We entered the church at dusk. It was deserted except for the family and the pastor who greeted us. Three of us from the Immigrant Protection Project of Western Massachusetts (IPP) came to help a married couple fill out some forms. Lawyers do not usually lose sleep or get teary-eyed filling out a form. This time would be different.
We sat at a round table in a large room with fluorescent lights: Sarita Manigat, a third-year law student and a Massachusetts Bar Association Fellow working for IPP this summer; Margaret Sawyer, a UCC minister who is also the IPP Project Director; the couple; the minister; and I – I’m the Director of the local Massachusetts ACLU office. The kids — a boy, age five, and girl, nine — spent most of the time sitting on a couch, sharing a book. But when they came over to sit on a parent’s lap or to ask a question or just be a kid, we changed the topic. Then the kids would go play elsewhere, and we would continue talking and writing and notarizing the papers.
The legal forms we brought were a set of family protection documents. They have been collaboratively drafted by the ACLU of Massachusetts, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston, Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, Greater Boston Legal Services, Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, Massachusetts Appleseed Center, Northeast Justice Center, and Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project (PAIR).
The first page in the packet begins in English and Spanish, “All families should plan for who will care for your children in an emergency.” The potential emergency causing distress for this married couple — and millions of others like them across America — is the possibility that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency could grab them from their homes or work, detain and ultimately deport them. This was the reason for drafting these documents.
We tell families that these papers are like an insurance policy. You buy one in case something happens, because it’s prudent to have it, but you hope that like most people you never have to use it.
The Immigrant Protection Project of Western Massachusetts, a pilot project of the ACLU of Massachusetts, opened on April 10 after three months of planning. In addition to helping with family protection, the IPP provides lawyers for Immigration Court bond hearings and conducts Know Your Rights seminars. We coordinate our efforts with other immigrant rights, community and legal organizations, and operate as a resource and referral network.
Underlying the creation of the IPP is the belief that legal services for immigrants in western Massachusetts have been under-resourced and under-organized. Now immigrants seeking legal help can call IPP for assistance and referral on status questions, defenses to deportation and myriad other issues. We have developed a thorough intake protocol and trained over 20 bilingual call center volunteers, who listen carefully to the immigrants. We have marshaled the pro bono services of dozens of lawyers to represent immigrants in bond hearings, and to assist with family protection as well. IPP is partnering with some 25 immigrant rights, social service and medical organizations. The work of the IPP is a community endeavor.
A word on bond hearings: Bond hearings, the Immigration Court equivalent of deciding bail, matter — a lot. When a person who has been placed in immigration proceedings by ICE is released on bond, that’s a game changer. That person has time to hire an immigration lawyer and to prepare for his or her trial, called a merits hearing. The release on bond means that a family will not be precipitously torn apart. Conversely, a person who is locked up while awaiting the merits hearing has been placed on a fast track to deportation. Being represented by a lawyer at that hearing can make a world of difference.
At the church, we completed the forms, got to know the parents and played some with the kids. You’d be happy to have this family as your friends, neighbors, co-workers or fellow parishioners. Driving home, I kept turning over and over in my mind a question: why are Donald Trump and his supporters so intent on separating these children from their parents and deporting them from America? I hardly slept that night.
Last December, when my turn came to speak as a panelist at a Northampton community meeting at the J.F.K. Middle School on responses to Trump’s election, I posed this question: “What will be our answer when our children and grandchildren ask, ‘What did you do to protect liberty and democracy, equality and freedom after Donald Trump was elected?’” Trying to help members of our communities who are most vulnerable to being targeted by irrational fear or hatred is one answer.
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