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Faith communities collaborate in unified response to deportation fears

March 9, 2017
Christina Gray

About 125 members of San Francisco faith communities, including several Catholic parishes, signed up at the St. Dominic parish hall on Feb. 24 to serve on a unified “rapid response” team to support immigrants during anticipated enforcement actions by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

The event, “Practicing Solidarity During Immigration Raids,” was hosted by St. Dominic’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Ministry, formed last year to help parishioners reflect and act on issues relevant to Catholic social teaching. The archdiocesan Office of Human Life and Dignity, Pangea Legal Services, PICO California and California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance co-hosted the two-hour training.

The meeting took place three days after U.S. Department of Homeland Secretary John Kelly issued orders to DHS staff on implementing President Trump’s recent executive orders on border security and enforcement of the immigration laws.

Agencies are to deploy “all lawful means” to secure the border with Mexico, to prevent further illegal immigration into the United States, and to repatriate illegal aliens “swiftly, consistently, and humanely,” DHS said in a news release.

DHS also is authorized to add 5,000 border agents and empower state and local law enforcement to support federal enforcement of immigration law, “to the maximum extent permitted by law, and to ensure that prosecution guidelines place a high priority on crimes having a nexus to our southern border,” the agency said.

“With extremely limited exceptions, DHS will not exempt classes or categories of removal aliens from potential enforcement,” the agency said.

The actions also authorize DHS to expand expedited removal of undocumented immigrants, although as of Feb. 20 no details had been released, according to the Immigration Action Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

Since the actions were announced, local immigrant families have been fearing the “5-o’clock-in-the-morning knock on the door” from ICE, said Lorena Melgarejo, parish organizer for the archdiocese.

The goal of the meeting, said Melgarejo, was to form one broad network of trained individuals prepared to offer “sanctuary in action” for local undocumented families who call a hotline before, during or after an ICE action. Rapid response teams from St. Agnes Parish and others will be wrapped into the one larger network, she said.

“When ICE comes to your door, you can’t run,” said Melgarejo. “So the idea is, we bring the congregation or sanctuary to them.”

A rapid response team is a network of committed individuals trained to witness, accompany and advocate for immigrants when ICE shows up. They serve as a presence for the family, verifying the raid and serving as moral and legal observers if it is one.

Nilou Khonsari, executive director and an immigration attorney for Pangea Legal Services, a San Francisco-based agency that provides direct legal representation to immigrants especially in the area of deportation defense, talked to the group about how and why to document in detail what’s happening during an ICE action.

Using her iPhone, Khonsari showed prospective team members how to record an action in process from a safe distance, identifying agents and their vehicles and capturing what is actually said and done. The information can help support a legal team preparing a defense.

Connecting to undocumented families after immigration officials have left is also the work of the rapid response team. The team members will be present to the family, and make sure it is connected to a local legal network. Team members may also support the undocumented with rides to social services, to appointments and court hearings and to vigils to support their case.

Despite the Trump administration’s insistence that deporting “dangerous criminals” is the priority, the loose interpretation of criminality is cold comfort to immigrant families and those who do not want to see them torn apart because of minor infractions.

“The word criminal is being expanded a lot,” said Melgarejo.

Undocumented people are afraid because they do not know they have rights or what they are if ICE knocks on their door, said Natalie Terry, executive director of The Ignatian Spiritual Life Center at St. Agnes Parish.

“We are the mobilizers,” said Terry, whose parish trained more than 400 people to serve as rapid responders. “We are mobilizing God’s people to love the world, and the best way we feel we can do that is to stand in solidarity with people who are living in fear.”

On Feb. 23, Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, said the provisions in the DHS memos “will harm public safety rather than enhance it” since the trust that “currently exists between many police departments and immigrant communities” will be eroded if local agencies are tasked with deporting the communities they’re asked to protect.

In his statement, Bishop Vasquez said “taken together, these (new policies) constitute the establishment of a large-scale enforcement system that targets virtually all undocumented migrants as ‘priorities’ for deportation, thus prioritizing no one.”

While he voiced concern for all immigrants who could be affected, Bishop Vasquez said it was particularly worrisome that the memos seem to “eliminate important protections for vulnerable populations, including unaccompanied children and asylum seekers” and “greatly expand the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Jeanne Atkinson, of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., a nonprofit legal services agency founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops, said Feb. 22 on the “Son Rise Morning Show” that while President Barack Obama earned the moniker “deporter in chief” because of the record-breaking 2.5 million deportations that took place under his administration, the arrests and removals during his two terms in office focused on expelling serious criminals or those who posed an imminent threat to the nation.

What Trump is doing, Atkinson said, is different and signals an “expansion” of deportations in which people who haven’t committed crimes, other than crossing the border without permission, and don’t pose an imminent threat, could be sent back into perilous situations in their native countries or become separated from their families.

The California Catholic Conference in a Lent message issued on Ash Wednesday said “it is long past time for our leaders to stop allowing this issue to be used for political advantage and set themselves to the task of fixing our broken immigration system.”

The conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, asked the Trump administration and Congress to “ease the climate of fear that is now gripping our communities” and asked Catholics and “people of goodwill” to stand in solidarity with the “vulnerable and excluded in our society” referencing migrants and refugees who are “being unjustly targeted and vilified.”

The bishops asked for reforms in visa and guest worker programs, reforms that keep families together, due process for those who are detained and an “immediate path to regularize” the status of “those who are here and contribute to our economy and society but without documentation … with an eye to one day becoming citizens.”

The March 1 statement makes a plea that during Lent, “a time when Christian people devote ourselves more intentionally to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy in an earnest effort to reform our lives in the image of Jesus Christ,” urgent attention be given to “neighbors who are migrants and refugees, especially those immigrants who are undocumented.”

The bishops said they are concerned about widespread deportations that will break up families and communities.

“Fear is now growing in our neighborhoods and schools,” their statement said. “The work of businesses and farms is being disrupted. We seem to be turning away from our nation’s long history of renewal and innovation inspired by successive generations of immigrants and refugees.”

Catholic News Service contributed.

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