by Jessica Davis
One of the ways churches can be most helpful to extremely vulnerable populations is by doing outreach to/with new immigrants. Because congregations often have members with different skills, passions, and schedules, they are well-suited to be in nurturing relationship with people who are starting over and need multiple kinds of help. Some basic guidelines for forming an immigration support team are below.
- Learn about the types of immigration in the U.S.
There are many types and subtypes of immigration in the U.S. and it’s important to know which kind(s) will be your congregation’s focus. Often, congregations will want to help whomever it is that they see on the news and, while this makes sense, it’s often not the most helpful approach. For example, in light of the recent increase in asylum-seekers entering the U.S., many congregations contacted me wanting to sponsor them. Often, I had to tell them that their efforts might cause more harm than good. Asylum-seekers are by far the most vulnerable category of immigrants … they cannot work for a minimum of six months, cannot receive help from the federal (and most state and local) governments, and can be deported if they inadvertently ask for help by filling out an incorrect form. To be useful to asylum-seekers, churches need to either be very experienced with other types of refugees first or work as part of a larger team that is headed up by people with the appropriate experience/expertise. But there are many types of immigrants needing many types of assistance, so there are always places for churches to be helpful.
It’s important to also be aware of the ways in which our biases show up in whom we feel called to help. By far the most common demographic of new immigrants to the U.S. are single males. However, congregations almost always want to sponsor families with children. In addition, white immigrants are exponentially more likely to receive assistance than POC immigrants, and Asian and Latine immigrants are exponentially more likely to receive assistance than Black immigrants.
- Talk with recent immigrants in your area about what they most need.
The only way to know what people in crisis need is to ask. In some cases, this will start with case managers who have had contact with immigrants before they arrive but, whenever possible, the best source of information will be the people themselves. What patterns do you hear? Do folks have access to lots of services but no transportation to get there? Are they being hassled by the police? Trust the people directly affected to tell you how to help them and what to expect for the people coming soon after them.
One important role churches can have for new immigrants is being a hub to connect people to already existing services. So often I hear “I’ve been here six months, and I never knew there was help available for xyz!” Gone are the days where a single agency can be a one-stop shop for everything immigrants need. So churches can do a lot of information-gathering to know who in the community is offering what types of assistance.
- Determine what you are called and able to do.
After you hear from recent immigrants what their needs are, take a breath before agreeing to fill them all. It is easy to bite off more than we can chew; not meeting our commitments to immigrants can have very serious consequences for them. If we promise to provide transportation to all appointments for a year and then realize in three months that we don’t have enough volunteers, we can put them at serious risk of homelessness and deportation. Be honest and clear in all agreements and be willing to say “I don’t know,” rather than give incorrect information or make commitments you can’t fulfill. The “good news” about this situation is that there are many ways to provide help at every single stage of the process, from committing one hour a month to working phone lines or greeting people as they arrive in the country to committing 20+ hours a week to meet all the urgent needs of new asylum-seekers.
- Provide trauma-informed care
It is crucial to understand that many immigrants, especially those who are coming through refugee/asylee processes, are fleeing horrific situations. Congregants who are interacting with them will need a basic education in trauma-informed care and know when to consult with church staff and refer to other professionals. Because immigrants are such a vulnerable population, it is crucial that all volunteers undergo criminal background checks, child safety trainings, and not work alone.
- Do frequent check-ins
Often, new immigrants are so thankful to be receiving help that they won’t tell us that the help we’re providing is no longer what they need. There may be cultural misunderstandings that lead to frayed relationships. (One common experience I have is churches contacting me saying that the immigrant families are “letting their children run amok.” After conversation, we often find that the families are coming to us from cultures where raising children is a community endeavor. Parents assume that those who know the rules and norms of the community will tell them to the children; volunteers assume that individual families are responsible for raising their own children and that it’s rude to tell other people’s kids what to do.)
It’s also important to expect some major theological, political, and ideological differences with people who are coming from cultures very different than ours. Decide as early as possible which things are simple differences of opinion and which are non-negotiables (e.g. homophobia, misogyny, physical disciplining of children) and what you will do if/when they come up.
Also be open to the possibility that people will not be thankful to be here. Many types of immigrants coming from extreme situations have no choice about where they are sent; the U.S. is a very, very hard place to live. They may have lived in places where they had access to a robust social service network; it can be a massive blow to arrive here and find out that life in the U.S. for the poor and vulnerable is often terrible and terrifying.
The only way to know how things are going is to ask and then give people permission to be brutally honest. Working with new immigrants requires emotional fortitude, humility, commitment, a sense of humor, and the ability to adapt. It is also one of scripture’s most frequently repeated commandments and a true gift of community, for us even more than for those we serve.
Jessica Davis, MA is a church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Her ministry passions include: youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, she can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with her work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.