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UMCOR veteran reflects on 25 years of immigration work

3/22/2002 News media contact: Linda Bloom · (646) 369-3759 · New York

NOTE: A photograph is available with this report.

NEW YORK (UMNS) - It was the Vietnamese boat people who changed the way churches deal with refugees.

That particular situation, according to Lilia Fernandez of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), not only pointed to the need "to be ready to respond adequately to a crisis," but also resulted in the denominations resettling refugees in a different way.

For Fernandez, who is retiring May 1 after serving 25 years as UMCOR's immigration and refugee expert, the boat people represented only the first wave of uprooted people fleeing from war, political instability or simply poverty. The relief agency is part of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.

Since 1946, local United Methodist congregations have sponsored thousands of refugees. More than 60 refugee projects, both nationally and internationally, are funded through the Advance for Christ and His Church, the denomination's "second mile" giving program. Often, the work has been in cooperation with Church World Service (CWS), the relief and rehabilitation arm of the National Council of Churches.

The problem of people being uprooted from their homes continues to grow. As Fernandez noted in a 1999 article in New World Outlook magazine, "one in every 50 human beings is now a refugee, migrant, an asylum seeker or a displaced person."

Fearing political persecution, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese began fleeing their country after Saigon fell in 1975. Many took to the sea in small boats, earning them the label of "boat people." In the years that followed, more than 1.6 million Vietnamese settled in new countries.

Many of the boat people that UMCOR helped in 1978-79 had relatives who had left in 1975. "We resettled almost 6,000 refugees," Fernandez says. "They were mostly family reunions."

Placing refugees near family members, instead of with churches in other locations offering sponsorships, drew fire from some congregations. The trick, she says, was to convince people that "we were not dealing with cargo, but with human beings with needs and aspirations."

Fernandez was delighted when the U.S. Congress passed legislation in March 1980 that set up a regular refugee program, with funding included for the first time. The act also allowed refugees to apply for asylum.

But the provisions of the 1980 act were not applied to the Mariel boat lift, she says. That exodus occurred when Fidel Castro temporarily lifted restrictions preventing people from leaving Cuba. More than 125,000 Cubans, along with 40,000 Haitians fleeing the abuses of the Duvalier regime, came to the United States between April and October in 1980.

By October, most of the Cubans had been admitted as refugees, but the Haitians were detained. UMCOR was among the church and immigrant advocacy groups that worked on their behalf until the Haitians were freed and allowed to resettle in 1982. Writing in Response magazine, Fernandez noted the unequal treatment. "Haitians have been forced to win asylum one-by-one, often with long waits in detention centers, while people from other nations have been given automatic parole," she pointed out.

Fernandez herself knows what it means to be a refugee. The native of Cuba was attending Paine College in Augusta, Ga., on a church scholarship when the Bay of Pigs crisis occurred in 1961, threatening U.S.-Cuba relations. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) called her and said she had a week to decide whether to return to Cuba or remain in the United States. "It was the worst week in my whole life because I didn't know what to do," she remembers.

She called her mother who told her to stay and finish her college studies. What neither of them knew then was that Fernandez would not be able to return to Cuba for another 20 years.

Since she had been convinced that God's purpose had been for her to work among her own people, her faith was shaken. But she continued her studies, receiving a master's degree at Atlanta University, and beginning a career in refugee work through a job with Christian Community Services in Miami before eventually accepting the position with UMCOR.

The number of refugees coming from Central America to the United States increased through the 1980s. By 1988, for example, Nicaraguans were crossing the border in significant numbers, and churches in Texas began developing programs for them. "We emphasized the funding of projects that were near detention centers," she explains.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for undocumented immigrants but also established employer sanctions for those who hired undocumented workers. And the law allowed Cubans and Haitians to become permanent residents.

The United Methodist Council of Bishops made an official response, released in April 1988, urging church members to join them in an effort "to correct the injustices that may be perpetuated" by the 1986 immigration act. The statement was titled "On Undocumented Migration: To Love the Sojourner."

Fernandez believes "To Love the Sojourner" provides a foundation for United Methodist policy on immigration issues. "I use this even today," she explains. "It's the only thing we have on what the church feels about undocumented immigrants."

But there was no welcoming attitude in the early 1990s for refugees fleeing Haiti after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed. Instead of allowing them into the country, the U.S. government sent the refugees to Cuba for processing. Working through CWS, the denominations made a commitment to providing legal services to the Haitians assigned to them. "Even to this day, we are funding that program," she says.

In November 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which cut health and social services, including access to public education, to undocumented immigrants and their children. Although a federal court put the California action on hold, it set the stage for the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996. At the time, Fernandez called the act "the most draconian anti-immigration measures this country has seen in decades."

While the legislation was being considered by Congress, Church World Service, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the Episcopal Migrant Ministries launched a "refugee protection campaign" to lobby for changes. "Because of that, some of the worst provisions were eliminated," she says.

One of the positive United Methodist responses to the 1996 law was the development of a new program called "Justice for Our Neighbors." Modeled after a local immigration project in Virginia, it has led to the establishment of church-related legal clinics for immigrants at 14 sites and is now a permanent program.

Fernandez considers "Justice for Our Neighbors" to be her legacy at UMCOR and will continue to work as a consultant for the program.

More information about the church's refugee and immigration work is available online at, the UMCOR Web site, or at, the CWS Web site.

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