Calling your Congressperson can sometimes be helpful. Need some pork for your pet project grafted on to the next budget bill? Go right ahead! There are instances where targeted public pressure on specific Congresspeople can actually change something, or can at least inform them about an issue that is important but maybe too niche to have crossed their desk. But if you look at the state of Congress today and think that calling your representative is the most effective thing you can do to help immigrants in this climate of intense repression, you are overestimating your congressperson and underestimating yourself! Phoning up the dismal crew of equivocating hand-wringers and stone-cold sociopaths on the hill may be unproductive, but that does not leave us without any recourse. We can do some things ourselves. Nothing will change on immigration without a fully-engaged citizenry (or personry, if you prefer) sticking their obnoxious noses into every part of the government’s deportation machine.
It’s worth mentioning, first of all, that some people are inherently well-placed to offer more hands-on assistance. Immigration courts generally operate during business hours, and detention centers may have limited visiting windows (especially for non-attorneys). If you are a college, grad, or professional student with chunks of open time during weekdays; if you are a retiree; if you are a freelancer, remote employee, or self-employed person with the ability to set your own hours; if you are a teacher or professor who doesn’t teach every day or is currently in your “vacation” season; or if you are just a person whose job has off days during the week, then you have a unique ability to participate in many of the activities we suggest below.
If you are a 9-5er, an exhausted multi-part-timer, or are caring for dependants full-time, however, some of these opportunities may not be logistically possible for you. Don’t despair! There are still things on our list that apply to you. In addition, you can make a big difference by encouraging the people in your life who are available to get involved, and providing them with whatever emotional and/or material support you can. A feeling of solidarity and companionship makes a huge difference to people’s ability to dive headlong into unfamiliar or emotionally tough projects.
Finally: There are probably local immigration organizations in your area that are actively working on projects. Google around, find out who they are, visit the “volunteer” section of their webpages, call them up, show up at community meetings! They may be working on local issues that we don’t know about or that are beyond the scope of this short list. There’s no need to invent a whole volunteering program from scratch if the immigrants and advocates in your area already have concrete ideas about how you can be most useful.
With all those caveats, here are some ideas for you to consider.
- Easy, but meaningful: Give money
The null option, available to everyone in accordance with their ability: Give money to organizations that are already working on immigration and border issues. Here is a good list of organizations working on the border. You should also google around to see what organizations in your area are providing legal aid to immigrants, and organizing on behalf of immigrant and undocumented worker rights.
- Go watch the immigration court
Court-watch is a practice where people (who are not required to be there) go and observe court proceedings. There are a number of possible benefits to this practice, and it has proved to be an effective tactic in drawing public pressure and educating people in other contexts, such as bail hearings in Chicago, or misdemeanor court in New York. Immigration courts operate largely out of the public eye. This means that their procedures are not well known, that there is little public accountability for judges, and that people attending hearings (often without a lawyer) feel utterly forgotten and alone. Except under special circumstances, however, immigration hearings are generally open to the public, so there is nothing actually stopping you from just waltzing in and sitting down in the audience.
While it won’t fix everything, court watch is one tool that may help alleviate some of the burdens of immigration court or act as a corrective to some of its worst abuses. Court watch can help with:
Judge accountability: Judges will feel pressure to be on slightly better behavior if people are watching. Additionally, particularly heinous judges can be reported or lambasted in public media. (See this report by law students at Emory University who did court watch at the notoriously monstrous immigration court in Atlanta: “[Immigration Judge] Cassidy asked each of the four students who observed his sessions to come forward and talk to him after his sessions were over, and invited one of the four into his chambers. During one conversation, IJ Cassidy expressed concern with how the observers would use the information and whether their observations would portray him in a negative fashion. He then sought to explain his decisions.” Now just imagine how this guy behaves when no one is watching!)
Support for the person on trial: It’s always nice to know that people have your back. Trust us, we’ve seen clients that have no one, and ones who have people pack the court room. It matters.
Show the judge that there is public concern and interest: Beyond accountability in the particular hearing, your presence also sends a more systemic message that these hearings do not happen in darkness, that people care, and are watching.
Public Education: Do you know what actually goes on in immigration hearings? Our guess is no. That’s okay—most people don’t—but you should take the opportunity to learn, and then share with others.
Transparency: It’s an ideal of our courts that they should be public and transparent. This should apply equally to administrative hearings. Courts are not black boxes: They are rooms with real people, some of whom are utterly disempowered and others of whom may be accustomed to acting unilaterally and without consequences.
Public Participation: As a U.S. taxpayer, and especially if you are a U.S. citizen, courts are public institutions acting in your name. We cannot abdicate our responsibility for their actions.
