This is the second part of a two-part series on how a Georgia Baptist church ministers to those seeking DACA protection from immediate deportation. Today’s installment is a conversation with Brenda Arnold, who oversees the ministry at Memorial Baptist Church with her husband, Mike, and a team of volunteers. The congregation works fully within the legal system to maintain a nearly 100 percent compliance rate free of fraud or abuse of the system.
The Index is not taking sides on the immigration debate, but is showing how a Moultrie congregation is providing an evangelical witness to the children and their families who are the focus of the national discussion. Literacy Missions Ministries is just one of many programs through the Georgia Baptist Mission Board which provides services to immigrants and migrants. The Board does not ask for citizenship documentation before providing a witness.
Other ministries that will be featured in upcoming stories include the Baptist Mobile Health Ministry, Intercultural Church Planting, and an overview of Literacy Missions Ministry.
The Index: How risky is it for DACA children to come to you in faith that the U.S. government will not use the information they use on the forms to deport them?
Brenda Arnold: As Mike has said, we are a hurting nation, painfully anticipating what may happen in the next few weeks to the 793,026 previously approved DACA. Mike and I cry regularly when we have to tell someone that DACA is over for them until Congress makes up its mind.
We warn them to continue to live as upstanding and upright citizens so that ICE doesn’t come looking specifically for them. Many are in fear because they gave all of their demographics and biometrics information to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office (USCIS). They have even incriminated their own parents in most cases.
They are scared. We cry and pray with them. We share God’s Word and salvation with them.
The Index: We read in some news accounts that fraud numbers are high regarding DACA applications. How do you respond to these accusations through your ministry?
Brenda Arnold: The application form itself was vague in some regards as it takes into consideration that applicants are reporting from their knowledge of U.S. arrival and residence. That is, it does not require absolute and verifiable addresses from the children of all the places that they have lived.
Many applicants rely on the memory of their parents to tell the truth and/or remember; some received a “Requests for Evidence” inquiry from USCIS regarding just that one component – addresses. The application asked for “Addresses to the best of your ability.” Yet, evidence was required to support the information.
Another possibility – dishonesty – is that an applicant did not really meet all of the criteria, and lied on the application. We never encourage lying to the government.
For example, to qualify for DACA an individual must have arrived in the U.S. before the age of 16; many arrived at 16 or older and would lie to us, but once they could not produce evidence of such the application would have been rejected even from our services of this ministry.
Others who never attended school until reaching the U.S. did not know anything about birthdays or even their age. We took chances and submitted those applications with limited or conflicting school records. Some of the school records did not even have names correctly on file.
I do not consider that fraud; however, USCIS has a case-tracking system in place in which some applications were placed. I personally worked with one applicant who waited for two years while he received clearance from status known as “Requests Under Review.” He persevered, trusted God, and the system, and eventually received the blessing of approval.
So often, we hear from the applicants, “I’ve been blessed! I got my card!”
The Index: There have been some reported statements that as many as 50 percent of DACA applications are fraud. How do you respond to this charge?
Brenda Arnold: The auditor making the 50 percent claim of fraud in the media would be one of those USCIS employees who would have reviewed another USCIS employee’s pre-approval or uncertainty of an application (Much like the IRS checks-and-balances Audit process, a certain percentage of DACA applications are audited).
Any fraudulent finding would have resulted in a “Denied” rather than “Approved” application. The auditor’s job would have been to review more of the nebulous and dubious applications, so 50 percent is believable. It is not unlike your IRS form being rejected because you did not properly fill out the form. Does that mean you have committed fraud?
Because of the complicated questions on the IRS form, many Americans pay someone to properly file their taxes but DACA children nor their parents do not have the $2,500 or more for legal help with their applications. We provide this service for free as a ministry of a Georgia Baptist church.
Another factor is that the USCIS hired many new entry-level employees and/or part-time regular employees into a new process that spiraled out of control; overtime work especially compounded in 2013 and 2014 after the launch of the program. Many applications were rejected or inaccurately handled by the ineptness of those under-trained and overworked employees, probably auditors included.
We worked through many Requests for Evidence that were not necessary as the evidence was already in the actual submittal. Service Centers for USCIS became overloaded and boxes of case files were shipped to other centers throughout the U.S. Instructions for completing documents and providing evidence were sketchy. USCIS went through a learning curve over the last five years, and we were right there with them.
