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Omaha Area Sanctuary Network: Caring cohort goes the distance for undocumented residents caught in the immigraton vice grip


Part I
Going the distance
Omaha sanctuary network gives refuge to family separated at the border
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)
Editor’s Note:
Welcome to Part I of a two-part story about the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network, which supports undocumented individuals embroiled in the immigration justice system. Part I focuses on a family separated at the border that’s found reunification and ongoing aid from the network. The parent’s names have been changed. The interview was conducted with the assistance of a translator.
In January 2018 Carlos and Sofia fled gang-ridden Acapulco, Mexico with their four young children. They risked everything in a run for the border. At the San Ysidro port of entry they sought asylum only to be forcibly separated and detained. They’ve since been reunited with support from the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network (OASN). The nonprofit aids undocumented individuals whose immigration status is in question.
Rampant violence in the family’s homeland created an environment of fear. The children witnessed shootings. Family friends went missing. The last straw was Carlos getting beaten and stabbed.
“Our family felt threatened,” said Sophia, adding that leaving seemed the only option. “Sometimes one doesn’t act for one’s self. We do it for the kids.”
Their odyssey’s ultimate destination was Omaha, where Sofia’s sister already lived, Even though the U.S. immigration crackdown was not yet in effect, this intact family seeking refuge from a credible threat still found themselves separated. Sofia and the kids did not get to say goodbye to Carlos before their release.
“I tried to get his attention to tell him we were leaving, but he didn’t understand. They wouldn’t let you speak with anyone. They wouldn’t let us get close to him.”
A desperate Carlos was transferred to detention centers in Arizona and Georgia. He pestered officials until the Southern Poverty Law Center took his case via its Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI).
An attorney arranged for his parole to Omaha pending a local sponsor coming forward. Calls to local immigration organizations led to then-sanctuary network president Lawrence Jensen. Meanwhile, Carlos and his family anxiously awaited a resolution to a separation that lasted four months.
“To go from every day interacting with your family and in one moment they’re taken away, there are no words to describe it. One feels, I don’t know, incomplete,” Carlos said. “While incarcerated you feel that urge to see them, to hold them, but you’re not able to do anything. When I would talk with her (Sofia) on the phone, I would feel good but at the same time bad because it wasn’t the same thing, I would tell her that sometimes i wouldn’t even eat because I could not stop thinking about them.”
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As bad as it was being separated at the border,”being so far away from them was much worse,” he said.

