Volunteers accompany US immigrants to court to allay fears
NEW YORK (AP) — When Salvadoran immigrant Joselin Marroquin-Torres became flustered in front of a federal immigration judge in New York and forgot to give her asylum application, a woman she had just met stood up to provide it.
“Thank you,” the judge said. “What is your relation to Joselin?”
“I am a friend,” responded retired chemist Marisa Lohse, who has accompanied dozens of immigrants to such hearings.
Lohse is among hundreds of volunteers, including preachers, law students and retirees, who’ve stepped up to accompany people in the US illegally to court hearings and meetings with immigration officials, guiding them through an often intimidating process.
Some of them say the accompaniment is more important than ever since Republican President Donald Trump expanded the definition of deportable offenses to include all immigrants living in the country illegally, giving rise to immigrants being apprehended during routine check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“We want to increase the accompaniment because the crisis is more severe. The pain, the fear, is bigger,” said Guillermo Torres, from Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles.
The group escorts mostly women and children to immigration court hearings, where judges decide who can stay in the U.S. and who must leave. Volunteers also accompany immigrants who are required to periodically check in with federal agents because they have pending cases or have been ordered deported.
ICE said it didn’t have national statistics on how often immigrants have been arrested during those check-ins. Immigration lawyers and advocacy groups said they believe such arrests are increasing. Trump has said the arrests and deportations are necessary to keep the country safe.
In New York, the nonprofit New Sanctuary Coalition said one of its volunteers was with Colombian immigrant Juan Vivares last month when he was arrested during his check-in. The group helped organize a news conference to publicize the arrest. Vivares, who is from Medellin and was arrested because his asylum request had been denied, was released two weeks later after his lawyer requested a stay of the order of deportation.
Accompaniment volunteers aren’t lawyers and don’t offer legal advice, but they say they’ve become an important part of the support network of immigrants because their presence in a courtroom or waiting room shows the immigrant has ties to the community.
They also provide moral support and show officials they’re watching, they say. And they contend escorting someone can make a difference in a judge or ICE agent’s decision on matters such as pending asylum petitions or issuance of travel documents.
“It definitely can change the decision of an ICE agent or judge,” said Kyle Barron, a New Sanctuary Coalition organizer who sends at least 150 volunteers an email every week on the schedule of accompaniments.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for tougher immigration controls, disagrees.
“A judge is supposed to make a decision based on the rule of law, not based on how many people show up,” spokesman Ira Melham said.
Former immigration judge Bruce Einhorn thinks accompaniment is “a win-win” because it provides comfort for immigrants and makes them more relaxed so they can talk to federal judges.
“That sort of thing was very helpful,” said Einhorn, who was a judge from 1990 to 2007. “The atmosphere in a courtroom, with people who help, is very different from the atmosphere in a courtroom with a person from another culture who appears alone.”
The waiting room for ICE’s check-ins in lower Manhattan fills with people every morning. ICE agents open a door and call the next person by name. The Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Lutheran pastor who accompanies for New Sanctuary, distributes his card to people waiting. His group tries to match immigrants with volunteers who speak their language.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, several groups have started accompanying immigrants to courts to make sure their rights aren’t violated.
“These days, politicians are using ICE as a military force to carry out a fear campaign within our own borders,” said George Lujan, from the SouthWest Organizing Project. “So not only does the accompaniment program keep our courts working, it also brings people together and gives them an alternative to living in fear.”
Marroquin-Torres said she definitely felt better having someone with her.
“I feel secure,” she said outside the court in New York. “I feel accompanied.”
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