Paperwork, patience, and pride

BIC woman walks the "long road to residency" with would-be immigrants, one application at a time

From her office in Upland, Calif., immigration associate (and BIC church member) Gloria James assists immigrants in changing their residency status. (Photo by Devin Thomas)As an immigration associate for West Coast (U.S.) Mennonite Central Committee, Gloria James spends a lot of time doing paperwork: filling out applications, Xerox-ing birth certificates, filing forms. It's sometimes tedious but always rewarding, she says—especially when she gets to help clients like Frank and Carmen Rodriguez.*

The newly-wed Rodriguezes arrive early one Monday morning at the gray, stucco-roofed office building that Gloria (the only MCC case worker in Southern California) shares with the staff of the Pacific Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church. Gloria—a short, fiery Peruvian-American woman—is ready for them: It's the Rodriguezes' fourth visit to the office, and today the couple are prepared to put the finishing touches on Carmen's application for legal resident status.

Crowded around Gloria's desk, hovering above the piles of documentation paperwork Gloria has already laid out, the group gets to work. Gloria's pen moves furiously across the documents; the bangles around her wrist rattle metallically as she works to fill the correct blanks and to check the correct boxes. Throughout the process, she maintains conversation with Frank and Carmen, double-checking the information she's writing on the sheets, shifting fluidly from English to Spanish and back again for the benefit of her bilingual clients. (Carmen, who speaks some English, prefers to converse in her native tongue; Frank, a fluent English-speaker, has been trying to learn Spanish to communicate more intimately with his wife.) Gloria's a fast talker, clipping right along regardless of the language. And she's animated—her hands often move faster than her mouth, acting out the situation she's describing: When she talks about Carmen's passport, she smacks her left palm with her right fist to indicate a stamp; using her forefingers and thumbs, she draws an invisible rectangle in the air to illustrate the size and shape of the conditional green card Carmen will receive once the application goes through.

After more than half an hour of work, Gloria finally comes to the bottom of a stack of forms and looks up at the couple. “No te olvides,” she intones. “Don't forget.” Gloria taps the bottom of a form. “Sign. Escribe. Lots of times Immigration rejects applications that are not signed.” She taps it again. “Very important.”

Silence—save the scratching of Gloria's pen—overtakes the room once more, until Frank raises a question: “Gloria, do you enjoy this kind of work?”

Gloria stops writing and looks up. “I do,” she replies. “It's my passion. It's a challenge, but it's what God wants me to do.”

“Takes a pretty dedicated person,” Frank observes.

Gloria smiles. “When I came to the U.S., I didn't know this is what I'd be doing—helping other people. I came here to help myself!” She chuckles. “But I love it. This is what I'm meant to do.”

Finding faith, finding purpose

This work is what keeps me alive—feeling that God is using me to serve my clients.

In 2000, Gloria left her native Peru on a visitor visa, coming to the U.S. to explore educational opportunities. Settling near Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Gloria connected with family members already living in the area—including her aunt, who immediately invited Gloria to attend her church, The Lord's House, a BIC congregation in Alta Loma.

“My belief background is Catholic, so I knew God in a certain way,” says Gloria. Yet after accepting her aunt's invitation, Gloria found herself in an unfamiliar—although warmly welcoming—faith community.

After a few visits to The Lord's House, Gloria's aunt asked her a pointed question. Gloria recalls, “She said, 'Do you believe in God?' I said, 'What kind of question is that? Of course I believe in God.' But then I realized that my aunt meant other things as well—if I knew Christ as my savior, if I had a relationship with Him.” Further reflection on her aunt's question led Gloria to accept Christ during a service at The Lord's House.

Gloria remembers that period of her life as a tumultuous, challenging, but ultimately rewarding. “I was learning many things at the same time,” she says. “I was learning the English language, I was learning about God, and I was learning about the different ways [Christians] show their faith—the ways you should put faith into practice. It was amazing. I thought, 'You know, this is something else.' Nobody ever taught me about God like this. I never knew I was special, never knew I was free from sin because of what Jesus did for me.”

