New York church supports immigrants during deportation process
Written by Emily Schappacher
November 14, 2013

Based on Jane Treuhold's experience, the acronym for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE – couldn't be more fitting.

"It's perfect because they're cold," said the member of Judson Memorial Church, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches, in New York City. "They're coldhearted." 

Treuhold has regular contact with ICE as one of 50 volunteers from Judson Memorial Church, other faith groups and the general community involved in the congregation's Accompaniment Project. Created in 2011 in partnership with the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, the program provides moral support and pastoral care to immigrants who are in the deportation process at their court hearings and required periodic check-ins with ICE. The coalition is an interfaith network of congregations, organizations and individuals standing in solidarity with immigrant families resisting detention and deportation.

Through the Accompaniment Project, at least two U.S. citizens accompany immigrants to their regularly scheduled check-ins. When the immigrant's name is called, the accompanying citizens and the immigrant's lawyer – if they have one – rise to make their presence known. While only the immigrant and his or her lawyer are typically allowed in the interview room, Grace Goodman, another Judson Memorial Church member and a clerk for the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC, says the action of the volunteers is more of a symbolic way to show solidarity.

"Rising together when their names are called demonstrates that this person has significant community support, is not dangerous and should not be deported," said Goodman, who has been a member of Judson Memorial Church for 50 years. "It also demonstrates that they should be treated in a humane fashion, as citizens are watching." 

The accompanier is also there to hold legal officials accountable for providing accurate information and serving due process, and to alert the immigrant's family if they should be detained during their check-in. If this happens, they inform the family what their next steps should be and where to call for more information. From there, the Accompaniment Project team goes into action, staging demonstrations, phoning elected representatives, writing letters, and generally making noise to bring attention to the situation. 

"Even though some people have voluntarily left the county, or showed up at ICE and decided not to fight anymore, those who have been accompanied have not been deported," said Treuhold, adding that their track record could change at any time. "It's made a difference."

The Accompaniment Project is working hard to expand its base of volunteers. Both Goodman and Treuhold agree that, if passed, the impending immigration reform legislation will draw a "second wave" of immigrants that could be left out of the legalization process because they cannot prove their eligibility for reasons such as the inability to pay the fees mandated by the legislation or prove past employment, or because they are burdened by previous criminal convictions. 

But news reports indicate that the likelihood that comprehensive immigration reform will pass this year is slim. On Nov. 13, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) ruled out negotiations between the House and the Senate on a comprehensive immigration reform bill similar to one approved by the Senate with bipartisan support in June. Boehner said that, while House Republicans are working on a "common-sense, step-by-step approach in terms of how we deal with immigration," they are unwilling to negotiate with the Senate on a comprehensive bill that would include a pathway to citizenship for the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. With few legislative days left in 2013 and with Congress' focus on the health care law and the federal budget, the fight for immigration reform is expected to continue into 2014.

Whether comprehensive immigration reform legislation passes or not, the faith community will continue to be a place of support and advocacy for the country's undocumented immigrants too long in the shadows.

"If the reform law does not pass, all the out-of-status immigrants in the U.S. will be even more desolate," Goodman said. "All will need the strong support of their faith communities. The Accompaniment Project is one way we try to give it."

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