As an immigration associate for West Coast Mennonite Central Committee, Gloria James spends a lot of time doing paperwork: filling out applications, photocopying birth certificates, filing forms. It’s sometimes tedious but always rewarding, she says—especially when she gets to help clients like Frank and Carmen Rodriguez.*
Early one Monday morning, the newlywed Rodriguezes arrive at the gray, stucco-roofed office building in Upland, Calif., that Gloria (the only MCC case worker in Southern California) shares with the staff of the Pacific and Midwest Conferences of the Brethren in Christ Church.
Gloria—a short, fiery Peruvian-American woman—is ready for them: It’s the couple’s fourth visit to the office, and today they’ll be working to put the finishing touches on Carmen’s application for legal resident status.
Huddled around a desk, the group gets to work on the piles of documentation paperwork Gloria has already laid out. Gloria’s pen moves furiously across the documents; the bangles around her wrist rattle metallically as she works to fill in the correct blanks and check the correct boxes.
Throughout the process, she maintains conversation with Frank and Carmen, double-checking the information she’s writing on the sheets, shifting fluidly from English to Spanish and back again for the benefit of her bilingual clients. (Carmen, who speaks some English, prefers to converse in her native tongue; Frank, a fluent English-speaker, has been trying to learn Spanish to communicate more intimately with his wife.)
After more than half an hour of work, Gloria finally comes to the bottom of a stack of forms and looks up at the couple. “No te olvides,” she intones. “Don’t forget.” Gloria taps the bottom of a form. “Sign. Escribe. Lots of times, Immigration rejects applications that are not signed.”
She taps it again. “Very important.”
The scratching of Gloria’s pen overtakes the room once more, until Frank raises a question: “Gloria, do you enjoy this kind of work?”
Gloria stops writing and looks up. “I do,” she replies. “It’s my passion. It’s a challenge, but it’s what God wants me to do.”
“Takes a pretty dedicated person,” Frank observes.
Gloria smiles. “When I came to the U.S., I didn’t know this is what I’d be doing—helping other people. I came here to help myself!” She chuckles. “But I love it. This is what I’m meant to do.”
Finding faith, finding purpose
In 2000, Gloria left her native Peru and came to the U.S. on a visitor visa to explore educational opportunities. Settling near Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., Gloria connected with family members already living in the area, including her aunt, who immediately invited Gloria to attend her church, The Lord’s House, a BIC congregation in Alta Loma.
“My belief background is Catholic, so I knew God in a certain way,” says Gloria. When Gloria accepted her aunt’s invitation, she found herself in an unfamiliar—although warmly welcoming—faith community.
After a few visits to The Lord’s House, Gloria’s aunt asked her a pointed question. Gloria recalls, “She said, ‘Do you believe in God?’ I said, ‘What kind of question is that? Of course I believe in God.’ But then I realized that my aunt meant other things as well—did I know Christ as my savior? Did I have a relationship with Him?” Further reflection on her aunt’s question led Gloria to accept Christ during a service at The Lord’s House.
Gloria remembers that period of her life as challenging, but ultimately rewarding. “I was learning many things at the same time,” she says. “I was learning the English language, I was learning about God, and I was learning about the different ways [Christians] show their faith—the ways you should put faith into practice. It was amazing. I thought, You know, this is something else. Nobody ever taught me about God like this. I never knew I was special, never knew I was free from sin because of what Jesus did for me.”
After marrying her husband, U.S.-born David, in 2002, Gloria began to consider pursuing legal resident status in the U.S. “I had to go through the system,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m here, I’m in this country, I’m married—what’s next?’ I knew with the kind of visa I had here, I was just able to visit and to go to school, but that’s it.”
So Gloria started investigating her options—a difficult prospect for someone still learning English and lacking a guide through the maze of applications and affidavits. Opting to tackle the seemingly insurmountable pile of paperwork without assistance, Gloria soon found herself overwhelmed.
“To deal with Immigration, with the government, is not easy,” she recounts. “My case wasn’t denied, but it was rejected. My whole bundle of paperwork was sent back to me two times, just for minor errors.”
In the midst of the tumult, Gloria found herself in church, offering up an unexpected prayer: “I said, ‘You know what, God? If you put somebody in my path and they are going through the same nightmare that I’m going through right now, I promise you—I’m going to help them. I will serve them in any way you want.’”