After marrying her husband, David, in 2002, Gloria began to consider pursuing legal resident status in the U.S. “I had to go through the system,” she recalls. “I said, 'I'm here, I'm in this country, I'm married—what's next? What do I do?' I knew with the kind of visa I had here, I was just able to visit and to go to school, but that's it.”

So Gloria started investigating her options—a difficult prospect for someone still learning English and without a guide through the maze of applications and affidavits. Yet she persisted. After learning from a friend that “everything you need to know about changing your status is on the Internet,” Gloria had an epiphany: “I woke up one morning and said to my husband, 'Honey, this is something we can do on our own!'”

Opting to tackle the seemingly insurmountable pile of paperwork herself, Gloria soon found herself overwhelmed. “To deal with Immigration, with the government, is not easy,” she recounts. “My case wasn't denied, but it was rejected. My whole bundle of paperwork, all of my documents and forms—they were sent back to me two times, just for minor errors.” In the midst of the tumult, Gloria found herself in church, offering up an unexpected prayer: “I said, 'You know what, God? If you put somebody in my path and they are going through the same nightmare that I'm going through right now, I promise you—I'm going to help them. I will serve them in any way you want.'”

"This work is what keeps me alive."

Gloria laughs now, thinking back on that prayer: “I never meant to have a job doing this!” But God works in mysterious ways, she acknowledges: In late 2003, shortly after finishing her status-change paperwork and receiving notification that her case had been approved, one of the secretaries at Gloria's church handed her a packet of information about a job with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a worldwide disaster relief and advocacy ministry for the Anabaptist community.

“He said, 'This is for you—you are the right person for this position,'” Gloria recalls. “I said, 'What are you talking about? What is this?' I didn't know anything about MCC, but they were looking for a person in Southern California to work with their immigration program—someone who was bilingual, and who was able to work with people from different backgrounds. I was so excited, because I'm that type of person!”

Gloria (far left) works alongside MCC colleagues from across the U.S. during a training seminar in Akron, Pa., in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Mennonite Central Committee)West Coast MCC’s work with immigration in North America falls into three categories: education, advocacy, and direct services. The job for which Gloria applied focused on providing immigrants with documentation assistance and help in adjusting their residency status.

Although initially fearful she was not qualified for the position (“They were looking for someone with a law background—a law degree or paralegal experience,” she notes), Gloria says that her experience as an immigrant who had gone through the system eventually won her the job.

Gloria says that accepting the position with MCC “was very powerful, because for me it was the beginning of showing my faith. Since the time that I became a Christian, I said, 'God, use me. I know these are my goals, I know these are my priorities—but you might have other plans for me.'”

Now, almost seven years later, Gloria’s still gets a thrill helping folks like Frank and Carmen. And although she doesn’t plan to become an immigration attorney any time soon, Gloria has been accredited by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals—the administrative body charged with interpreting and applying U.S. immigration law—with the authority to do legal documentation work. She says, “This work is what keeps me alive—feeling that God is using me to serve my clients.”

Taking the job seriously

Gloria's job isn't just about paperwork—often, she spends time counseling clients (like Frank and Carmen) for their eventual interview with U.S. Immigration Services.

“Let's go over this again,” she says to the couple, tapping the now-completed application and leaning across the table. “I will ask these questions, because that's what's going to happen at your interview.” She repeats herself in Spanish for Carmen's benefit, and begins to page through the stack of documents.

She poses question upon question, most of them directed at Carmen. Some are quite pertinent (“Where were you born? What is your current residency status?”); others seem tangential and, for Carmen, a bit confusing and unnecessary—especially as Gloria nears the section about criminal activity. Halfway through a section about criminal convictions for murder, larceny, and drug trafficking, Carmen rolls her eyes.

When clients come here seeking their change in legal status, it's like the beginning of a new life. And I'm part of that. I was part of the foundation of that new life. Knowing that fills me with so much joy.

Gloria nods her head knowingly. “A lot of these questions are very irrelevant,” she tells Carmen in her native tongue. “But they are going to ask you, and I want you to be prepared.”

At another point in their mock-interview, Carmen begins to anticipate some of the questions, and answers before Gloria can even complete her sentence. The immigration caseworker pauses for a moment.

