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Standing together as witnesses for undocumented immigrants

A handful of times this past summer, Carolyn Peabody traveled into New York City to attend the court appearances for a family friend’s son, who had been detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His family, she said, had been “very good” to Southold Town.

He ended up detained for nearly five months before being released, she said.

“It was a tremendous thing for him and his family that somebody that was a part of the community was willing to step up and be at their side when it appeared to them that the society that they had contributed so much to looked like it was turning on them,” said Ms. Peabody, an Orient resident and member of Southold’s Anti-Bias Task Force.

Ms. Peabody’s role in that case was to serve as a witness; not to provide legal counseling, but to stand beside the undocumented immigrant as voice of support.

Known as accompaniment, it’s a strategy whereby residents provide physical and emotional support to immigrants appearing in court who fear the possibility of deportation. It can involve court appearances at Federal Plaza in New York, but also locally at family court or even traffic court.

A group of North Fork residents eager to take on a similar role gathered Monday night in Greenport to hear a presentation sponsored by Long Island Jobs with Justice and the North Fork Unity Action Committee. Richard Koubek, outreach coordinator for Long Island Jobs with Justice, and Sister Margaret Smyth, who runs the North Fork Spanish Apostolate in Riverhead, led the discussion. The forum served as the official training for people who wish to serve as witnesses. Nearly 40 people attended the forum at St. Agnes R.C. Church Parish Center.

“We found that there is significant evidence that when a citizen is present with an undocumented immigrant … your very presence is enough to change the dynamic,” Mr. Koubek said.

A second workshop on accompaniment training will take place in Riverhead Wednesday, Oct. 11, from 2 to 4 p.m. at St. John’s School.

Mr. Koubek stressed that accompaniment is not about defending the MS-13 gang or people accused of domestic violence, as examples, but is about standing beside law-abiding immigrants. He described how an administrative warrant issued by an ICE agent, as opposed to a judicial warrant issued by a judge, can lead to an undocumented immigrant being detained for possible deportation. For example, he said, someone pulled over for a broken taillight who has had an administrative warrant issued against them can be handed over to ICE. Administrative warrants can be issued for any reason, Mr. Koubek said, unlike a more standard judicial warrant.

In her role as an advocate for local immigrants, Sister Margaret will often travel to New York to serve as a witness at immigration court. The goal is to build a network of people willing to take on a similar role.

Mr. Koubek said the first responsibility of a witness is to reach out to the person who is going to court. He noted that the language barrier can often be challenging. The witness is encouraged to join the person during travel, whether by train or Hampton Jitney if it’s immigration court in New York.

“The fact that you’re there and smiling is important,” Mr. Koubek said.

A witness can help the person navigate the court system and stand in the courtroom when the person is called to testify. The witnesses are given ribbons that identify them as supporters. Witnesses should never become confrontational with court officers or provide any legal advice to the immigrant, Mr. Koubek cautioned.

“Every person who goes before the judge has a different reason why,” Sister Margaret said. “A lot of times, the overall question is asylum — the petitioning because I have been exposed to gangs in my country, it could be domestic violence.”

Mr. Koubek also described plans to form a community-based rapid response network on the North Fork through which volunteers can quickly investigate a reported ICE sighting in their area. A similar network is in the works in the Port Washington area and Westbury, he said, and there’s interest in a network in Huntington Station.

Similar to accompaniment in court, the idea is to observe what’s happening and document through photos, video or writing. The witness can hand out information to the people left behind after a raid. Oftentimes, the people in a home will have no clue what happens next.

“People left behind are now in a state of panic,” Sister Margaret said. “They don’t know if ICE will come back for them, they don’t know what’s happened to the person or why the person has been taken.”

Creating a network would require additional training, which Mr. Koubek said would take four to five hours. If there’s enough interest, that training would be set up at some point likely in early 2018. The training would provide an overview of how to screen to make sure witnesses are helping in cases where it’s warranted. For example, in one case where a man was accused of domestic violence, support was offered to the woman who was a victim.

“I think people are anxious to do something,” Ms. Peabody said in an interview after the forum ended. “They’re anxious to be able to respond.”

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