For immigrants: sanctuary and legal help

Immigrants seeking legal help meet with volunteer attorneys during a weekly session organized by the New Sanctuary Coalition. Photo: Courtesy New Sanctuary Coalition

Every week, scores of people fleeing violence and economic despair in their home countries seek assistance at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village

By Stephan Russo

They start arriving every Tuesday around 4:30 p.m., seeking help at the New Sanctuary Coalition’s pro se legal clinic in Greenwich Village. Some are newcomers who have travelled from the outer boroughs, New Jersey, and as far away as Rockland County and Long Island. Others have immigration cases that have dragged on for months and even years, and are well known to the coalition. Family members, whose loved ones have been detained solely because of their undocumented immigration status, show up desperate to find the funds to meet bail.

The so-called border crisis, which currently consumes so much of our political space and is manufactured to appeal to the worst of this country’s nativist instincts, is playing out on a very human level right in our own backyard. Come to the clinic, at the Judson Memorial Church office, and you can bear witness to the reality of the migrants who are escaping the violence and economic despair of their native countries and seeking a better life in the United States.

These “friends” (as the individuals and families who come to the coalition seeking protection are called) come from all parts of the globe, according to Ravi Ragbir, the coalition’s executive director. “The majority are Spanish speakers from Latin America — primarily Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala,” said Ragbir. “But they also come from Africa, Haiti, Pakistan, Turkey, China and the Caribbean.”

There has even been a recent influx of refugees from Venezuela, who have managed to escape the upheaval that has roiled our South American neighbor.

A History of Service

Reverend Micah Bucey, the minister at Judson, sees the new sanctuary movement as an outgrowth of the “three-legged stool” of faith, justice and creativity, which has characterized the historic church since it opened in the 1890s. “From the moment Judson opened, it was a meeting place where rich and poor could come together,” Bucey said. “Edward Judson agreed to build the church on Washington Square and bring together the wealthy community to the north and the poor Italian community to the south of the church. There was always a focus on social justice. During that era, the church was the only place to get fresh water.”

In 2007, the Reverend Donna Schaper, senior minister, spearheaded an effort to create a “new” sanctuary movement modeled after the church’s effort in late 1970s and early 1980s to provide refuge to those fleeing the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The focus of this new action, however, was not one of providing physical sanctuary (although several faith-based groups are housing individuals ICE has threatened to immediately deport); but rather, as a way to put a human face on the issue, raise awareness and advocate for legislative reform to support the millions of undocumented immigrants living in this country.

A Lifeline for the Undocumented

Still, what began as a small, grassroots effort (Bucey is the coordinator of a city-wide faith-based coalition to expand the sanctuary movement) has now become the only lifeline for hundreds of undocumented friends fleeing violence, poverty and oppression. “The clinic grew out of the increasing requests for help with asylum applications,” said Bucey. “The 2016 election was also a turning point. We realized that there was little we could do legislatively, given the current political climate. But rather than despair we began to do something very concrete — provide direct help.”

When I asked Ragbir to describe how the Tuesday clinic works (I volunteer at the clinic, helping people sign in) he said it was a loaded question. “The clinic doesn’t operate in isolation, it works hand in hand with the other aspects of our work – accompaniment to court hearings, community meetings, Jericho walks around 26 Federal Plaza led by faith leaders and community activists, and anti-detention efforts. All of this helps to empower individuals to advocate for themselves and fight deportation. If that’s all we did, I would consider our work a success.”

To walk into the legal clinic is to experience what looks like sheer organized chaos. The clinic has outgrown the offices at Judson and uses other donated space nearby. Over 150 friends show up on a given Tuesday. The majority have come to the clinic before and have ongoing cases, but at least a third are new cases. Word has gotten out in the immigration network that there is a place you can go for help, regardless of your circumstance. The coalition does not judge your situation. One of the main tenets of the group is “to do no harm.”

Teams of Volunteers

The clinic helps prepare “589” asylum applications, paperwork for an impending deportation hearing, protective status applications for those under 21 who have been abandoned, and significantly, bail applications for those fighting to obtain the release of loved ones who are detained.

From 250 to 300 volunteers find their way to the clinic on Tuesdays. Some are old-timers who clearly know the ropes. Others are there for the first time seeking a way to plug in. All arrive with a strong desire to support someone who faces the wrath of our punitive immigration system. There is an orientation for new volunteers at 5:30 p.m.. Harriet Cohen, a long time housing activist, leads the orientation and has been coming every Tuesday for the past two years. During her talk, she impresses upon the group the need to be sensitive to the trauma many have experienced when they help the friends tell their stories and complete the required forms. “The coalition doesn’t turn anybody away,” she said. “There is an overwhelming demand for our services, and we need many more lawyers who can be trained in the intricacies of these complicated immigration cases.”

Volunteer attorneys review intake forms to determine what type of application needs to be filed. Note-takers, translators and legal experts are quickly organized into teams. Those in charge of the clinic match the friends and teams of volunteers. There is a palpable buzz from the groups — sometimes they work well into the evening — documenting histories, filing asylum applications, completing employment authorization requests and other documents under the Freedom or Information Act (FOIA) needed to help a friend’s case.

The Ultimate Grassroots Effort

Siernna Neripe, who works with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, has been coming to the clinic for over a year. “I am a volunteer attorney who goes around the clinic and gives advice to the teams,” she explained. “I originally came here to translate in French and Haitian Creole. However, once I got here, I realized they needed more attorneys than translators. This is the ultimate grassroots effort” Neripe said she sees a lot of women coming from Honduras and El Salvador who have intense gender-based violence claims. “Every situation sticks close to you. Not only the more severe cases, but also those of the student activists who now have to flee.”

The clinic has a very special meaning for Ragbir. He doesn’t mince words in describing its importance. “The clinic has become the resource for those who have no other place to turn,” he said. “If we have 2500 friends (the recent total of those who have availed themselves of the coalition’s services), then that means that we have saved 2500 people from being deported. That’s not an exaggeration. If people don’t have an application, they will be deported. If we have done an application, they are somewhat protected. You now have access to the court system which will allow your story to be told.”

Making a Real Difference

And there are real life stories behind the coalition’s statistics — a brother who recently crossed the border and is detained in Arizona; a father who escaped several attempts on his life and is now trying to get his son out of detention; a mother who is now free after escaping the abuse she experienced in her homeland.

The role of Judson in spearheading this herculean, if somewhat underground, effort, seems consistent with the church’s historical purpose of bridging the cultural and economic divides. You see it in the coming together of the eager volunteers and those seeking to create a better life for themselves in this country. “It is in the interest of the powers to be right now to keep friends too scared to think that there is a network out there that can help them, and to keep us thinking that there is not way to plug in and give a gift,” Bucey said. “On the contrary, the coalition provides a concrete way to combat this feeling of powerlessness and to make a difference in someone’s life.”

For more information of how to get involved with the Coalition, email Micah Bucey or visit the New Sanctuary Coalition website

Stephan Russo is the former Executive Director of Goddard Riverside Community Center