The Immigrant Hospitality Center located on East Main Street is not yet open with regular hours. It’s been furnished with desks, conference tables and chairs. A Civics and Immigration Toolkit sits on a bookcase, but its director, Bobby Farmer, has to wait on accreditation from the Department of Justice before he can start offering legal services.
“We’re still finishing up the process,” he said. “Once that approval comes, we can provide full legal services here at the office. Right now, we’re focusing on educational and community outreach.”
It is not necessary to be an attorney to provide immigration legal services, but providers must take a certified class. Farmer went to Minneapolis to take the class and did an internship in Atlanta. He continues to get credits through a webinar.
While he’s waiting for accreditation, Farmer has been developing partnerships. He’s working with the YMCA to mesh their goals with those of the center. He’s also been working with the faith-based community.
“The best inroad to the Latino population is through the church,” he said. “We’ve done a know-your-rights seminar at Punto Victoria Ministries. The whole point of that was to show the immigrant community that there are services and resources available to them.”
The idea for the center was birthed out of a Southern Baptist Convention.
“You don’t think of a southern Baptist church when you think of immigration and ministering to the Hispanic community,” Farmer said. “An individual, who was a consultant with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, approached me about the possibility of me becoming involved in what they were doing with the immigration ministry.”
Farmer has studied cultural anthropology and has an interest in community, so he agreed to take part in the program.
“I believe if you’re truly going to impact an issue that’s on a national scale, you have to start in the community you live in,” he said. “I had these connections. Then there’s this issue (immigration) that I don’t believe is being handled appropriately by any side. I think it’s become too politicized and has been divisive in our nation.”
Farmer refuses to take sides on the immigration debate. As a Christian, he said he has a responsibility to love God and his neighbor, who neighbor is not necessarily like him, talks or acts like him, but is anyone he may come in contact with.
When the center, which is funded through grants and public donations, is completely open, its main offerings will be legal services. They’ll gain access to DOJ accredited representatives as well as network with attorneys who would have to handle any criminal litigation cases. Basically, they’ll help immigrants become citizens. Farmer hopes to also coordinate ESL classes and tutoring to help immigrants pass the citizenship test.
“We beat the national average here in Lincoln County as to how many of our immigrants are citizens already,” Farmer said. “I think we’re in the high 90 percentile which is better than the national average. For the most part, most of the immigrants you see here are citizens.”
Interestingly, Farmer refers to his calling to head up the immigration center as his “burden.” He said has a passion and desire to help with the immigration issue as well as the skills and abilities to help address it. He’s thinking of it as an opportunity to both educate and get the stories of these immigrants out.
“World Relief has a great book out called ‘Welcoming the Stranger,’” he said. “It talks about the truth behind ‘are they taking our jobs?’ ‘are they changing our culture?’ ‘are they doing these things that we fear.’ The root of that fear is just a lack of understanding. We’re just seeing numbers and statistics but when you get the stories out it becomes more of a human issue. In our country we have a history of being exclusionary. We want labor but when that population starts to increase we have to put restrictions on it.”
When Farmer interacts with someone who’s strongly, “build the wall” or “deport” he starts telling the human stories to help them gain an understanding.
“When I start to help people see that these immigrants are not threats,” he said. “These immigrants are gifts to us, to our society, our culture. I do that on an individual basis, one on one, over a cup of coffee. Maybe, I can sit down with a cup of coffee with someone who’s so die-hard and then they start to look at it from a different light. I believe in that potential – I have to believe in that potential.”
Farmer shared that he’s sat down with people who have cussed him out for having the center on Main Street and even then, he sat there, listened, didn’t argue or throw out facts. He just let the person blow off steam. Then he spoke and shared his stories.
“Bringing in the real people may not change their whole perspective but at least some of that hatred and anger dissipates a little bit and maybe they can walk away thinking,” he said. “I’m not here to fight. I think if we can get people to the table, then things will start to change.”
The Immigration Hospitality Center is located at 415 East Main Street. The center will be open by appointment. Farmer can be reached at (980) 284-2011.