LIRS Congressional Advocacy Guide 2014

Visit your Members of Congress in their home offices and advocate for vulnerable migrants and refugees

The stories of children and families fleeing violence and insecurity in Central America and seeking safety in the United States has gripped the conscience of the nation. However, Congress and the Administration have yet to act with the urgency all those seeking refuge deserve. More than 60,000children have fled to our nation alone seeking protection this fiscal year, and another 60,000 women and children have arrived as families. All have made the long and perilous journey to escape violence and despair in their home countries; most come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Thus far, Congress has not passed any legislation to address the needs of these vulnerable migrants, including much-needed funding measures. Before heading home to their districts for the next 7 weeks leading up to the November election, Members of Congress passed a temporary funding measure to fund the government from the start of Fiscal Year 2015 on October 1 through December 11. The stopgap measure includes no new funding for immigration and refugee agencies within the Departments of Homeland Security (DHS), Health and Human Services (HHS) or Justice (DOJ) that care for vulnerable refugees, children and families seeking safety in the United States.  Funding conversations in Congress are expected to resume after the elections.

Without additional FY 2015 funding, ORR’s ability to serve vulnerable people under its care will be severely limited. The withholding of funds this summer had drastic impacts on LIRS’s resettlement partners throughout the country—including cuts to preventative health services, language training and school assistance for refugee children—because of uncertainty in their budget.

Measures have passed through the House of Representatives that would reduce legal protections for children provided in the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and prevent approximately half a million DREAMers from renewing their current relief from deportation. Additionally, the Obama Administration has responded by expanding the harmful and inhumane practice of family detention by opening three new detention facilities in Artesia, NM, Karnes, TX and Dilley, TX. These facilities are used to detain mothers and children, some as young as infants and toddlers.

Now is the time to urge your Members of Congress to support legislation that maintains our nation’s proud legacy as a safe haven for those fleeing persecution. We must continue to urge Congress to provide critical funding for government agencies that care for children and families seeking refuge, and resist eroding safeguards for children arriving at our borders seeking protection. As people of faith, we must use our voices to let Members of Congress know their constituents care about vulnerable migrants. With Members in their homes districts, this is a great opportunity to make your voice heard by setting up an in-district visit with your Members of Congress and their staff.

Purpose of In-District Visits

  1. To urge your Members of Congress to support legislation that ensures protection and human rights for children and families seeking refuge (see the LIRS policy principles.)
  2. To put your faith into action by showing Members of Congress that their constituents and people of faith care about refugees, migrant children and their families.
  3. To build relationships between people of faith and public officials who make decisions that impact your community.

Key “Asks” for Your Visit

Now is the time to take action! We must ensure that our Members of Congress hear our voices when they are home. We suggest asking that Members of Congress do the following:

  • Maintain critical protections for children, including all legal avenues for immigration relief and crucial safeguards established in the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008;
  • Ensure adequate funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the government agency serving unaccompanied children and resettled refugees, as well as other vulnerable populations;
  • Reject the use of family detention and expand the use of alternatives to detention, including community-based models, that are more humane, cost-effective, and effective at meeting the goals of immigration detention; and
  • Ensure access to legal protection is available to all migrants and refugees, especially children, including legal representation and Legal Orientation Programs (LOP).

