At moments when large-scale social change seems temporarily impossible, people who care about social justice turn to helping individuals. An example of this is the accompaniment program of the New Sanctuary Movement in New York City, a program of providing support for undocumented immigrants when they are threatened with deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Immigrants who have benefited from the program speak movingly of what it has meant for them.
But first, a bit of background. New York City is home to half a million undocumented immigrants. They form a vital part of the city’s working class: they staff restaurants, fast food outlets, gas stations, car washes, and garment factories; they deliver vast quantities of take-out food by bicycle; they clean homes and offices; they drive taxis and trucks. They typically earn less than the minimum wage and support themselves and their families by working two and three jobs and not sleeping much.
Many have with them a spouse and/or children who hold citizenship or other legal status — in fact many of their children have never been outside the US. Others send as much as 40 percent of their earnings to support families in their countries of origin. Many have lived in New York City for decades. About half come from Latin America and the Caribbean, and about a third from Africa and Asia.
New York City is friendlier toward the undocumented than other U.S. locations. It is a “sanctuary city,” meaning that police or other government officials are not required to report undocumented people to ICE, although this policy is sometimes violated. New Yorkers are more accustomed to racial and ethnic diversity than many other Americans — after all, this is a global city; and New Yorkers know how hard the undocumented work.
But many of these people without papers live with great anxiety because they are under threat of deportation and are required to report regularly to ICE. Many have simply overstayed their visas. Others have applied for asylum and been rejected. Still others suffer from a kind of double jeopardy: having been arrested and convicted, often of small offenses, such as driving without a license, they then face deportation as a result of a repressive 1996 immigration law. A few are betrayed by someone with a grudge.
Immigrants’ check-ins and hearings are frightening. Each one carries the threat that the immigrant might be instantly detained and deported. The geography of the hearings is in itself intimidating. Those called up must report to 26 Federal Plaza, a large and ugly modern building surrounded by bollards with a guard in an outpost, an architecture expressing power and no mercy. Then they stand in line, sometimes long lines, to pass through high security gates like those in airports, removing belts, shoes, etc.; then they must find the right room where they go to a window to hand their call-up papers to a bureaucrat; then they sit and wait, on hard chairs bolted to the floor. ICE officers call up those reporting in no discernible order, definitely not in the order in which they arrived. As is common in bureaucracies, no one explains anything. Even immigration lawyers report that they can get no consistent explanations. The wait may be 10 minutes or three hours. Many are losing wages as they wait, because they have to take time off work. They cannot tell their boss why they need the time off, because doing so might get them fired by bosses who want to protect themselves. They must often report to ICE alone, because spouses have jobs and children have school, and often because family members are also undocumented and cannot risk entering a government building. Finally the immigrants, if not immediately arrested, are handed another paper with a new check-in date assigned. ICE decisions seem arbitrary and the criteria for ICE decisions are never explained.
In 2007, religious leaders in Chicago, California, and New York came together out of concern for the predicament of immigrants. They established a “New Sanctuary Movement” to engage faith-based groups in support of the 12 million immigrants living in the US without legal status. The movement was named for a 1980s sanctuary project, sheltering refugees from civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. In 2009 the visionary minister of the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, Donna Schaper, established New Sanctuary NYC as an “interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and individuals who stand in solidarity with families and communities resisting detention and deportation in order to stay together.” It rests on the premise that “unjust global and systemic economic relationships and racism form the basis of the injustices that affect immigrants.” The group aims to build support for immigration reform—a hope not likely to be realized soon, given the nature of the Congress at this time. So New Sanctuary also designed an accompaniment program, aimed at supporting undocumented people who have become long-term US residents. But the program also educates its participants. As Reverend Schaper wrote, “by sharing the immigrants’ experiences, the citizens volunteers are educated about the issues in the current immigration system and are motivated to work to change unjust and inhumane laws and practices.”
The volunteer accompaniers are neither lawyers nor intended to replace lawyers. Moreover, they do not usually speak for the undocumented or speak to ICE officers. Their role is powerful nevertheless, because their presence symbolizes the fact that the immigrant is rooted in the community with citizens who support him or her. Experience suggests that ICE officers are more reluctant to recommend immediate deportation when the immigrant is accompanied. New Sanctuary trains and coordinates these volunteers, many of whom commit to being available at short notice. The volunteers are often retired or people with very flexible schedules; someone with a typical full-time job cannot commit to a task without knowing how long it might take. The volunteers must also have the patience to tolerate long waiting times in uncomfortable surroundings.
Once a volunteer accepts an appointment, the operation works like this: Immigrants and accompaniers meet early in the morning at the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from 26 Federal Plaza. The volunteer explains the role of the accompanier if the immigrant is new to the program; volunteers always ask immigrants for emergency names and contact numbers, in case he or she is immediately seized and confined, so as to inform friends and family of what has happened but also potentially to challenge the seizure legally. Then they enter the building and the waiting room. Frequently ICE officers stand as they call out a name, and the subject walks up with his/her supporters. Often the officer asks routine questions—is your address the same, are you working at the same job, fills out some forms, and hands the immigrant a new check-in date, which may vary from 1 week to 9 months later. Some ICE officers are friendly—they too are New Yorkers. Others are surly. Sometimes the immigrant is required to follow the ICE workers into an office and a door is closed; no one knows why. But even when this happens, the officer has had a chance to see the accompanying people approach and know that the immigrant is not alone.
Other immigrants in the waiting room observe this and often ask where they can get this support.
When the decision is just another check-in date, a sense of relief follows. Frequently the immigrant and supporters head for the cafeteria or a coffee house to unwind and chat. Supporters get to know the immigrants and, when possible, the same accompanier goes with that immigrant each time he or she checks in.
The undocumented who become part of this program respond with intense gratitude. Some have even felt so strengthened that they work to help other immigrants. One such is Haitian immigrant Jean Montrevil, who commented that the first time he reported in, alone, “I was so scared … I am wondering oh God not today … Please God let me spend the holidays with my family, don’t let them take me away today…. It’s been six longgggg years now going to check-ins … I want to thank all my angels… I don’t think there’s a better way to help someone that’s going through an ordeal than going through it with them.” Volunteer Keen Berger wrote, “By being with someone else in a time of stress, we not only relieve some of their stress but also expand ourselves.”
Accompaniment is a simple gesture, one human being offering a bit of support to another, on treating an undocumented immigrant as a fellow human being.