Beyond sanctuary: A chain of helpers offers practical ways to support immigrants
Junior, a 20-year-old immigrant from Honduras, arrived in Boston, a sanctuary city, last spring. He was sent to the immigration detention center at Suffolk County House of Correction after having petitioned for asylum at the Texas border.
But Junior had no family or connections in Boston; in fact, he knew no one here. He wondered what he’d do and where he would go if and when he got released. That Boston is a sanctuary city meant virtually nothing to him. What mattered was that he found a nonprofit organization that supported him and gave him resources to pay for his bond and get released.
At a time when there are daily injustices at the border, where two kids recently died in federal custody, many Americans wring their hands and feel helpless to act. Here in Boston, Mayor Walsh boasts his support of the city’s sanctuary status. But advocates are realizing there are simpler and more concrete things that can help immigrants caught in the web of this parallel and opaque legal system. The local action represents a new stage in the immigration battle, one that goes well beyond the symbolism of being a sanctuary city.
For a little over a year, Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network, or “Beyond” (a play on the organization’s acronym, BIJAN), has been doing its part by addressing the real-life needs of immigrants at risk of deportation. Most of the core organizers who founded Beyond are associated with churches, where the original sanctuary movement began in the 1980s.
“A few of us in the faith community were saying, ‘wait a second,’ we want to offer sanctuary but that may not be the most useful thing to do,” said Annie Gonzalez Milliken, an organizer with Beyond and minister of First Parish in Bedford. One thing they heard from impacted folks in the immigrant community is that those in detention are in desperate need of basic types of help, she said.
Junior heard about the nonprofit from other detainees at South Bay. Beyond paid for the $1,500 bond Junior was assigned when he passed the “credible fear” interview last June on his asylum petition. When he was released, the organization relied on a network of more than 800 neighbors, as Beyond calls them, to provide temporary housing for him. In total, Junior lived in seven volunteers’ homes. Beyond also found him a pro bono immigration lawyer.
Junior fled Honduras mostly because, as a gay man, he faced intense bullying and discrimination. His home country is notorious for its violence against the LGBT population. He is now working at a restaurant and rents a room in East Boston. His freedom is twofold. “I am free because I can be my authentic self here,” he said in an interview in Spanish.
Beyond has helped nearly 200 immigrants in Massachusetts who were at risk of deportation or in detention. The nimble network offers various services, including routine tasks like picking up immigrants from detention and driving them to court or ICE check-ins. There’s also a bond fund, which has raised over $200,000.
Another noteworthy service Beyond offers is court accompaniment, in which a volunteer serves as an escort to support the immigrant at a time of their court hearing. It provides a measure of discreet protection, and signals the judge that the community has this immigrant’s back.
“It’s going in their stead, sometimes it’s just a silent witness to convey, ‘we’re here for you,’ ” said Gonzalez Milliken.
Even more effective are the letters of support from Beyond that court escorts sometimes bring. “We write that we’re trying to find a lawyer for the person and ask the judge for more time, or that Beyond will drive this person to all their future court hearings,” said Evan Seitz, another organizer with the group.
Beyond is not the only accompaniment group in Massachusetts, and the model has grown popular across the country as more and more people realize the limits of the sanctuary movement.
Meanwhile, Beyond is on to the next challenge: a deep need for legal help and the money to pay for it. “It seems like Boston is behind the game experimenting or piloting a publicly funded program for universal representation for immigrants in immigration court,” said Seitz. New York City became the first municipality to launch such a fund a handful of years ago; Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have similar programs.
Now it’s time for Boston to move beyond symbolism and help fund this next stage of progressive action. Nearly two years ago, then-city councilor and mayoral candidate Tito Jackson pitched such an idea, but it went nowhere. (To be fair, the city launched the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund in 2017, but it’s just a two-year pilot program, relies on private donations, and serves other cities beyond Boston.) A little public money would go a long way, and make a real impact on people like Junior, who otherwise are outmatched by a complex and unsympathetic immigration system.