Accompanying Immigrants, Or Others

Accompanying or walking with someone who feels vulnerable or threatened can offer something intangible—the gift of reassurance. Widely used for immigrants facing deportation, it’s a commitment to be present and bear witness to their struggle. Beyond the immigrant community, accompaniment methods are being used with persons and families struggling with poverty or addiction. Such actions hold promise for building relationships across race and class.

Some churches have begun accompanying immigrants faced with the possibility of deportation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The experience can be daunting, and complicated by the reality that many immigrants lack English proficiency. Walking with such a person may not provide all the answers, but it may render the process a bit more humane.

Interfaith groups in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities responded to recent restrictions in immigration by calling for volunteers to accompany immigrants facing detention. These “friends” of the detained are typically not lawyers and do not offer legal advice, but something more simple and intangible—a ministry of presence and of bearing witness. Given that the Sixth Amendment does not guarantee immigrants the right to a lawyer, some individuals facing deportation must otherwise face government attorneys alone.

Volunteers for the New Sanctuary Movement go on three types of accompaniment: Check ins required by ICE, court hearings for individuals who have not been detained, and court hearings for those who have already been detained. Anne Pilsbury, director of the Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, says that accompaniment is “very reassuring for people.” “[The Jacob Javits Federal Building, where the Department of Homeland Security is located] is a very confusing place and it’s hard to get information from anyone. The accompaniments humanize a very inhumane process.” [1]

The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops suggests a number of ways to support immigrants beyond accompanying them to hearings. This includes accompanying families with children to school and assisting with enrollment, or sponsoring an open house for parents, teachers and administrators to discuss support options. It could also include building relationships with Department of Homeland Security offices by attending Community Relations Meetings sponsored by the agency. Another possible action could be helping immigrants find lawyers by providing information sessions about reputable immigration service providers, or publishing a list of attorneys provided by the Department of Justice.[2]

I am aware of churches and faith-based organizations using accompaniment methods beyond the immigrant community. For instance, St. Anne’s Catholic Community, thirty-two miles northwest of Chicago, became involved in a program for mothers in prison to have an opportunity to visit with their children. Sponsored by the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, the “Visits to Mom” program provides free transportation to children whose mothers are incarcerated. For volunteers from St. Anne’s, this would typically translate into an eleven or twelve hour day due to the drive required—three hours round trip from Barrington to Chicago and five hours round trip to and from the prisons, the Decatur and Logan Correctional Centers. Yet the visits often represented the only chance for many of these mothers, many of them serving time for drug offenses, to get to see their children.[3]

Accompaniment support sometimes goes under the name of mentoring or advising. The West Side Campaign Against Hunger, located in the basement of the St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church in upper Manhattan, offers a supermarket-style food pantry which allows customers choice in what they may receive. Beyond this, for new customers the pantry offers a session with a social service counselor who explains how to shop and give information about applying for a health plan, finding a doctor, determining eligibility for SNAP (Food Stamps), Women Infants and Children (WIC) or Free or Reduced School Meals, as well as job training, GED or English as a Second Language classes.

Groups providing support for persons in poverty represent another accompaniment model. Circles USA, which seeks to equip individuals and families in poverty, combines training, group support and mentoring over an extended period. When someone makes a commitment to get out of poverty, they commit to a twelve week training course and are then paired with “Allies” who serve as intentional friends. In addition, they are invited to attend regular support group meetings.

When I attended the Circles chapter meeting in McPherson, Kansas, I observed first hand the opportunity for encouragement afforded by meeting with a group of peers to discuss financial and life issues. Everyone needs relationships, both intentional friends and support groups, if they are to move beyond the hopelessness and isolation that can come from being financially challenged. Circles complex recipe of training, peer support and group support, offers one version of accompaniment applied to persons in poverty.

Accompaniment can have an impact not just on the vulnerable but on those who accompany. Grace Yukich, a sociologist, observed this in her research on church action with immigrants in New York City. One woman, a member of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn, testified to a group of immigrant support activists about her newfound faith as the result of an accompaniment experience. She had been accompanying a Chinese couple to check-ins for several months. Though she had little prior experience with immigrants, she found her faith commitment deepening as she attended church with the couple, met occasionally, with others at a restaurant to check on the couple’s situation, and also accompanied the couple periodic check-in meetings with immigration officials. Though never particularly committed to immigrant rights before, she began to experience a newfound sense of faith. “This is the first time I have felt there was a purpose to being a Christian.”[4]

In the debate over reforming U.S. immigration policy, it’s easy to turn the immigrant into an abstraction.  It’s also easy to overlook the lives of real families that are effected when we discuss poverty. Accompanying immigrants and those in poverty helps to keep the conversation real. Not only that, it helps build relationships with people we might otherwise know only from a distance.

[1] Katrina Shakarian, “As Trump Pushes Deportations, Volunteers Intensify Immigrant-Accompaniment Program,” Gotham Gazette, January 8, 2018. Accessed at: http://www.gothamgazette.com/state/7386-as-trump-pushes-deportations-volunteers-intensify-immigrant-accompaniment-program

[2] 10 Things You Can Do to Accompany Immigrants. Accessed at:https://justiceforimmigrants.org/2016site/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/10-things-you-can-do.pdf

[3] Victor Claman and David Butler, Acting On Your Faith: Congregations Making a Difference (Boston: Insights, Inc., 1994), 21.

[4] Grace Yukich, One Family Under God: Immigration Politics And Progressive Religion in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 74.

Photo:  Michelle Rivera. 11.9.2011.Flickr Creative Commons.

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