Accompanying a friend to immigration court

Elizabeth Castelli, BCRW Director

I did my first accompaniment to immigration court one morning a couple of weeks ago as a volunteer with the New Sanctuary Coalition. I can’t say anything about the particular case, but I can say some things about the experience in some random order of observations:

First, there’s the sense of scale. Our group–family members of our friend in detention and about a dozen volunteers–joined a line of people seeking entry to the court building. There were a lot of people on line. A lot. And this was just one morning, just the people who had early appointments and hearing times. When you imagine the numbers for every appointment time, day after day, it is dizzying.

Second, there’s the routinization of it. Security for the building is handled by a private security company. The security folks manage the door traffic, order people to stand in line (“next to the wall! NEXT. TO. THE. WALL!”) and to move forward and to stop and to wait there – no, THERE!, manage the X-ray equipment and the body scanners. They seem bored, irritable, aware of their own authority. They are interacting with a lot of people who do not speak English, and they do that thing that people do when talking with someone who cannot understand them: they speak louder, as if the non-English-speaking person is simply hard of hearing and/or mildly daft. They are probably paid minimum wage, and they must be worn down by the numbers and the flow of traffic and the fear and anxiety of the people waiting in line. In the training I went through, the organizer emphasized the rules: show respect, don’t judge, do no harm. These rules apply to everyone we encounter, including the private security guards. I go out of my way to try to make eye contact. I say, “thank you, sir,” “thank you, ma’am,” loudly, trying to humanize the encounter.

Third, there’s the waiting. The waiting room is drab, aggressive in its neutrality and lack of decoration. There are four rows of chairs, two on one side facing the two on the other. We settle in. Some of the volunteers have brought colored pencils and markers and paper so that the kids (part of the friend’s family) can draw. One makes a folded toy from paper–the kind where you take a square of paper and fold triangles back upon triangles til you get a mechanism that you can maneuver with your fingers. There is a debate about whether these are called “fortune tellers” or “cootie catchers.” The child is enchanted by this toy, and she works her way around the room, asking one person after another to pick a number and then another, eventually revealing their fortune. (Mine is, “Tomorrow, you will be beautiful.”) One of the volunteers has extensive floral tattoos running up and down one arm from elbow to shoulder. She lets the kids color in the flowers with highlighter pens. One kid decides she needs to braid the hair of other volunteers. I chat with some of the other volunteers; we discover we have institutions and people in common. We ask one another, “What brought you here?” The answer is mostly, “Despair and the desire to Do Something.” We wait for several hours, the waiting punctuated by the arrival of other families, of frazzled and exhausted attorneys, of court clerks with their routinized announcements. This is the work of accompaniment, the leader emphasizes. “We wait.”

Fourth, there’s the witnessing. Other cases are called before ours. The cases are called by number, not by name. We watch as people line up to go into the area where the courtrooms are. We watch when, a few minutes later, the people come back out. Sometimes, their faces mask their reactions. Other times, a group emerges looking stunned and undone. You try to gauge whether it’s better to try to make eye contact to offer a little silent encouragement and solidarity, or whether they want to be left alone in their devastation.

Fifth, there’s the unknowing. You don’t know the details of any cases, even of those where you are accompanying a friend. So, it’s a bit surreal. You are there, witnessing. But you don’t know exactly what it is that you are witnessing–apart from the profound inhumanity of the whole situation, where people’s lives hang in the precarious balance of a judicial system not designed for justice.

Sixth, there’s the arbitrariness. We learn that only eight people will be allowed into the courtroom where our friend will appear on video from the detention center. There are so many family members, only our group leader and one other volunteer are able to enter the courtroom. When they go inside, the hubbub of the waiting room–kids and volunteers and family members all in a burbling of talk–falls away, and we volunteers sit in uneasy and reverent silence.

Seventh, there’s the absurdity. Ten minutes later, the family members and the two volunteers emerge. The only thing that has happened is that our friend has been given another hearing date a few weeks in the future. It isn’t clear whether the judge has been kind enough to angle the camera for our friend to see their family gathered there in the courtroom. We gather in the hallway to take a photograph of all of us, documenting that we were there together on a hard day for our friend and our friend’s family.

Eighth, there’s the repetition, the dailyness of it. The calendar for future accompaniments is chockfull of occasions to repeat this experience, day in and day out.

I hold close to me the words of the organizer who ran the training I attended: what we are doing, she said, is creating constant opportunities for the people in power to choose a different path. Who knows? Maybe because we are there, watching and witnessing, today, they will make the right choice.

Are you interested in attending a training to become a member of the volunteer accompaniment project with NSC? If so, you can sign up here.

Image Credit: New Sanctuary Coalition