A ministry of the Iowa Annual Conference, Justice For Our Neighbors (JFON) has been in operation for more than 18 years now. Now, for the first time ever, the organization has hired a paid executive director. “When I saw the position was available, I was very excited to have the opportunity to be a part of this wonderful team,” says Sol Varisco-Santini, who is now leading a small but dedicated group of immigrant lawyers, paralegals, and an intake specialist.
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“I’m trying to get all the history of the work we’ve done, the volunteers, the donations, the grants that we have—and also the opportunities that could be out there for us to grow,” says Sol, who is still settling into the job. “The beginning step is to have the executive director to work a little more on the infrastructure, and from there start doing more of the outreach.”
Listen to the conversations with Sol Varisco-SantiniShe and her team have their work cut out for them, given that immigration has been a focal point of the current administration. “This year has been very busy with immigration issues, immigration changes. Those changes always impact low-income immigrants, and they cannot afford immigration lawyers,” explains Sol. “That is why the work we do is so important, because we provide free, high-quality immigration services.”
JFON has especially been dealing with a lot of TPS and DACA cases this year. The DACA recipients, those brought to the US when they were young minors, have been particularly high profile, but immigrants with TPS (Temporary Protected Status) have also been affected. “It’s for people that, for example, have escaped from natural disasters. Some of them have been here for 10 or 20 years. But now the current administration has given them 18 months extensions for their status, so they had to come and reapply to receive that extension, and that is when we provide the services to help them with the immigration forms; they are usually long and complicated.”
In a typical day in the clinic, they see 10 to 15 clients. “The immigration lawyer looks at the paperwork and assesses whether we can help them or not, depending on what the case requires.” They take most of the cases. And they do their best to make people feel comfortable, finding translators when needed so they can properly communicate. “So far this year, until September 2017, we have helped 961 new clients. And that is from 54 different countries,” she adds.
Now a US citizen but originally from Argentina, Sol can relate to what many of her clients are going through. ”I understand how difficult it is have to fill out the form, knowing when is the deadline to send something back to the USCIS, the immigration services,” she remembers. “I had to struggle on trying to find help as well, getting the orientation, what was the right thing to do to make sure I don’t lose my status.”
JFON’s services include work authorization, family unification (i.e. when a person who is a resident wants to bring a family member over), applying for citizenship, and even helping people to escape domestic violence situations. “We also give advice and consultation,” she says. “And when they have more specific needs, then we will refer them to the lawyers that will help with that.”
Under the leadership of Doris Knight, who previously served, on a volunteer basis, as JFON’s executive director, the mission of the organization has always been to treat people with love and compassion. “Immigrants are always under stress,” says Sol. The difficulty of adjustment, communication challenges due to language barriers, and their lack of understanding of a complicated system all contribute to that stress. While JFON can help relieve some of that by providing legal services, Sol also believes treating people with love, care, understanding, and compassion is key.
“I tell you that we have two of the best immigration lawyers in the country, and they work from their heart. They want to stay with us; they want to be part of a not-for-profit. They could have their own legal office if they want to, but they choose to be with us, and that’s something we need to thank them for,” she says.
“As Wesley used to say, the faith is not only in church; the faith is in the action. And I think this is part of our action, providing legal immigration services to low-income people.”
JFON hosts legal clinics in seven locations throughout Iowa: Cedar Rapids, Columbus Junction, Decorah, Des Moines, Ottumwa, Marshalltown, and Storm Lake. “That means a lot of driving for our immigration lawyers, a lot of volunteers in each of those locations,” she points out. “So we are hoping that as we are continuing to grow, more people get involved.”
In fact, they are always looking for new volunteers. They welcome people from all faiths and backgrounds to do everything from helping with educational presentations to writing grants to assisting with fundraising events. Anyone interested in helping out can get in touch with Sol by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about Justice For Our Neighbors, visit them online at www.iowajfon.org. They will be doing more legal clinics in March 2018, so go to the website to find further information and exact dates, along with information on ways to get involved.