Since I started this, it has never been and never will be something political. This is because it’s a ministry. It’s a way to show the love of Christ to people. That’s the basis of why I do what I do.Ruben Perea, Hope Immigration Counseling Center director
Hope Immigration Counseling CenterWhere: Pozo de Esperanza, 1261 Atlanta Highway, Gainesville
When: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays; 3-7 p.m. Thursdays
More information: 770-534-6463, cbamissions.org/espanol/hope-centro-de-immigracion
That’s what Jojo Thomas, director of the Chattahoochee Baptist Association, a network of Southern Baptist churches in the area, said it’s like for many Hispanics living in Hall County when it comes to their immigration status.
“Most of these Hispanic families, they have a family member for whom immigration is an issue,” Thomas said. “So we look at it from a ministry perspective. These are people who are precious to God. They have real situations that may not fit the narrative of what you hear in the national conversation, and we believe, as Christians, that our churches collectively can have an impact on this.”
The new Hope Immigration Counseling Center can help them navigate the immigration system. Thomas noted the work does not include skirting any laws.
Ruben Perea, along with Thomas, has been working with residents little by little for the past year, building relationships and helping where he could. Perea also has become a certified representative with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Perea will serve as director at the center at 1261 Atlanta Highway, which is open Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“Since I started this, it has never been and never will be something political,” Perea said. “This is because it’s a ministry. It’s a way to show the love of Christ to people. That’s the basis of why I do what I do.”
Perea has been offering help to Hispanic residents in Hall for about 20 years but never in an official capacity. He was serving as pastor at Latin American Community Baptist Church in Gainesville.
He said sometimes people struggling in the immigration system get taken advantage of, though, so building trust has been difficult.
“Obviously, the biggest need for this in our area is Hispanic,” Thomas said. “But there are a lot of trust issues with this, and understandably so. So we always wanted to have it at one of the local Hispanic congregations.”
That’s why the center is based out of Pozo de Esperanza, a church on Atlanta Highway just west of Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport.
Thomas said the office is pretty basic, just a table with a computer, some chairs and a place to take notes. When it’s not being used as the Hope Immigration Counseling Center, it’s a Bible study room for church members.
Even with a simple, bare-bones office, the center is able to offer “practical, affordable and realistic” help to people trying to fill out different types of applications. It helps with family petitions, citizenship forms, permission to work applications, deferred action for childhood arrivals and more.
“There are some documents, like renewing your work permit — they’re very simple forms, but some people pay thousands of dollars for help with that,” Perea said.
Perea said he has an interview with the applicant to make sure their goal is to do things legally, and then he has even more interviews to get all the information needed to fill out papers to submit to immigration services. All they have to do is pay specific fees the government requires and a small fee to cover administrative costs.
“It’s not an effort to make anybody legal,” Thomas said. “We don’t have that power. It’s an effort to make the system work the way it’s supposed to work.”
But if legal help is needed, the center has that. It has partnered with Buford lawyer Jeremy Smith and World Relief, an international organization that provides many different services to churches and communities.
“There are cases where they will need a lawyer,” Thomas said. “But many people don’t need that. They need something a little more basic, and we can provide that.”
Thomas said the center is the only place north of Atlanta offering this sort of help. Perea said one of the things that makes it different is he takes the human aspect into account and asks questions that will help.
Ultmately, their whole goal is leading people to churches while they help.
“We’d love to see people come through this center and get help,” Thomas said. “And if we can channel them to a church, that’s a win in our view, so we can help families, children and churches.”