If an immigration reform bill is approved by Congress this year, potentially millions of immigrants soon will be scrambling to meet the requirements for U.S. citizenship. And Dick Aced is determined to be ready to help.
The 73-year-old retiree, a member of Trabuco Presbyterian Church in Orange County, California, is working toward becoming accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) so that he can help immigrants with the paperwork that will put them on the path toward legal residency and ultimately U.S. citizenship.
Aced has observed how the complicated pathway toward citizenship can stymie people with limited English and no money to hire a lawyer. “Who better than the church to reach out to them?” he says.
But non-lawyers need training in order to help effectively, he adds. “We have to become experts in filling out the paperwork—and there’s lots and lots of paperwork. You don’t want to make a mistake. The government will reject it and deport your client, or send the form back to redo.”
Aced received his initial training in a program provided by Immigrant Hope, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. In the local office of World Relief, he is getting familiar with all of the thirteen major forms issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). One of the forms he is studying, for example, consists of twenty-one pages to fill out, plus thirty pages of instructions.
“I have to be prepared to understand a person’s circumstances and determine which series of forms to submit to USCIS,” Aced explains. Not everyone may be suited for this type of work, he acknowledges. “It helps to be detail-oriented.”
Aced says he has always been interested in law and at one time considered getting a legal degree, but he chose to get an MBA instead. He worked as site support manager for an aerospace corporation for thirty-five years. After retiring, he joined Campus Crusade for Christ, helping distribute multi-language DVDs of the organization’s popular Jesus film. It was this work that got him involved with refugee support organizations.
At meetings of these organizations, he met refugees and undocumented immigrants and heard about their struggles. He also witnessed the difficulties experienced by an immigrant in his own congregation who wants to remain in the United States. “I could see what she went through just to get her paperwork started,” he says.
Aced is motivated to reach out to immigrants by the biblical injunction to care for widows, orphans, and strangers. In his politically conservative community in Southern California, however, people don’t always understand or appreciate such efforts. “Many would rather build fences than open gates,” he says.
People who do want to help immigrants often say, “I’ll give them food. I’ll give them clothing. I’ll give them money.” While such aid is good, Aced would like to see deeper commitments, such as working toward BIA accreditation.
The government requires that individuals seeking accreditation be working for a nonprofit, religious, or social-service entity that is on the BIA’s list of “recognized organizations.” Working to meet the criteria to get on that list might be a logical next step for congregations that are already involved in immigration issues.
“If you’re a large church, maybe it’s time to rethink your outreach,” Aced suggests. A congregation with enough space, equipment, financing, and committed people could set up an office recognized by the BIA and dedicated to immigration issues. It could be a place where volunteers like Aced work toward BIA accreditation so they can reach out more effectively to the “strangers” in their community.
Teresa Waggener, coordinator of immigration issues for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), says one PC(USA) congregation that is going through the BIA accreditation process is New Hope Presbyterian Church, a Brazilian congregation in Orlando.
“I am grateful for churches and persons like Dick, who are passionate enough to want to do this important work and determined enough to go through the proper process to make sure that they help rather than hurt,” she says. “I encourage Presbyterians interested in taking part in immigration legal service to visit and volunteer at a local immigration clinic, if one is available, to see if this is something they may want to do as a church.”
Waggener suggests that Presbyterians who are interested in pursuing BIA accreditation seek assistance from groups in their area that provide low-cost services for refugees and immigrants. Immigration Advocates (immigrationadvocates.org) maintains a clearinghouse of information about groups across the country that are involved in immigration issues. Among the religious groups that train individuals for BIA accreditation are Immigrant Hope (www.immigranthope.org), World Relief (worldrelief.org), and Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (cliniclegal.org).
For more information, contact Teresa Waggener at Teresa.firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 569-5372.