“You have to let them go through the whole question first,” she advises her client. “With some people, the officer gets halfway through the question and they say, 'Yes, yes.'” Gloria shakes her head. “Too fast. I know it's hard, but you have to be patient. Otherwise, it's like, 'Oh, you just memorized.'”

Gloria knows the process is arduous, but she is clearly committed to walking alongside her clients during such times. “It's a long road to residency,” she tells Carmen. “I'm not going to lie. But when you get that green card in the mail—te sentirás mucho orgullo.” You'll feel so much pride.

Setting the record straight on immigration

But Gloria admits that her work isn't without difficulties—especially, she says, because immigration is such “a hot-button issue.”

“Sometimes in the U.S., we tend to judge immigrants: 'Oh, they come illegally,'” she notes. “But a lot of people come from different circumstances and for different reasons—economic freedom, religious freedom. There are people who come here looking for new opportunities. And most of them come here risking everything.”

Gloria points out that many undocumented immigrants “live in the shadows of society” for fear of persecution, stigmatization, or castigation. She believes that the Church has an especially profound role to play in assisting such people.

Gloria (center, in green sweater and black scarf) poses for a group shot alongside her West Coast MCC co-workers at the division's Reedley, Calif., office. (Photo courtesy of Gloria James)“I would say for us, as brothers and sisters in Christ, let's be the voice that cannot be heard,” she advises. “Because a lot of times, immigrants can talk but nobody will hear them. So as citizens, as residents, we can speak up—we can talk to our government, we can talk to Congress. When there's a bill that needs to be passed, when there's a law that needs to be accepted, we can do something. We can advocate on behalf of the immigrants in our midst.”

She also encourages people to think critically and to put themselves metaphorically in the shoes of immigrants. “Think, 'What would I do if I were her?'” Gloria suggests. “Think, 'What would I do if my kids never had educational opportunities?' Maybe you never had educational opportunities in your country, but now you have kids and you want them to be different. So you will leave everything, you will do anything to let them have that. I hear this story all the time: 'I left my country because of my kids. Because I want them to have what I didn't have. I want them to go to school. I want them to have a job. I want them to be happy.'”

On the issue of immigration reform, Gloria says she engages in a lot of conversation to “set the record straight. We need to help our fellow citizens understand that MCC is asking for immigration reform that is not going to be amnesty. It's an immigration reform for which only a certain group of people are going to meet the requirements—in other words, it will affect people who really deserve to be here. Of course, there are also a lot of people who make mistakes but deserve a second chance, so we have to take that into account.”

In the end, Gloria admits that there are a lot of strongly held opinions on both sides of the issue. “It's kind of a controversial issue to talk about,” she says. “It's hard. I understand it's hard. But every time it comes to immigration, I just want to think with my heart. I want to remember that we are all creations of God; we are all brothers and sisters.”

A long, arduous race

After months of work and almost an hour of waiting, watching, and answering question upon question in Gloria's office, a palpable feeling of relief washes over Frank and Carmen as they watch their case worker slide the thick stack of documents into a catalog envelope: They've finally completed the first leg of a long, arduous race toward legal resident status.

“There we go,” says Gloria, handing the bundle to the couple. She tells the couple that the package is ready to be mailed to U.S. Immigration Services.

Moments like this, says Gloria, fill her with a lot of pride—not selfish pride at her own work, but pride for the individuals and couples who are making the commitment to do the right thing and pursue legal avenues to U.S. residency. “When clients come here seeking their change in legal status, it's like the beginning of a new life,” she shares. “And I'm part of that. I was part of the foundation of that new life. Knowing that fills me with so much joy. I think I will do this kind of work for the rest of my life.”

With a few parting words of instruction from Gloria, the couple rises to leave the office. As Gloria waves good-bye, Carmen turns and touches her arm. “Gloria—por tu trabajo muchas gracias.” Thanks so much for your work.

Gloria cracks a smile. “De nada. Mucho gusto.” No problem. My pleasure.


Devin Thomas serves the BIC Church as an associate for congregational relations.

* For reasons of confidentiality, some of the names used in this article have been changed.