See the horror: On most days, if not all, what you see in immigration court will actually shock you. It will make you sad, and hopefully spur you to further action.
- Volunteer to accompany people to court, to ICE check-ins, or to visit loved ones in detention
Contact local immigration organizations to find out if anyone has organized a court accompaniment program in your area. (Here’s one in Massachusetts, for those of you who live up here.) With a court accompaniment program, you sign up to travel to and from court with non-detained immigrants. This kind of moral support can be especially important for people who don’t have lawyers, and/or don’t have other people in their lives with the ability to take time off to go to court with them (or who are nervous to go to court because of their own immigration status). Going to immigration court is terrifying under the “best” of circumstances, but it’s even worse if you’re alone. You can also make yourself practically useful by helping your assigned friend navigate confusing government buildings, figure out whom to give documents to, communicate their needs and questions to judges and court clerks, and so on. And, as we’ve discussed above, having an observer present in a courtroom can often act as a moderate check on abuses (or even just plain rudeness) by DHS attorneys, judges, or other officials.
You might also accompany people to scheduled check-ins at their local ICE office. This is very important because there are sometimes no interpreters on hand at these offices to explain things. (If you speak the language of the person you’re accompanying, you can of course help interpret; but even if you don’t, you can help out immensely by writing down everything the ICE officer says so that it can be translated for your friend later.) ICE check-ins can be very fraught, because there are many immigrants without legal status who have something called an “order of supervision”: That means that they have been told to report to ICE on a regular basis, and many people have been diligently doing this for years. Lately, ICE has taken to putting ankle monitors on people, or even taking them into custody and deporting them, after their check-ins. If you speak English and have a secure legal status yourself, you can actually make yourself very useful at these meetings by helping your friend communicate with the ICE official, and keeping track of any demands they may make, or stray remarks they may drop, that can help give a clue as to ICE’s intentions.
For immigrants who are detained and in court proceedings, an accompaniment program may also have you escort that person’s family to and from court (and perhaps to the detention center for visits). This can be incredibly meaningful, because court dates and brief visitation windows at detention centers may be the only time they get to see their detained family member over a months-long period. (For families with kids, it’s also useful to have someone to help babysit in the court waiting room, especially if adults need to confer with lawyers or take a moment for themselves.)
Even if you can’t find an official court accompaniment program to participate in, it’s possible that you could get involved in an immigration organization in your area and start helping out local families on an informal basis, with accompaniment, rides, childcare, and other needs.
- Volunteer to help out inside immigration detention centers, and/or at the border
Giving money to organizations that provide legal representation or conduct advocacy on behalf of people who are detained is great, and you should definitely donate as much as you can! That said, there are also ways you can get personally involved. We cannot stress enough how much seeing these things firsthand will alter your mindset, your sense of urgency, and the depth and sophistication of your knowledge on immigration issues.
Volunteer at a detention center on the border: If you’re in a position to take a week off work (or you have a job with some scheduling flexibility), the CARA Pro Bono Project and the Karnes Pro Bono Project run volunteer programs at two family detention centers in Texas. (These are detention centers where mothers and children are detained together.) You DO NOT HAVE TO BE A LAWYER OR A LAW STUDENT to volunteer: The project staff will teach you everything you need to know to be useful. It’s helpful if you speak some Spanish, but it’s not absolutely required. There are an infinite number of tasks that need to be performed in any given day, and every hand on deck is a godsend.
If the cost of airfare and accommodation in Texas is prohibitively expensive for you, the project may be able to put out a call to their listserv and raise some money to help out. Current Affairs will also gladly retweet any Kickstarter campaigns for people who want to volunteer in Texas. If you want to get involved with these projects but can’t take the time off to go in person, get in touch with them for information about remote volunteer tasks (like data entry) that you might be able to help with.
Volunteer with a Legal Orientation Program: If you are interested in helping out detained adults who don’t have lawyers, several states run Legal Orientation Programs to provide basic assistance with forms and applications. Legal Orientation Programs don’t have quite the volunteer pipeline that the family detention projects do, but it’s worth reaching out to see when and how a program in your state (or a state you have the ability to travel to for a week or so) might be able to use volunteers. Getting inside an adult immigration detention center—which is usually functionally indistinguishable from a jail—is very eye-opening. Some detainees may not have relatives in this country, or it’s just very hard for their family members to visit them. There may be small things you can help them with, like coordinating to have relatives send them important documents. (Incidentally, Jeff Sessions moved to suspend the Legal Orientation Program in April, and although he was pressured into reinstating it, there’s some fear that it may be cancelled in the future.)