Planning your Congressional Visit

BEFORE THE VISIT

    1. Get a team together: Before you meet with your Senator or Representative, get a team together. A team ideally includes faith leaders, members of your congregation, business owners, people whose lives have been directly impacted by the immigration system, people who volunteer or work teaching English or resettling refugees, etc. Be strategic in finding team members who best represent your community’s call for compassionate reform and support for refugee resettlement, who can commit to building an ongoing relationship with the Representative, and community leaders who the Representative may already know or respect. Aim for 5-10 participants for a visit, though a larger group can be a powerful sign of support. If you are considering a larger group, check with the Representative’s scheduler to see how many people their office can accommodate, and be sure to plan well, so that you are focused on your message and everyone knows their specific roles.
    2. Learn about who represents your community in Congress: Go to http://whoismyrepresentative.com/ to find out who your Members of Congress are. Their websites and an internet search will show biographical sketches, campaign statements, occupation, religion, political and social memberships, areas of interest, and positions on issues, all of which can inform your approach to the meeting.
    3. Know his/her record on immigration and humanitarian issues: Find out how your Members of Congress voted on other immigration legislation and if they have official statements about children and families from Central America, refugees, family detention, or other key issues. Their websites and an internet search will give you a good picture of their voting record and statements on immigration. You can also contact the LIRS office via email at dc@lirs.org for additional information we may have about the Representative.
    4. Have a plan: The LIRS guide to meeting with your elected officials walks you through how to prepare for and structure a meeting with a Congressional office. Before you make your visit, always meet with the other participants to assign roles, including the facilitator, the personal story, specific issue area points, and the ‘ask’. Practice by role playing before the day of your meeting so that everyone feels comfortable with their role and knows what to do. You may also want to include other materials, such as news clippings of relevant local events, fact sheets, and information about particular legislation.
    5. Know the issue: Prior to your meeting, it is very important to have a good grasp of the issue. LIRS has developed relevant information on the Crisis at the Border to support your advocacy efforts, including a short policy resource on children from Central Americabrief on protection for migrant children under U.S. laws including recent legislation, and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about children and families seeking refuge. Also, for the most up-to-date information on the current situation of children at the border, please visit our blog before your meeting. The Facilitator will kick off the meeting by introducing your group, explaining the purpose for the meeting, and providing space for each person attending to briefly introduce themselves. The facilitator will also jump in if the meeting goes off-track and redirect the conversation.The Personal Story is key to every meeting. Someone should be present who has either had direct experience with refugees and migrant children/families, or has worked closely with individuals who have been separated from family members, detained or deported. Telling these stories will show how peoples’ lives are impacted and how your community needs immigration reform.Specific Issue Points are specific points your group wants to make about migrant children, refugee services, and immigration reform, including but not limited to the importance of family unity and alternatives to detention, right to due process, and how these issues affect your community. It will be helpful to have one person take on each of these issues to show they are distinctly important.The Ask is the critical part of the visit when you ask “Can we count on you to support legislation that protects funding for refugee services and prioritizes the safety, well-being, and due process of these children and families seeking refuge?” Listen carefully and ask for clarification if what they say is vague. For help in developing your ask, visit our Action Center and read our most recent letters to Members of Congress.
    6. Schedule a meeting: Call or email the local offices of your Members of Congress to request a meeting with the Member to discuss the U.S. government’s response to children and families fleeing violence from Central America and the need to protect funding for refugee services. Make sure to tell them how many other faith leaders and community members would like to attend with you. If the member is unavailable, ask to meet with a staff member who works on immigration issues. Be persistent and don’t be discouraged if you need to follow-up in order to get a meeting scheduled.

DURING THE VISIT

Below is a suggested framework, but please adapt it to fit your team and your particular Member of Congress.

Introductions: The Facilitator should start the meeting by thanking the Representative for his or her time, introducing the group as a whole, and then having each person introduce themselves. Each participant should state the faith community they represent to show the power of the group.

Sample framing for your request: People of faith throughout (town/city/state) care about refugees and children and families arriving at our borders seeking refuge. We are committed to acting out our faith by being good neighbors to these vulnerable populations and building stronger, more welcoming communities. We do this by (Include a story of the work your community has done in support of immigrants – anything from foster parenting, adoption, ESL classes, to legal clinics, to advocacy, to other ministries).

We count you, Senator/Representative ______________, as our neighbor, too. We commend you for demonstrating the hospitality of our community by (If possible, find some comments or legislation the member has worked on in support of immigrant communities).

We’d also like to know your thoughts about unaccompanied children and how you think Congress can address the lack of funding for programs caring for children. Some of us would like to share our concerns about the treatment of children and families seeking refuge. Let’s start with introductions (everyone should introduce themselves and their affiliation)

Personal Story: Someone should share a personal story highlighting their experience with refugee resettlement and the need to address the crisis in a humane and compassionate manner.

Narrative: Provide the Member of Congress or staff relevant materials, like recent LIRS Policy Statements or informational backgrounders. Explain why specific issues, such as family unification, alternatives to detention, and right to due process, are important to your community.

Asks: As people of faith, we care about refugees and children arriving alone at our borders. We are committed to acting out our faith by being good neighbors to these children and their families and building stronger, more welcoming communities. Can we count on your support in treating children and families humanely, providing robust funding for children, families and refugees, and opposing the detention of migrant children and their families?

Listen well and take notes. Much of advocacy involves listening, providing opportunities for the member to ask questions, looking for indications of the members’ views, and finding opportunities to provide helpful or correct information. Members and staff will appreciate the chance to be heard instead of only being talked at. Ask questions and engage in conversation. Answer questions honestly. If you don’t know the answer, say that you don’t know but you will find out. Assign one person in the group to follow up.

Thank you & invitation: Thank them and invite them to an upcoming prayer vigil, service or event you are planning. Offer to be a resource to them, and remember to get the staffers’ business cards. Consider asking them to take a photo with your group – most politicians love the photo op!

AFTER THE VISIT

Debrief your meeting
It’s important to make sure you and your group are on the same page immediately after leaving the meeting, while the conversation is fresh in your mind. Make sure to leave the office building, so your debrief conversation can’t be overheard. As a group, review: What did we hear? Did we get what we wanted? What are the next steps? Choose one person to send a follow up email attaching the documents mentioned, providing answers to questions that came up during the meeting, and continuing to engage the member and staff in your group’s work. It’s also important to evaluate your group’s work. How did we do as a team? Share the information learned during your meeting with your state coalition, immigrants’ rights groups, and other allies.