It was no easier on Sofia and the children.
“It’s was very difficult,” she said. “The kids would cry a lot for their dad and that makes you feel bad. Every day they would ask, ‘Is my dad going to be home yet?’ I would say, ‘I don’t when he’s going to be here, but he’ll be here.’ I would talk to him (Carlos) and he would cry. It would make me feel bad.”
Separation trauma made the oldest children ill.
As Spanish-speakers, the family faced hurdles trying to explain their plight to English speakers.
OASN, which does education and advocacy work around immigration, stepped up to help the family only months after making accompaniment its first priority. The group was frustrated in efforts to find a church offering physical sanctuary. Now, volunteers attend immigration court hearings, provide food and personal items in emergencies and make detention center visits.
“The focus on accompaniment seemed to revitalize the group. Participants find it rewarding,” Jensen said. “Thus, the ground was prepared when we connected with Carlos. Here was a need we could help. Sponsorship would be accompaniment at a deeper level. We agreed we would legally sponsor him but also fully support his wife and children.”
OASN secured resources and volunteers to satisfy federal sponsorship requirements of a supervised place to live, financial support for a year and ensuring Carlos attended all court hearings and Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins.
With $20,000 in pledges raised and commitments for more as needed, OASN got approved as sponsors in April. Due to red tape another month passed without his release. The one direct conversation Jensen had with Carlos was a brief phone call. Jensen only had time to share an OASN contact. More weeks passed, until, without advance notice, Carlos was released.
“The officer was like, ‘Hurry up, grab your stuff,’ because it was my time to go,” Carlos said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
He was taken to a Greyhound Bus station and left to fend for himself. Angela only found out about his release once he was on the road.
A sanctuary supporter got him much needed food and money at a stop en route. He didn’t know what to expect upon arriving in Omaha.
“Then I heard the kids screaming, ‘There’s my daddy.'”
The emotional reunion was a huge relief after months apart and uncertanity.
Jensen and Carlos finally met. “Despite the language difficulty, we were instant friends. He was good-humored, outgoing and amazingly composed considering the ordeal he had been through,” Jensen said.
The network went all out for the family.
“When Carlos got here they gave him a welcome party,” Sofia said. “We met a lot of people. They brought us bikes. Everything that we have here – furniture, food, clothes, they have given to us.”
Jensen became a frequent visitor to the apartment the family shares and OASN pays rent on.
“They’ve become good friends and an important part of my life,” Jensen said. “They are good, responsible people. The children are delightful.”
Though Jensen’s since moved outside Nebraska, he still stays in touch. Local sanctuary members make sure the family has what it needs.
“They have helped us a lot,” Sofia said. “We don’t know how to thank them.”
The family’s school-age children are thriving since their father’s return. Staff at Field Club Elementary, Sofia said, are sensitive to their emotional needs.
Through it all, not knowing has been the hardest part for this family that left everything they knew to find safety. The couple’s asylum cases are still pending.
“I have my hearing in July and Carlos has his hearing in April,” she said. “Our attorney (paid for by the network) is working on getting the cases joined. It’s been a journey. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Meanwhile, the network’s close to finally confirming a church to provide a dedicated physical sanctuary space. It’s also working to create an immigration crisis hotline.
What to look for in Part II:
Evolution of the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
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Part II
A caring cohort supports the undocumented through uncertain times 
©by Leo Adam Biga
Editor’s Note:
Welcome to Part II of a two-part story about the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network, which supports undocumented individuals embroiled in the immigration justice system. Part II focuses on how the network has evolved to respond to needs and crises that arise around individuals facing detention, separation, adjudication and deportation.
In 2017, some concerned area citizens formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network (OASN) in response to draconian immigration enforcement raids, detentions and deportations.
The U.S. government’s crackdown on the undocumented affects not only new arrivals but people long living and working in the country. With the specter of arrest and separation a more tangible fear for many, the local network offers refuge and support.
OASN is part of a loosely affiliated nationwide sanctuary movement. Many group members belong to progressive churches.
Sanctuary can mean different things in different situations. Thus far in Nebraska, said OASN president Yvonne Sosa, “it is just being there and bearing witness to what the immigrant is going through,” including  shows of support by attending court hearings and providing financial assistance.