Gloria laughs now, thinking back on that prayer: “I never meant to have a job doing this!” But, she admits, God works in mysterious ways. “This work is what keeps me alive.”
In late 2003, shortly after receiving notice that her case had been approved, Gloria applied for a job with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), a worldwide disaster relief and advocacy ministry of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.
“I didn’t know anything about MCC,” Gloria admits, “but they were looking for a person in Southern California to work with their immigration program—someone who was bilingual and who was able to work with people from different backgrounds. I was so excited, because I’m that type of person!”
The job for which Gloria applied focused on providing immigrants with documentation assistance and in adjusting their residency status. Although initially fearful that she was not qualified for the position because she didn’t have a background in law, Gloria says that her experience as an immigrant who had gone through the system eventually won her the job.
Accepting the position with MCC, Gloria notes, “was very powerful, because for me it was the beginning of showing my faith. Since the time that I became a Christian, I said, ‘God, use me. I know these are my goals, I know these are my priorities—but you might have other plans for me. I want to be obedient to you.’”
Now, almost seven years later, Gloria’s still gets a thrill helping folks like Frank and Carmen. “This work is what keeps me alive,” she says. “I love feeling that God is using me to serve my clients.”
Setting the record straight on immigration
Gloria admits that her work isn’t without difficulties—especially, she says, because immigration is such “a hot-button issue.”
“Sometimes in the U.S., we tend to judge immigrants: ‘Oh, they come illegally,’” she notes. “But a lot of people come from different circumstances and for different reasons—economic freedom, religious freedom. There are people who come here looking for new opportunities. And most of them come here risking everything.”
Gloria points out that many undocumented immigrants “live in the shadows of society” for fear of persecution, stigmatization, or castigation. She believes that the Church has an important role to play in assisting such people.
“A lot of times, immigrants can talk but nobody will hear them,” she observes. “So as citizens, we can speak up. We can advocate on behalf of the immigrants in our midst.”
Though much of her work for MCC focuses on providing direct services, Gloria occasionally engages in conversations to “set the record straight on the issue of immigration” by holding informational seminars at area congregations.
“We need to help our constituent churches understand that MCC is asking for immigration reform that is not going to be amnesty,” Gloria says. “It’s an immigration reform for which only a certain group of people are going to meet the requirements—in other words, it will affect people who really deserve to be here. Of course, also there are a lot of people who make mistakes but deserve a second chance, so we have to take that into account.”
Gloria acknowledges that there are many strongly held opinions on both sides of the immigration issue. “It’s hard. I understand it’s hard,” she says. “But every time it comes to immigration, I just want to think with my heart. I want to remember that we are all creations of God; we are all brothers and sisters.”
The long, arduous race
After months of work and almost an hour of watching and waiting in Gloria’s office, a palpable feeling of relief washes over Frank and Carmen. They look on as their caseworker slides the thick stack of documents—upon which so much of their future depends—into a catalog envelope.
- Immigration Reform: Read MCC's recommendation
- Walking “enemy” lines: See photos of a migrant’s trek along the U.S.–Mexico border
- MCC Listening Project: Discover what Anabaptists are saying about refugees & immigrants
- Caring for the Karen: Find out how one BIC church served local Burmese refugees
- “Reel Images of Immigration”: Study guides that discuss four films about faith & immigration
- “We are America”: Enter into the stories of today’s immigrants
“There we go,” says Gloria, handing the bundle to the couple. She tells them that the package is ready to be mailed to U.S. Immigration Services. They’ve finally completed the first leg of the long, arduous race toward legal resident status.
Moments like this, says Gloria, fill her with a lot of pride—not selfish pride at her own work, but pride for the individuals and couples who are making the commitment to do the right thing and pursue a legal change of status.
“When clients come here seeking their change in legal status, it’s like the beginning of a new life,” she shares. “And I’m part of that. I was part of the foundation for that new life. Knowing that fills me with so much joy. I think I will do this kind of work for the rest of my life.”
With a few parting words of instruction from Gloria, the couple rises to leave the office. As Gloria waves good-bye, Carmen turns and touches her arm. “Gloria—por tu trabajo muchas gracias.” Thanks so much for your work.
Gloria cracks a smile. “De nada. Mucho gusto.” No problem. My pleasure.
* For reasons of confidentiality, some of the names used in this article have been changed.