Volunteer with No More Deaths: For a different kind of border volunteering experience, No More Deaths (No Más Muertes) is an organization that provides humanitarian aid along the U.S.-Mexico border. They don’t differentiate between asylum-seekers, so-called “economic” migrants, or any other type of border-crosser: Their main goal is just to stop people from dying in the desert. You may hike along the border helping to leave supplies (water, blankets, etc.) for migrants, or provide first aid to people in distress. Other projects include monitoring temporary holding facilities on the border, helping migrants get their confiscated belongings back, and searching for missing people.
Be aware: Nine activists from No More Deaths have been charged with federal crimes and misdemeanors over the past year for assisting migrants. The risk that you will be prosecuted is probably relatively low as of right now, but you should know that it’s a possibility before engaging in any activity.
- Find out if there’s a number or network in your area for monitoring ICE operations
A cool grassroots immigration organization in Somerville, Massachusetts, for example, has set up something called the “Somerville Response Network” for reporting any local ICE activity. This can help people avoid areas where enforcement action is taking place, or piece together what may have happened to neighbors and family members who are suddenly missing.
It’s also worth mentioning that if you are a U.S. citizen (especially if you are white) and you see something happening that looks as if it might be an immigration enforcement action—ICE questioning someone, or escorting someone out of a building—it is comparatively low-risk to you to step in, ask what’s going on, try to record on your phone, etc. It’s very unlikely that you could stop someone from being detained, of course, but as we’ve stressed throughout, merely having a third party present to witness these types of things can sometimes deescalate them, and you can at least find out from the person being detained whether there’s anybody you can call on their behalf.
- Become an ESL teacher or tutor
Find out if local immigration organizations or community groups need English teachers. This is something lots of us can do: Most ESL classes take place outside working hours, because immigrants tend to work a lot. And if you are a one-on-one tutor, you may have flexibility to schedule your own hours. Immigrants will fare somewhat better in asserting their rights, whether in court or out in the wider United States, when they can understand and speak English well. Even if you are a monolingual English speaker, there will almost certainly be class levels you can teach (in fact, you may find that you are uniquely able to provide good “immersion-style” language instruction for more advanced students). It’s also a nice way to start to get to know the various immigrant communities in your town, if you haven’t had much contact with them up till now.
- SPECIFICALLY IF YOU ARE JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Cancel the Safe Third Country Agreement
Are you Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? If so, one BIG way you can help is by cancelling the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada. This is an agreement that designates the U.S. as a safe country for asylum-seekers, and, in practice, means that most asylum-seekers who present themselves at the U.S.-Canadian border will be turned back, on the presumption that they could have gotten their asylum claim fairly adjudicated in the U.S. The United States is now very clearly not a safe country for asylum-seekers, and it would be awfully helpful, if we end up needing to Underground-Railroad this whole shebang, to have a safe place to actually Underground-Railroad the people to. Canada! You owe us for burning down the White House!
- SPECIFICALLY IF YOU ARE A PERSON WITHIN THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY WHO IS BEGINNING TO FEEL TROUBLED BY THE TURN THINGS ARE TAKING: Can we point you toward a helpful role model?
Even government functionaries, bureaucrats, and other pen-pushers can be heroes. Have you ever heard of Chiune Sugihara? He was a Japanese government official stationed in Lithuania during World War II. He spent 20 hours a day hand-writing bogus transit visas for Polish and Lithuanian Jews. He is estimated to have saved around 6,000 people. Asked later in life why he chose to do this, Sugihara stated:
You want to know about my motivation, don’t you? Well. It is the kind of sentiments anyone would have when he actually sees refugees face to face, begging with tears in their eyes. He just cannot help but sympathize with them. Among the refugees were the elderly and women. They were so desperate that they went so far as to kiss my shoes, Yes, I actually witnessed such scenes with my own eyes. … People in Tokyo were not united. I felt it silly to deal with them. So, I made up my mind not to wait for their reply. I knew that somebody would surely complain about me in the future. But, I myself thought this would be the right thing to do. There is nothing wrong in saving many people’s lives… The spirit of humanity, philanthropy… neighborly friendship… with this spirit, I ventured to do what I did, confronting this most difficult situation—and because of this reason, I went ahead with redoubled courage.
Food for thought.
- IF YOU ARE A PRESIDENTIAL OR CONGRESSIONAL HOPEFUL: Why not put abolishing ICE, CBP, and/or DHS on your platform? Can you believe we live in a world in which where the mere fact of geography determines your legal rights? We can’t either. Enough of this “human rights violations are appalling, but border security is important” crap! Tell us specifically what kinds of law enforcement measures you think are important to preserve on the border, and which should be jettisoned. If you support border enforcement simply to stop people from crossing an arbitrary line in the ground, then you are part of the problem.
(If you still want to call your congressperson, tell ’em that, maybe.)
Image from No More Deaths (No Más Muertes)
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