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Passports for Children

July 9, 2010

by: Jennifer Perez

One of the most shocking things about the enforcement of immigration laws is the way it can break up families.  Many immigrant families are of “mixed” status—one or both parents undocumented, one or more children US citizens.  When one or both parents are detained by immigration officials, the result is often long-term—even permanent—separation from their children.  One of the reasons for this separation is that US citizens who do not have passports will have great difficulty getting back into the United States if they leave.  Many immigrant families live in constant fear of this potential separation.

This was not something I had ever thought about until last spring when I attended an immigration conference in Canby which was sponsored by the West Coast Mennonite Central Committee and The Canby Center.  My intention in attending this conference was to come away with something concrete that I could do regarding immigration.  A number of excellent ideas were offered throughout the day, and that conference has sparked a number of activities and partnerships.  The idea that was the simplest and most concrete, however, seems to be the one that has had the most impact.

Helping parents apply for passports for their children was suggested as a relatively simple way to meet the real needs of immigrant families.  The passport application and instructions are available only in English and, as anyone who has ever filled out a tax return can attest, deciphering the instructions to a government document can be difficult even for someone very familiar with the language.  For those with limited English literacy, it can be next to impossible.  Filing any kind of document with the government and having to go to a government office (such as a post office) to do so, can also be very intimidating for a person who is not in the country legally.  There is an understandable fear that filing for a passport for a child who has every right to have one may result in an investigation into the parents’ immigration status.

Each September a number of churches in Newberg work together to put on an event called Serve & Celebrate, which is a free community festival where participants meet the needs of the community in tangible ways: bike repair, mending, family portraits, housekeeping and yard work, etc.  It seemed that providing assistance with passport applications might be another logical service to provide.  We rounded up some bilingual volunteers, grabbed a pile of applications at the local post office, and waited to see what would happen.  We expected to spend most of our time explaining to parents why their children needed passports.

We were greeted the morning of the event with pouring rain.  It looked like we had a long, miserable day ahead of us, and I wondered whether it would be a waste of time.  However, as soon as the event began at 10:00, there was a man already standing in the rain waiting for us, Ziploc bag of documents in hand.  He had heard this service would be available, and he was ready, in need of our help, not so much because of his limited English skills, but because he couldn’t write.  Even if no one else had shown up that day, it was worth our efforts just to be able to help that one man.

As it turned out, we passed out over 70 applications, and hardly anyone needed to be convinced of the importance.  Clearly, word had spread about this opportunity, and parents came looking for us.  A number of families came back the following weekend when we had arranged for an official from the post office to come to the local elementary school to process them.  We were repeatedly asked when the next opportunity would be to apply for passports.

It seems like a small thing, but it enabled us to reach out to our neighbors, meeting real needs, and establishing the beginning of real relationships.

We will be providing a similar service during the Christians and Immigration in a Land of Contradictions conference October 1st and 2nd at George Fox University.  Look for further information to come if you are interested in helping out.

Author, Jennifer Perez attends Newberg Friends Church along with her family and originated the idea of helping people obtain passports for their children.  She is an active member of the NWYM Task Force on Immigration.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane Benton permalink
    July 9, 2010 4:18 pm

    To me, that’s what self giving service looks like!

  2. Judy Goldberger permalink
    July 23, 2010 7:55 pm

    Thank you Jennifer, and Newberg Friends Church, for this witness of God’s mercy. As a doula and now maternity nurse, I’ve been present with families experiencing the heartbreak of separation – fathers unable to hold their newborn children in their arms, mothers struggling to raise families as single parents.

    There is another ugly reality that contributes to prolonged family separations, and it is economic. Latin American immigrants used to be able to cross the border independently. As border enforcement has increased, migrants are forced to cross through more treacherous desert terrain, with the aid of smugglers (‘coyotes’). The fees that ‘coyotes’ charge run into the thousands of dollars, money which poor migrants fleeing desperate poverty do not have up front unless a relative who has preceded them to the US has paid their passage. People smugglers have extensive criminal networks, and migrants who are in debt to ‘coyotes’, or have deported family members in debt to ‘coyotes’ may stay in the US in fear that family members will be harmed if the debt is not paid.

    As long as a large portion of the world’s population lives in deep poverty, where globalization has wiped out subsistence farming and education does not support sustainable earnings, this bind will remain an ugly reality. And the deeper bind that many immigrants find themselves caught in will remain – to remain in the US, with a hope of health care and education for their children, or to return to a life of desperate poverty in order to rejoin other family members. It is a bind I cannot imagine facing myself.

    Thank you for your witness, your inbreaking of God’s compassion and hope.

    Judy Goldberger
    Beacon Hill Friends Meeting, Boston

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