Samantha Weigel/Daily Journal
Faith in Action members Lisa Marie Wong, left, and Stewart Hyland meet with Father Lawrence Goode at the
St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in East Palo Alto to look over materials that were distributed Saturday, May 6, as part of the “no migra” rapid response network.
Bay Area community activists and attorneys have a message for their undocumented immigrant neighbors — you’re not alone.
Faith-based groups, volunteers, nonprofits, activists and attorneys have joined to form the Immigration Liberation Movement, a group striving to support those fearing deportation. They’ve conducted various “know your right” seminars and are expanding the newly formed “Rapid Response Network” in San Francisco and San Mateo counties.
A stronghold of volunteers is on call whether there’s a suspected Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, a detainee in need of legal representation or a neighbor looking for someone to accompany them when meeting with federal agents. Rapid Response Network is a group of trained volunteers who can be summoned through a hotline titled “no migra,” which roughly translates to “no immigration police.”
“This migra watch is a little bit more cutting edge and community led. What we’ve done is essentially train community members, allies, U.S. citizens to show up when a raid is happening,” said immigration attorney Niloufar Khonsari, executive director of Pangea Legal Services, a San Francisco-based organization working on the program. “One thing the community can do is make sure these raids and detention or deportation of immigrants don’t happen in the dark.”
While sympathetic to undocumented immigrants’ fears, some local law enforcement departments raised initial concerns about how the network might affect their own community policing efforts as the strive to distinguish themselves from federal authorities.
But with reports of undocumented immigrants retreating into the shadows, groups like Pangea Legal Services and Faith in Action are training volunteers in San Mateo and San Francisco counties. On Saturday, groups dispersed across San Mateo County to pass out posters with the “no migra” hotline information, and cards outlining a person’s rights.
More than a thousand people have already signed up to participate in the network that essentially responds to calls for three types of services, said Jennifer Martinez, executive director with Faith in Action Bay Area.
“There is an extreme heightened fear right now in the immigrant community,” Martinez said. “This kind of community outreach is a way of creating an avenue of hope and support for people. I think people who have been galvanized by the rhetoric from the presidential campaign and the executive orders that are starting to come out, they see they don’t need to go to Washington, D.C., to be responsive, they can help their neighbor next door.”
Building a network of support
Immigration attorneys could be available to those who’ve been detained, and the group is rolling out an accompaniment program in which people can ask a volunteer to go with them if they need to meet with federal agents, Martinez said. Ideally, the “compa,” or buddy program, could expanded into new friends accompanying immigrants to a variety of appointments they might otherwise be too fearful to attend, she said.
A main role of the network is to respond to calls of reported ICE activity — something that has drawn the attention of local law enforcement officials who hope to better understand how this will unfold.
When someone reports a suspected ICE incident, volunteers are dispatched to the location to “bear witness” and determine whether the report is accurate. With heightened fear amongst the community, being able to dispel unsubstantiated reports of ICE raids is a critical function as well, Martinez said.
“There’s a lot of rumors about ICE is here, ICE is there, and that is fear inducing in a community. People just shut down and don’t want to go anywhere. So what we’re training people to do is … confirm whether the rumors are true and calm the nerves of the community,” Martinez said.
Thus far, they haven’t confirmed any actual ICE activity in San Mateo County. But if they do come across an ICE incident, volunteers have been trained to video record the incident and watch out for possible violations of a person’s Fourth and Fifth amendment rights — to which everyone regardless of immigration status is entitled, said Khonsari.
They are also taught to communicate the reason for their presence to ICE as well as passersby, while not interfering with the law enforcement activity, Martinez said.
“We’re not trying to stop or intervene, we’re trying to be moral and legal observers,” she said.
Martinez said she bounced the concept and training off East Palo Alto’s police chief and is slated to present their efforts to San Mateo County’s Police Chiefs and Sheriff’s Association next month.
Intersecting with local law enforcement
Once concern is misreports of ICE activity could lead groups of network volunteers to arrive at crime scenes under local police jurisdictions. San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer said she’s looking forward to learning more about the network, but is concerned it could deter from her department’s efforts to forge stronger bonds with the immigrant community.
“We know that people who come from other cultures and other languages sometimes mistake authority figures and we are concerned,” Manheimer said. “We’re not against this, we just would hope they sit down with local law enforcement who in San Mateo County work exceedingly hard at maintaining close bonds with our immigrant communities, and make sure we’re not working at odds with each other.”
Manheimer emphasized local police are not in the business of enforcing federal immigration laws, nor do they inquire about a person’s status. Furthermore, encouraging victims to report crimes is vital to promoting a safe community and visas may be available for those who come forward, she said.
While the nonprofit groups and law enforcement are inherently approaching the issue from differing lenses, both Martinez and Manheimer said they do hope to forge a stronger bond recognizing they have the same goal.
“I don’t believe we’re at cross purposes, I just believe we need to sit down and understand each other’s mission,” Manheimer said. “I think we both have the very best interest of protecting and serving our community.”
She noted the early reports of ICE raids in the county turned out to be false and warned of unintended consequences if the community groups incidentally build a barrier of distrust between undocumented immigrants and local police.
San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos said he had yet to hear of the network but understands the community needs some reassuring as there’s fear amongst the immigrant population. Still, he noted safety must be a priority.
“My concerns as the sheriff would be if they interfere in any law enforcement action which could pose a danger to the law enforcement personnel involved, or the persons involved,” Bolanos said.
Martinez and Khonsari noted the volunteers are there simply to observe and promote transparency in what’s occurring in the local immigrant community.
“Part of what a safe and healthy and vibrant community looks like is that we’re actually a community, and that no one has to live in the shadows because of their identity or their status,” Martinez said. “I hope it introduces conversations with law enforcement and public officials about how we continue growing our collective capacity to create inclusive communities.”
San Mateo County’s rapid response network hotline is (203) NO MIGRA, or (203) 666-4472.