“To me, personally, sanctuary means being part of a community that is safe and accepting of all people, regardless of where they are born, the color of their skin, their religion, sexual orientation, their personal beliefs. Sanctuary is the act of honoring the dignity of others,” said OASN vice-president Jeri Thurber. “Our organization is defining sanctuary as creating a safe community for all people, but we’re specifically focusing on immigration issues right now. In the immigration arena this can mean advocacy or resistance or bearing witness. It is an active way of protecting others from injustice and hate.
“Specifically, we provide accompaniment to hearings and to checkins if requested by people. We’ve had as few as three and as many as 20 members at a hearing.”
The women believe the group’s actions make an impact.
“When judges see that the defendant has community support there, it can lead to lowering or not issuing a high bond,” Thurber said. “The compassion we’re showing the judge in the courtroom is showing that we all see this detainee as a human being.
“I am very vocal about the fact I attend hearings in support of people in our community. I think it’s important  others know these hearings are happening and I think they should be there, too.”
Since early last year, OASNs aided a family that fled gang violence in Acapulco, Mexico and sought asylum in America. The family was detained and separated. The father, Carlos. ended up in a Georgia detention center. The mother, Sofia, and her children were released to join her sister in Omaha. The family was reunited on humanitarian grounds in May after OASN pledged to support Carlos, Sofia and the kids. Network members will be at the couple’s hearings later this year.
Thurber is sure OASN assurances of support convinced officials to release Carlos to rejoin his family. Otherwise, said Yvonne Sosa, Carlos’s confinement “could have been longer.” She added, “I feel like because of the organization’s efforts and commitment to provide housing and financial support we were able to get them reunited. But for those commitments, he may still have been in detention.”
The network found an apartment for the family and pays rent on it. OASN also provides food, clothes, incidentals and pays for the couple’s legal defense.
In the event other undocumented individuals need shelter to avoid deportation, the network wants a church to make a dedicated physical sanctuary space available.
“We have not been successful in that yet, but we’re still working on it.” said Thurber, adding that an area church has recently expressed interest in accommodating the need. “I truly think if someone needed physical sanctuary somebody would provide it. I think for a lot of congregations right now an immediate need would be more attractive than merely a plan.”
Sosa surmises the reason no local church has been willing to put itself on the line yet is due to the politics and threats opponents attach to sanctuary. In such a rancorous climate, she said, “there’s a hesitancy to commit” the resources and to run the risks. “But I want to believe, too, if there were an immediate need there would be sanctuary for that person.”
Network volunteers learn the ins and out of sanctuary in all its various forms through educational forums.
“We have had representatives from the Austin (Texas) Sanctuary Network and Grassroots Leadership flown here to provide training on Sanctuary in the Streets and ways to resist ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that are nonviolent as well as on accompaniment as a formal process,” said Thurber.
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OASN’s local community partners include Latino Center of the Midlands, Immigrant Legal Center, United Women of Nebraska, Omaha Together One Community and several churches. The group holds workshops on sanctuary strategies and on immigrant rights.
Much of the network’s focus is on information and mobilization.
“We send out alerts via email whenever someone requests accompaniment at a court hearing or checkin,” Thurber said. “We have had training about how to be present and resist at raids. However, ICE has gotten more sneaky about how they pick people up or raid businesses and so t is very hard to get notice that these things will happen. For example, instead of going to someone’s home where they can call for assistance,  ICE will follow them and pick them up somewhere else, such as when they’re dropping a child off at school. “
“We feel like the immigration system is making it difficult even for us to advocate in a companioning way,” Sosa said. “On several occasions ICE has sent notices for hearings that ended up moved or changed or false. We’ve sent out requests for people to come and several have shown up only to find out it’s a fake date. There have even been instances where the individual detainee is there for a hearing that was never scheduled.
“They’re trying to discourage us. It’s just unfortunate. We try to verify dates before we send out the request.”
OASN is also working, Thurber said, “to get a hotline up and running where we could take phone calls from members of the community that need support.”
Thurber and Sosa hope to increase awareness of the network and to attract more supporters.
“There’s certainly enough work to go around,” Thurber said.
The surge in immigration rights events, she said, often finds OASN members onsite making the organization’s presence known.
Most of all, OASN wants the undocumented to know they are prepared to render support.
“We want people to know that if they reach out to us for help, we’re here,” Thurber said. “If we cannot provide help, we will do what we can to find somebody who can.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation

