Advocacy for the Foreigner
Caring for the legal needs of immigrants
“I was marrying the love of my life,” Marsha said. “It was simple and beautiful.”
But Marsha and her husband Daniel didn’t know the journey ahead would keep them apart for years as they waited for the agonizingly slow immigration process in the United States to reunite them.
Marsha, from Pittsburgh, met Daniel online, and the two prayed together about whether they should start a relationship. After a year, Marsha traveled to Nigeria to meet him. “When I saw him at the airport, I know this is where God wanted me to be”, Marsha says.
Daniel and Marsha initially applied for a fiance visa, but financial limitations from Marsha’s teaching income caused them to miss their paperwork deadline. They were devastated but decided to get married in October 2019 and started a marriage-based petition.
For help with this process, Marsha and Daniel partnered with Christian Immigration Advocacy Center (CIAC) as their legal representatives. CIAC was started at Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania by Glenn Hanna, then the missions pastor, who wanted to address the growing needs of refugees and immigrants in the community. Pastor Hanna learned that the overwhelming gap in the community was for compassionate, high-quality and affordable help with immigration law.
CIAC started at Allegheny Center Alliance Church in Pittsburgh, Pa by then-Missions Pastor Glenn Hanna, who wanted to address the growing needs of refugees and immigrants in the community. Pastor Hanna received feedback that the overwhelming gap in the community was for compassionate, high-quality, and affordable immigration law.
In 2013, a group of volunteers began offering limited pro-bono legal aid while beginning the long process of becoming a non-profit and receiving accreditation through the Department of Justice. This accreditation, which they received in May 2018, allows non-attorneys to become trained to provide legal aid, represent clients in cases, and submit applications, specifically for low-income immigrants and refugees.
During the past three years, CIAC has served over 500 clients from 40 different countries.
For Marsha, a social worker and mother of two, CIAC was a “destiny helper sent by God.”
“We had really high hopes about CIAC because we had heard such wonderful things,” Marsha said. “From the beginning, I knew you guys could help us. The first time I met with you, I knew I belonged here. At the end of our first meeting, we prayed together, and I was so encouraged. I could tell you believed in our story.”
CIAC’s vision is to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ by loving refugees and immigrants and enabling churches to welcome their sojourner neighbors. While CIAC staff meet with clients to discuss complicated legal issues, their mission for each interaction is show Jesus’ love.
CIAC provides a variety of services including naturalization and family-based petitions and green cards. They hope to obtain funding in the near future to add more services including asylum and removal/deportation representation – which is not currently available in the Pittsburgh area. A private attorney can charge thousands of dollars for representation, so CIAC raises support from donors and foundations to keep legal fees low, with the goal of becoming pro bono.
Marsha’s husband Daniel still lives in West Africa as they wait for the US government to process their marriage-based paperwork for Daniel to come to the United States. An already expensive and arduously long process was slowed down even further by the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed embassies around the world for months and created years-long backlogs for visa appointments. As of August 2021, Daniel is approved to immigrate, but is waiting on a visa interview at the embassy.
When the COVID-19 pandemic closed offices, CIAC pivoted to a virtual legal ministry and continued to serve clients remotely; and since immigration law is federal, CIAC is able to provide legal services to clients in any state. This has allowed they to serve a larger group of the more than 40 million people in the United States were born in another country.
While specializing in legal work, CIAC strives to go above and beyond in assisting clients to navigate the systems and language of their new home. That can involve calling a city government office to advocate for a photo ID or submitting paperwork to an embassy for replacement birth certificates. CIAC also connects clients with trauma-informed medical providers and counseling services.
A Compassionate Heart
Interim Executive Director Rogerio Torres, himself an immigrant from Brazil, recently moved from Kentucky to Pittsburgh to work full time with CIAC. This summer, he worked with a woman who had married a US citizen and then began to experience abuse in her marriage. She was at risk of losing her status to remain the United States, so Rogerio walked alongside her in the stressful and emotional process of filing paperwork to stay. Through Zoom meetings and phone calls, Rogerion was able to gather the woman’s information and documents despite COVID restrictions.
Rogerio is also an ordained C&MA pastor and sees his dual roles in his job as God’s way of filling a practical need while giving an opportunity to pray for clients to accept the love of Jesus.
CIAC also desires to provide churches with the knowledge and wisdom to show Jesus’ heart to the immigrants and refugees in their congregations and communities, regardless of race, religion or nationality.
“I have been helping immigrants since 2015 in Kentucky and joined CIAC over a year ago with the desire to not only provide legal help, but to do so with a compassionate heart,” said Rogerio. “I want to help our clients seeking not only a US citizenship, but also a heavenly citizenship. I can sympathize with them; I had been in their shoes since I am myself an immigrant.”
For Pastor Blaine Workman, executive pastor at ACAC, the close proximity to CIAC within the church building is an asset to the church and to CIAC.
“At ACAC, we saw the launch of CIAC as a significant way to love those least served in our own community while also advancing the cause of missions to unreached peoples,” Blaine said. “And by housing the CIAC offices in the same general area as our ministry offices, our whole staff regularly comes into contact with refugee and immigrant families who live near the church. What a blessing it is to know that, for many of these families, their visit to CIAC marks the first time they have ever set foot in a Christian church.”
Rogerio is fluent in Portuguese and Spanish, allowing hime to service the needs of those from Latin and South America. However, CIAC spends about $5,000 a year to cover the cost of translation into other languages, including Bhutanese, Nepali, Arabic and Swahili. Other legal costs include document translation and postage, as the immigration office requires paper copies of all applications. Those costs are covered by donations.
Walking In Faith
For many CIAC clients, the wait for a decision on their applications can be challenging and discouraging. The average processing time for a green card application is about 18 months, and costs about $1,300. In addition, immigrants must apply for travel documents, work permits and other authorizations. CIAC’s legal representatives are available for support and prayer throughout the extensive process.
Daniel still lives in West Africa as the couple waits for the US government to process their marriage-based paperwork for Daniel to come to the United States. An already expensive and arduously long process was slowed down even further by the COVID-19 pandemic, which closed embassies around the world for months and created years-long backlogs for visa appointments. As of August 2021, Daniel is approved to immigrate, but is waiting on a visa interview at the embassy.
“The easy thing would have been to give up after five years of waiting,” Marsha said. “I know God wants us together to do ministry. Daniel covers me spiritually and prays for me often. This is more than a visa.”
Daniel and Marsha have still found ways to do ministry together from more than 4,000 away. Daniel works at a church in Gambia, assisting pastors and using his own money to buy things for the church. Marsha and Daniel worked together to raise money to buy chairs for the church. When Daniel didn’t have a truck to transport the newly purchased chairs, he carried them himself a few at a time over several days. Daniel hopes to use his teaching degree to start a ministry in the United States to work with foster children, with the desire to share Christ with people. Marsha has started a Go-FundMe fundraiser to help support the local community and for his living expenses while he waits to immigrate.
“There is a unique call on my husband’s life and the strength of his relationship with God,” Marsha said. “I want to be a part of that story. My faith is not how much I tithe, or show up at church, or feed the poor. It is because I have a close and personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Marsha said she wants others to learn from her journey to draw closer to God.
“With Daniel and I, it has truly been a faith walk,” she said. “The entire time, God has been with us. He has provided. He has provided destiny helpers like CIAC. He opened so many doors and that has built our faith and our relationship.”
Jessica Weaver graduated with a journalism degree but was led by God to use her skills in the social work field and has worked with the homeless and addicts. She now serves with the Christian Immigration Advocacy Center providing legal aid to immigrants and refugees.