Follow up with your Member of Congress
Send an email to the staff with whom you met thanking them for their time, attaching any documents you mentioned, providing answers to questions that came up during the meeting, reaffirming your asks, and inviting them to an upcoming event.

Call Washington, DC
The Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121 can connect you to the DC offices of your Representative. Introduce yourself as a constituent and ask for the staffer who works on immigration. Tell them about your meeting with their local office and urge them to be a strong supporter of migrant children and families. Oftentimes the local and DC offices do not communicate about visits, so it’s important to follow up with the DC office as well.

Let us know how your visit went
Please let us know how your meeting went or if there is any information we should forward to your Members of Congress. It is important for our advocacy team to continue to gather up-to-date information on where your elected official stands on providing refuge for children and families arriving in America. After you meet with your Member of Congress, please send a brief report of the meeting to our advocacy team at dc@lirs.org.

Other Ways to Advocate in Your Community

Letters to the Editor
Our national response to children and families seeking refuge is a hot topic in the media right now, and the press in interested in diverse opinions on the issue. Letters to the editor or opinion editorials (op-ed) are two of the most powerful ways you can reach members of your community with key messages about the need to treat those seeking refuge humanely, provide robust funding for vulnerable migrants and oppose detention of migrant children and their families. Pastor Steve Klemz recently wrote an op-ed explaining why Lutherans care about vulnerable children. This is a great example of how you can make your voice heard in local media.
The LIRS media relations staff can help edit and develop an op-ed or letter to the editor. Contact LIRS Public Relations Officer, Miji Bell at mbell@lirs.org.

Pass a Local Resolution
Towns, cities and counties across the United States have already begun to come out with resolutions and statements of welcome for children and families seeking refuge. The Mayors of Lansing, Michigan, Syracuse, New York, and Atlanta, Georgia have each championed statements of welcome after having heard from grassroots and faith-based groups in their cities. As a voice of the faith community, you can be a driving force behind such a resolution in your area. A resource from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, Pass a Local Resolution: Become a Welcoming Community For Central American Refugees, gives more details about how to begin this process and also provides sample resolutions.

Write a Faith Sign-On Letter
You can write a sign-on letter to your Member of Congress asking them to take action to ensure compassion, justice, and safety for children and families seeking refuge. Ask faith leaders and congregants from your community to sign on in order to show widespread support for your key advocacy “asks.” See this sample letter for an example, and email us at dc@lirs.org if you would like more assistance in writing your letter.

Hold a Prayer Vigil
Gather together the local faith community to hold a prayer vigil. You can use our how-to guide for help with planning. Media advisories and press releases are good ways to let your local media know that this event is happening, invite their presence, and to raise the profile of people of faith standing for welcome.

Bible Studies and Sermons
Consider leading an immigration-related Bible study with members of your congregation, or introducing a topical sermon series. Our new Bible study resource, “The Other Side of Chosen,” by Rev. David Vasquez, focuses specifically on migration stories from the Old Testament and connects them with the plight of migrant children fleeing Central America. For more Biblical resources on welcoming the stranger, see our “Faith on the Move” and “Be Not Afraid” series. You can find many helpful resources to distribute through the LIRS website. If you would like an LIRS speaker to present at your event, you can request one here.

Engage Youth
Introduce the #ActofLove campaign to your church’s Sunday school, youth group, or Vacation Bible School. This social media-based campaign introduces youth to the issue of unaccompanied children and provides age-appropriate ways for kids to express support and get involved.

Attend a Town Hall Meeting
Many Members of Congress hold town hall meetings during this recess to interact with their constituents. Town hall meetings offer an immediate and great opportunity to express your concerns by asking well-reasoned questions that also make a point. You can usually find out when these meetings will be held by visiting the webpage of your Member of Congress. When you attend these meetings, it is best to arrive early, bring written questions, and sit by the microphone. Voice your connection to the local faith community. Try to have a few facts on hand to back up your questions. Make your participation visible by bringing friends and making yourself available to the press.

Calendars
To stay aware of when Congress is in recess, you can check out the calendars for the House of Representatives and Senate online. Keep in mind that the dates designated for recess are when the Members will be in their local offices.

Keep in Touch
Contact Folabi Olagbaju via email at folagbaju@lirs.org or by phone at 202-626-7931 if you would like support planning events in your community and to keep us posted on your plans!
Sign up for Stand for Welcome messages to receive regular advocvacy updates from LIRS. You can also visit our Action Center to send a message directly to your elected officials in support of migrants.