June 29, 2017 2 comments

SAFE HARBOR: Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation

©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

 

Undocumented immigrants are among the culture war’s invisible victims. Asylum seekers risk everything to escape dangers in their homeland only to come here and face possible arrest, detainment and deportation. Application of illegal alien policies and laws vary by agents and judges. Defendants are at the mercy of capricious political winds.

Against this uncertain backdrop, some concerned citizens have formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as part of a national safe haven movement. Based on refuge models in places like Austin, Texas, churches here would serve as sanctuary spaces for targets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other perceived injustice threats. Current custom and policy prevent ICE agents from going into “sensitive locations.” When arrest is eminent, the network would enact sanctuary. The affected person or persons would remain in sanctuary until their limbo status is resolved.

Recently, the Omaha group mobilized in response to a potential sanctuary situation, despite not yet having a church prepared to fill that role, said Lawrence Jensen, who helped launch the network. He said members volunteered their own homes before the case turned out to be a false alarm. The scenario proved a dry run for the group’s willingness to take action.

Jensen, a Union Pacific retiree, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, which has hosted network meetings. He attended an earlier event there in which two Guatemalan women who were in Austin sanctuary shared their stories.

“It was really moving to hear the things they had to go through and what was done for them because they were in sanctuary,” Jensen said. “Both of them felt they probably wouldn’t have survived if they went back to Guatemala. They needed a way to stay here.”

He said after the presentation he and others “decided we should try and do something similar,” adding, “It’s a faith issue more than anything to get involved where we see injustices and things that need to be acted on.”

Rev. Cyndi Simpson, a minister at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, said, “This is absolutely a moral issue, a justice issue and a spiritual issue.” She said it’s “great there are other congregations and religious organizations interested in sanctuary because this will work best if we’re all woking together in a coalition.”

Simpson and Jensen know the network treadis on “tenuous” legal ground.

“There is no legal protection for the church,” Jensen said. “It’s just this policy, which so far has been respected. It could change just by an (executive) order.”

Technically, federal immigration law makes it a violation “for any person to conceal, harbor or shield from detection in any place … any alien who is in the United States in violation of law.”

“It’s not definite a church giving sanctuary would fall under that law, but it’s possible,” Jensen said. “It’s indefinite because it’s never been tested in the current climate.”

Though University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin- Alvarado feels sanctuary churches are morally right, he cautions against them.

“The wide latitude granted ICE to ferret out ‘illegals’ would … put churches in the line of fire,” he said. “If schools, courts and government offices have already been deemed fair ground for the apprehension of individuals in violation of deportation orders, churches should take note. It has not happened yet, but if faced with the perception of ‘losing the war’ on immigration … churches may no longer be sacrosanct. An immigration raid on a church would be traumatic and potentially devastating for a church community.”

Simpson’s unswayed, saying, “To me, this is the work we’re called to do. So, let the consequences be what the consequences are. This is civil disobedience and that’s how change happens.”

Sanctuary’s been practiced before in America, Simpson is a veteran of the 1980s movement that took in political refugees fleeing Guatemalan civil war persecution.

“It’s very interesting to be here again,” she said.

Hosting someone in sanctuary means a commitment of resources for perhaps a year or more.

“During that time they’ve got to be fed and clothed, you have to see to their health needs, offer moral support. It may mean finding legal representation and accompanying them to court dates,” Jensen said,

Simpson said the Omaha network’s agreed to support family members when the main breadwinner’s imprisoned, deported or in sanctuary.

No one organization can do it alone.

“You can lessen the impact on the individual church by having lots of people sharing the work,” Jensen said.

The snag, thus far, is finding churches with a dedicated, facilities-ready physical space.

Simpson said the network’s expanded its search to include other kinds of religious organizations.

Network members say they’re also committed to conducting call campaigns and holding demonstrations to prod ICE to give up the chase and grant deferred action or freedom. When tipped off a raid will happen, activists plan doing “sanctuary in the streets” by notifying media and engaging in nonviolent disruption.

“ICE doesn’t like the publicity that comes with taking someone while the cameras are rolling,” Jensen said. “They’re liable to back off.”

Earlier this year, Jensen attended a sanctuary network conference in Denver. “There was a lot of discussion about exactly these kinds of things,” he said.

The network’s seeking what Jensen calls “natural allies” among groups like the Nebraska Democratic Party, Omaha Together One Community and Indivisible groups dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda.

Gauging who might step forward to offer sanctuary is difficult. As for his church, Jensen said, “It’s not at all certain the church as a whole would approve it, which is something that would have to happen. Most are progressive religiously and politically and socially, but there are some who would be concerned with the legality issues – so there would be some opposition. How it would play out, I’m not sure.”

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