Featured in the Wall Street Journal: A Methodist Network for Immigrants Believes in ‘Welcoming the Stranger’

Rob Rutland-Brown of National Justice for Our Neighbors lives out his faith by helping run legal clinics for low-income immigrants in 10 states. Coming from a family of United Methodist ministers—including his father, grandparents, aunts and uncles—Rob Rutland-Brown says that his own generation was expected to find a vocation in the church as well. But after stints working as a schoolteacher and with the Special Olympics, Mr. Rutland-Brown found a different way to act on his faith: helping immigrants.

In 1996, while Mr. Rutland-Brown was a teenager in Florida, one of his cousins and an aunt co-founded a nonprofit in northern Virginia to provide legal aid to low-income immigrants who had been seeking advice informally at local churches. Nearly a decade later, his cousin, Allison Rutland Soulen, decided to devote herself full-time to legal work at the nonprofit, and Mr. Rutland-Brown—with a new graduate degree in nonprofit management—took on her job and became executive director of the group, called Just Neighbors.

He worked there for seven years. In 2013, Mr. Rutland-Brown began running National Justice for Our Neighbors, an umbrella group established in 1999 by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the church’s international-aid arm. The church has a long history of helping immigrants and urges its adherents to “build bridges with migrants in their local communities” and “welcome newly arriving migrants.” Mr. Rutland-Brown didn’t become a minister, but, he says, “I’m able to live out my faith by supporting others, by welcoming the stranger.”

Based in Springfield, Va., near Washington, D.C., National Justice for Our Neighbors supports a network of United Methodist Church-affiliated sites running legal clinics in 10 states, including Just Neighbors, whose grass-roots success “was the genesis” for the larger effort, Mr. Rutland-Brown says. The network does advocacy work and holds seminars to educate immigrants, including those in detention, about their legal rights. “We help serve as many low-income clients as possible in compassionate ways,” says Mr. Rutland-Brown, 38. “Our emphasis is on those who are the most vulnerable with the fewest resources.”

This year, the network has helped clients from 108 countries, including Syria, South Sudan, Guatemala and, most often, Mexico. Between January and September, its 15 sites handled 8,944 cases. Mr. Rutland-Brown says. “Our least challenging problem is how to find clients,” he adds.

The network’s 37 staff attorneys and hundreds of volunteers—including other lawyers, retirees and people between jobs—specialize in handling cases for immigrants seeking work authorization, asylum or green cards, as well as for unaccompanied minors and undocumented migrants who have become eligible for “U” visas because they were victims of violent crimes and are willing to help law enforcement. This year alone, the network says, it assisted 386 clients with green-card applications and helped another 174 gain citizenship.

The sites often work in partnership with social-service providers and school systems, which help identify clients. A mobile legal clinic in Florida helps immigrants in remote communities, especially farmworkers and minors.

In 2014, 1.3 million people immigrated to the U.S., legally and illegally. America remains the world’s leading resettlement country for refugees, a small immigrant subset, according to the U.N. American immigration law is notoriously complex: “I am told it beats the tax code,” Eduardo Aguirre, then the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, testified at a House hearing in 2006.

Cases can drag on for years; immigrants can be vulnerable to fraud from people posing as lawyers. The network works to protect immigrants. “It’s never a matter of circumventing the law,” says Mr. Rutland-Brown. “It’s a matter of accessing it.”

By Hannah Bloch, Dec. 8, 2016, Walls Street Journal

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The mission of Just Neighbors is to provide immigration legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees in Virginia, especially those who are most vulnerable. We also seek to foster enriching experiences that enhance awareness and mutual understanding among our clients, volunteers, staff and community.

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