The Index: Here are some statistics straight from USCIS from the entire DACA timeframe regarding two types of DACA applications … Initial (first time application) and Renewals (which are required every two years to maintain their DACA standing) as of June 30, 2017):
- Of the 947,190 initial applications received, 49,585 (5 percent) were rejected upon preliminary screening.
- Of the 897,605 initial applications received 67,867 (8 percent) were denied upon processing including audits.
- Of the 1,045,267 renewal applications received, 76,824 (7 percent) were rejected upon preliminary screening. I suggest that this increase was because many renewals (DACA applicants) attempted this on their own without legal help which is expensive, and there were very few, precise instructions for renewals.
- Of the 968,443 renewal applications received, 7,130 (1 percent) were denied upon processing including audits. To me, this would indicate the reduction in workforce as well for USCIS, since fewer applications were inaccurate or fraudulent. The preliminary screeners were more efficient.
The Index: How important is it to be truthful on an application?
Brenda Arnold: From our perspective, and we shared this philosophy with everyone – applicants and other literacy ministries – truth is mandatory on an application.
We quoted scriptures and ethical maxims with applicants such as, “Thou shalt not lie,” “The truth will set you free…” “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another.” “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations…”
We also give the applicant a handout with this Frequent Q&A from USCIS stressing the consequences of fraud. Here is one example to a question and answer:
Question 24: What steps will USCIS and ICE take if I engage in fraud through the new process?
Answer 24: If you knowingly make a misrepresentation, or knowingly fail to disclose facts, in an effort to obtain DACA or work authorization through this process, you will be treated as an immigration enforcement priority to the fullest extent permitted by law, and be subject to criminal prosecution and/or removal from the United States.”
The Index: That is pretty clear as you stress the seriousness of lying to the government. Since some opponents to the program are claiming a 50 percent fraud rate, how does your rejections status compare to those numbers?
Brenda Arnold: I would like to challenge all Christian literacy ministries to consider our ministry’s statistics: our rejection rate is .0018 percent, or 3 out of 1,693 initial and renewal applications that we personally laid eyes upon before mailing.
We had only one rejection based on inadequate information on the application. That individual was brought to the U.S. at 15, but he could not prove it, and he gave up trying. And, there were only two denials, one of which had been to a lawyer to submit his application.
Many immigrants got excited because they thought that the Dream Act had been passed with DACA. Since 2012 when we first began this part of the ministry, we turned away more than 250 inquiries who did not qualify. Most of them did not understand the qualifications or even the word “qualify”, for that matter.
If more Christian ministries and more ethical lawyers helped applicants complete their applications, there would be less need for auditors because the acceptance rate would be far higher. I want to live in an honest country. Don’t we all?
The Index: Your exceptionally high success rate is incredibly hard to refute, as validated by the government.
Brenda Arnold: The bottom line is that our DACA ministry was intended to minister to a hurting group of young people, and that ministering includes sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ. We still believe that whether constitutional or unconstitutional, DACA was necessary to bring the numbers into focus so that true immigration reform can begin in Congress.
We thank God for being a very small part of the relief provided, however temporary. Without DACA, our ministry has not bottomed out; we still minister to a multitude of immigrant young people and are grateful to God for the opportunity to continue His work among the nations.
UPDATE FROM BRENDA ARNOLD: Since January 13, 2018, “USCIS has resumed accepting requests to renew” DACA to those who had previously been approved and were facing expiration. The process was rescinded on September 5, 2017, and we have fervently prayed for our government to find mercy for Dreamers. We are grateful and thanking God for this reprisal, but it is not enough. Many Dreamers still need to be able to complete their first application. Three renewal applications have been completed in the last two weeks. Together, with the applicant, parents, and even siblings we laid our hands on the package ready for mailing and processing and prayed. We prayed tearfully to a merciful God. We thanked God for the blessings that will come.
Please, keep in mind that the current version of the application also gathers the parent’s names. Often the parents’ tax returns are submitted as evidence along with copies of school IDs, driver’s licenses, passports, and Social Security Work Only Permit cards. DACA recipients are not undocumented, and they still trust us with their security.
Please pray with us for immigration reform that is humane, fair, and equitable.