed and still have an income and everyone’s feeling really grateful for what they have.”
In spite of setbacks and stay-at-home orders, Taylor said IRIS’s efforts continue. The agency needs both community and financial support. A huge challenge has been reaching clients who are not computer-literate or who do not have access to a computer.
Allison DeVaul, manager for church relations and engagement for Episcopal Migration Ministries, the refugee resettlement ministry of The Episcopal Church, said its program, “Connecting Neighbors,” helps get donated digital devices to those who need them.
Such devices are desperately needed to assist families and “so children can access learning,” she said. “All it requires is that you fill out a simple form, tell us what you have to donate, and we find the nearest local affiliate and connect them to the devices.” (Information about the “Connecting Neighbors” program is here.)
Taylor said the lack of access to computers “has been frustrating for us, but also for clients, because it keeps them ineligible from accessing benefits that come” with their refugee status. For those who have attained U.S. citizenship, it also delays their ability to register to vote in November, she said.
Other rites of passage — such as taking the citizenship oath — are also on hold until further notice, she said. But the ministry continues.
“This is a program that saves lives,” she said. “We touch a lot of lives and we do a lot of hard work and we’re a wonderful resource to the community, and we are hit hard by this pandemic.”
But she added: “We’ve got families waiting to be reunited. We’ve got to get there. We’ve got to make it there.”