New Yorkers support immigrant “friends” as U.S. policies become stricter

By Emilia Otte

NEW YORK—Terry Du Prat stood in a courtroom and witnessed a woman pleading with a federal judge not to send her 27-year-old son back to Honduras, for fear that he would be tortured by gangs.

Earlier that morning, April 15, Du Prat and four other people had met the woman in a nearby cafe and accompanied her to court. They remained with her throughout the trial, watching as her request was denied.

“My heart broke for her,” said Du Prat, who rode the subway with the mother on her way home.

Du Prat is a volunteer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith network in New York City that supports and advocates for undocumented immigrants—the volunteers refer to them as “friends”—who are at risk of being deported. New Sanctuary enlists volunteers to accompany immigrants and their families to court hearings and check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The Coalition’s work takes place during a critical time for immigrants in the U.S. ICE deported just over 256,000 foreigners in 2018, according to its website: an increase of 13 percent from the previous year. About 2,600 of these removals occurred in the New York City area. The Trump administration, after forcing out several top Department of Homeland Security officials, issued a memo detailing plans “to strengthen asylum procedures to safeguard our system against rampant abuse of our asylum process.”

New Sanctuary accompaniment coordinator Ambien Mitchell said that immigration law has not officially changed since 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration and Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The law made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status and expanded the list of crimes that could lead to deportation. However, Mitchell added, “The outrage is new, and the visibility is new.” She said that President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has sparked a new awareness in people, along with a drive to act.

New Sanctuary is one of many organizations in the U.S. enlisting community members to support undocumented immigrants. The California-based nonprofit Freedom for Immigrants runs what it calls an “alternative accompaniment program,” allowing immigrants to stay with their families or in volunteer-run group homes rather than in detention centers. The Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network organizes accompaniments in Massachusetts and is working to raise money for bail bonds and for legal aid.

Sarah Hoff, national coordinator of the which connects Catholic volunteers with undocumented immigrants, said in an email that accompaniment can offer emotional support and help prevent deportations, as well as raise community awareness about the struggles that undocumented immigrants face. However, she added, accompaniment programs do not have the power to change federal immigration policies, which have caused a “deepening feeling of fear and anxiety” among immigrants.

According to Mitchell, the number of individuals New Sanctuary serves keeps increasing, mainly through word-of-mouth, and the program conducts between 45 and 70 accompaniments per week. Each week, about 300 volunteers do accompaniments and help out at the group’s free legal clinic.

Du Prat, a retired social worker who also worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, said that joining New Sanctuary “was a no-brainer.” Originally from Ireland, she came to the U.S. to attend college. While she doesn’t compare her own situation to that of the undocumented immigrants she assists, she said she recognizes that people don’t leave home on a whim. “They come here to better themselves,” she said.

Du Prat averages five accompaniments per week and has witnessed both hearings resulting in deportation and instances when individuals were granted a bail bond. She also has watched as a growing backlog of cases and the introduction of new policies have made the system more impersonal.

In June 2018, ICE changed its deportation hearing policy: rather than bring detainees into the courtrooms at Varick Street in Manhattan, trials would take place via video teleconferencing; the judge and the lawyers are present in the courtroom, but the defendants remain in detention centers. Immigration attorneys have criticized this practice, as it takes away their opportunity to speak with their clients face-to-face. It also prevents detainees from seeing their families.
The teleconferencing limits the volunteers’ role: they can be present in the courtroom to offer support to the family, but their detained “friend” may not even know that they are there.

“I always wonder whether what I’m doing has any usefulness,” said Ellyn Berman, a retired social worker who has been volunteering with New Sanctuary for six months. “It’s a completely passive role,” she added.

Volunteers act primarily as witnesses. All potential volunteers must first attend informational training. At a training session Mitchell conducted at New York University on April 12, one participant questioned the term “friend” and wondered whether it could cause confusion about boundaries. Mitchell replied that accompaniment wasn’t really about friendship, and that volunteers should be careful not to ask personal questions or impose unwanted physical contact.

All volunteers must follow a few basic rules. First: No judgment. Second: Show respect to security guards, judges and ICE officers. Third, and above all: Do nothing that might cause a “friend” further distress.

“If you are talking during an accompaniment,” said Mitchell, “you are not doing it right.”

For Joan Racho-Jansen, a notary who has spent most of her life in activism, keeping quiet was tough. Yet she believes that her work with New Sanctuary is more valuable than participating in protests. “This is a space where you actually do things,” she said.

On the morning of April 25, Racho-Jensen and a group of six other women waited for in the back of the Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from ICE’s New York Enforcement and Removal Operations Field Office. Kaydie, who has been attending check-ins for years, appeared visibly nervous; the group greeted her with hugs and words of reassurance.

Kaydie said that having the support of so many people has been a huge help. “It alleviates a lot of anxiety,” she added.

Unlike immigration hearings, in which volunteers are allowed to sit in the back of the courtroom and watch the proceedings, only an ICE officer, the “friend,” and possibly a lawyer are allowed to be present at ICE check-ins. The volunteers are not even allowed to wait with their “friends” in the waiting area, though they can keep in touch via text message. That day the group cleared security and rode the elevator with Kaydie up to the ninth-floor waiting area before heading back down to the sixth-floor cafeteria.

Racho-Jansen, a group leader who joined New Sanctuary two years ago, said that ICE check-ins are unpredictable: sometimes they happen quickly, other times people have to wait for hours. She recounted the time she accompanied a woman in her early 20s who had to wait for four hours, despite being nine months pregnant.

“I thought, ‘She could have had that baby right on the ninth floor,’” Racho-Jensen said.

Volunteers at check-ins ride the elevator up to the ninth floor every 10 minutes or so to wave at their “friend” in the waiting room.  This time, however, the volunteers barely had time to get coffee. Kaydie returned after 15 minutes with a date for another check-in in June.

The volunteers recorded the date in their calendars, exchanged a final round of hugs and went their separate ways.