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Sanctuary Churches See Rise in Undocumented Immigrants Seeking Help

HOST, WILL WALKEY: During the 1980s, churches began offering shelter to Central American refugees. Today the sanctuary movement focuses on assisting undocumented immigrants, especially accompanying them to deportation hearings. In recent weeks, the sanctuary churches in New York City have seen a dramatic increase in requests for help. Megan Cattel reports.

MEGAN CATTEL, BYLINE: Nearly a hundred churches, synagogues, and temples have joined the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York to support undocumented immigrants. They offer literal sanctuary space for immigrants and also legal services. And if immigrants do get called to a final deportation hearing, the coalition arranges a minister or rabbi, along with members of the congregation, to go with them to court. It's called accompaniment.

Ambien Mitchell is the accompaniment coordinator for New Sanctuary Coalition. Mitchell says the program can make a big impact on the judges ultimate decision.

AMBIEN MITCHELL: I think the general idea is to have as many folks as possible from as many different identities, presenting identities represented in these spaces as possible to allow our judges, our ICE officers, our DHS attorneys, the opportunity to really feel the eyes of their community on them. And its really that feeling that that we believe does make a difference.

CATTEL: Accompaniment can also play another important non-legal role in hearings.

Ravi Ragbir is a co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition in New York City. He himself is undocumented and an immigration activist.

RAVI RAGBIR: If I go alone, it becomes very anxious, very terrifying, very scary. So when we are accompanied by, by the community, by people who are supportive and want to protect us, it means a lot because it also means that they are the eyes and the witnesses of what is happening to the harshness and the inhumanity.

CATTEL: According to legal experts, judges consider an individual's value within the community during the removal process. Hasan Shafiqullah, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society in New York says that community presence makes an in impact during deportation hearings.

HASAN SHAFIQULLAH : Family members and friends, come to the court room and be in the seats in the back to show support for the person that can have a tremendous impact on the judge to let the judge know that there are people who are really invested in this person and care about it. So where you would show ties to the community, those are the sorts of things the ICE officer would looking for.

CATTEL: A year ago, the Coalition accompanied 35 individuals per week. In January, the number has increased to 75 per week. And in the last two weeks, Mitchell says the numbers have spiked again.

MITCHELL: You’re speaking to me now on a week when we have 90 accompaniments and I’ve told you I’m sorry I’m running between this and that and that’s sort of the nature of what the work has become now.

CATTEL: Mitchell says the recent increase may be because of word of mouth in immigrant communities but could also reflect an increase in ICE activity and arrests. Since September 2019, the agency has withheld information on detention and arrests from the public. When asked for arrest numbers, ICE declined to comment. Megan Cattel, Columbia Radio News.

Note: ICE did not reply with a statement in time for the broadcast. However, they did give this statement on increase in arrests:

“In addition to the recently announced support being provided by CBP, ICE has also shifted resources within the agency to address the increasing need driven by sanctuary policies to make more at-large arrests. These at-large arrests require additional time and resources, and as such, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents are now being detailed to support ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) officers in the targeting and arrest of criminal aliens and immigration fugitives through routine enforcement actions. HSI and ERO stand committed to our agency’s primary mission to protect public safety.”


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