Bethany Immigration Services looks to help migrants find status in Summit County
Frisco resident Judy Phillips is passionate about fostering an inclusive community.
In 1990 she relocated from Maryland with her husband Mike, and their four children, to perform missionary work in Mexico City.
“I found people to be more open and very interested,” she said.
In addition to gaining the ability to speak reasonably decent Spanish, Phillips said all her children became fluent to the extent that to the closed eye they could be native.
The couple moved to Frisco in 1994, where Mike Phillips serves as pastor at the nondenominational Immanuel Fellowship.
“When we came here in 1994 there weren’t that many immigrants,” she said.
Within a few years, Phillips noted the immigrant population in Summit County began to grow, which was especially evidenced at Immanuel Fellowship, a multi-ethnic church.
“By the late ‘90s we really started connecting with immigrants,” she said.
What Phillips became cognizant of was how an entire demographic was struggling to survive in the shadows. From her perspective this was an ethnic group that could become contributors.
“We desired to do some type of tangible help for the immigrant community,” she shared.
She said some stellar outreach work was already being performed by the Family Intercultural Resource Center, who provides emergency support and parenting education.
“FIRC has done such great work,” she said. “What they do is amazing.”
Looking to support but not duplicate such efforts, Phillips sought a different niche to address the needs of the immigrant community.
After becoming involved with immigration reform through her connection with Immanuel Fellowship, Phillips built a strong network of contacts within the Latino community. About three years ago, through her multitude of associates, she found an avenue to lend assistance.
What she discovered was the Recognition and Accreditation (R&A) Program run by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), an administrative unit of the U.S. Department of Justice, which trains non-attorneys to provide representation in immigration proceedings.
“When we heard about this program we were amazed,” she said.
The idea gained true traction about two years ago when Sarah Christy moved to Summit County from El Salvador. The Minnesota native moved to Central America in 2008 to pursue a relationship with her husband Isaac Alfaro. The couple conceived two children in San Salvador, and later resided in Argentina and Brazil.
After Christy’s efforts to obtain permanent U.S. residency for her family, she became interested in helping others facing similar challenges. Phillip was already acquainted with Christy as a former work associate of her daughter. The pair reconnected though their mutual involvement with Immanuel Fellowship.
“There are many people who see the plight of immigrants and know they need help,” Philips said.
The duo joined forces to open the Bethany Immigration Services, which gained BIA accreditation this June.
“Our mission is the more of these immigrants we can help get established, the better off our community will be,” she said.
For a $50 initial consultation fee, potential clients can inquire about their legal status and learn what options may exist.
“The majority of people we work with have some kind of legal status, but the fact is a lot of people in this country don’t have legal status,” she opined.
So far the nonprofit has operated on a shoestring budget. To qualify for accreditation, Phillips said they are required to have a physical office space. To this point the rent for their modest two-room office in Frisco has been covered by donations.
Fundraising efforts began back in February with a taco dinner at the Summit County Senior and Community Center. To this point Phillips said the work has been voluntary with neither partner drawing a salary. Although as a nonprofit there are limitations, she said in time with enough clients, they could perhaps minimally reimburse themselves.
Money is far from their main concern however, as the ladies paid their own money for the training required for BIA accreditation, which includes shadowing an attorney.
During this first year of operations, the nonprofit is learning to navigate the world of grant applications. Phillips said they are hoping to be awarded some sort of funding this year. In the short run, the organization still needs a computer and printer, and Phillips said their needs would grow as their outreach efforts further.
“We’ve had seven or eight clients thus far,” she shared. “But we anticipate every quarter we’ll be doing better.”
To raise community awareness the group has given presentations at FIRC, Summit County Social Services, local elementary schools and libraries.
“Every time I walk away I have so much love for these people and I have so much compassion for their situation,” she said.
With immigrant rights being a widely debated topic nationally, Phillips points out that before anyone criticizes reform efforts, they should first consider the positive impacts immigrants have on the economy, especially in tourist heavy areas like Summit County.
Losing these members of the workforce “Would devastate this county,” she said. “The work force depends on immigrants.”
She pointed out that with Hispanics representing nearly 40 percent of the school-age population in Summit, their absence would reduce federal funding, resulting in less teachers being employed.
“It would have a devastating effect on our economy,” she said.
At the same time by giving legal status to immigrants, Phillips said the airline industry could see a boon as it would be feasible for people to fly back and visit their native country.
Over her decades of involvement with the immigrant community, Phillips has seen a shift in the treatment they receive in American society.
“The police force and sheriff are sympathetic to the plight of immigrants,” she said.
She also noted that long held prejudices are slowly breaking down, with more people, for example, awakening to the reality that crime is not a racial issue.
As she has become more intimately acquainted with immigration law, Phillips said it becomes even more apparent that reform is necessary.
“Immigration law is complex and at times there are parts of it that aren’t even fair,” she said.
Although not in support of fully opening the borders, Phillips is hopeful that in the near future Congress can craft effective reforms.
Recently, Phillips had occasion to converse with a man who acquired his green card, and the accompanying permanent legal resident status, after spending many years as an undocumented alien. She asked if he felt any differently with his new legal standing.
“He said he felt a big change inside himself,” she explained. “Plus a better self worth in this society.”
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