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A Momentous Turn of Events

From Heather Nicholson.

In agreeing to attend Carlos’ court case in late May, I had suspected that this would be the first of many opportunities to accompany him and his family members to court. I signed on to attend along with Pastor Amy, Pastor John, and Charlie with the hope that our presence might be a small comfort to Carlos as he faced the intimidating prospect of a court date. Even though nothing monumental was scheduled to happen on this day – a mandatory appointment meant for shuffling papers and checking boxes – it means something to not show up alone. Many who appear in immigration court do not have lawyers to represent them or friendly faces to escort them or informed allies like New Sanctuary Movement staff who can help interpret what is going on. This is why the accompaniment work that NSM facilitates is so powerful; it links communities of faith with individuals who are in immigration proceedings, placing us in the room as witnesses in spaces where we might not normally go, building uncustomary and mutually enriching relationships.

Immigration courts are so backlogged and overburdened on a national scale that it is not uncommon for an asylum seeker to wait five or even ten years before a final decision is reached on their case. This limbo is often excruciating. Despite having legal permission to be present in the United States throughout their proceedings, asylum seekers like Carlos struggle without the necessary tools to build a life here (a work permit, a driver’s license, a social security card, and all of the things that these official documents make possible). This struggle is perpetuated when court dates are routinely postponed and rescheduled for the following calendar year; while there is comfort in the knowledge that you’ve bought another year’s time and safety, there are no guarantees on the eventual outcome, just extended uncertainties.

Carlos appeared friendly but reserved as we greeted him outside of the courthouse. I asked him if he was nervous. “A little,” he said, with a smile. We had only met on one occasion before, at an afternoon get together that we had scheduled back in November. We had had a lovely time playing icebreaker games, eating food, and making introductions at Julia and Colin’s home. As Nicole, our liaison with NSM, encouraged us each to share what we hoped would come out of the accompaniment relationship that we were beginning, I remember each of the three teenagers stating that they hoped that we would come to court with them. I couldn’t help but think that day that the whole arrangement must have seemed odd to Carlos, Elias, and Lizeth. As teenagers recently arrived to the U.S. from Honduras, the idea that a church body of eager mostly white strangers would “accompany” them in their journeys may have seemed a little incomprehensible. I imagined that they were smiling and nodding their ways through the afternoon. However, people to accompany them in court – this was a tangible idea. This could be our offering.

After making our way through security, we settled into the waiting room with Carlos, Nicole, and two other NSM supporters from St. Vincent de Paul Parish. Eventually, Carlos’ lawyer arrived, checked in, and kept us informed of where Carlos was on the docket. Number ten. We made small talk, trying to put Carlos and ourselves at ease, navigating the language barrier with stories that we interpreted from English to Spanish and back again.

Nicole asked Carlos if he would be willing to invite others in the waiting room to pray with us, an invitation which was universally accepted. We stood in a circle, perhaps about fifteen people, praying aloud our petitions for positive outcomes, justice, wisdom, mercy, and safety and protection for all in the room. A very moving moment occurred when a man who had joined our group to pray shared a long and impassioned prayer in Spanish that brought him, and us, to tears. He thanked God for his presence. He stated that he did not believe in coincidences, and that God had led our paths to cross for a reason. He shared how God had brought him out of very dark places in his life, out of drug addiction and prison. His prayer was an outpouring, a deeply felt communion. As we finished up and took our seats, Amy remarked, “Well, I think I’ve had my church for the week!” This time of prayer affirmed, for me, that there were human souls gathered in this room whose lives were to be deeply affected by decisions handed down by the judges. Much was at stake, and they urgently longed for spiritual comfort. The prayer time was a testament to all that is at stake, and all that continues to be at stake, on a daily, routine basis within those walls.

Quickly it seems, we found ourselves in the court room, watching Carlos and his lawyer before the judge. A perfunctory ritual. Suddenly, the script was changed, as the judge, with his head still bent over the papers before him, pronounced in a low voice, “I am going to administratively close this case.” It was said in the same tone as if he might have said, “I am going to order the turkey sandwich.” We all leaned forward. My mind raced to register and remember this term – “Administrative closure” – this was a good thing, right? Not as definitive as one’s asylum claim being accepted, but a viable form of relief nonetheless?

It wasn’t until we exited into the hallway that the enormity of what had just so unceremoniously occurred was explained. Nicole and Carlos’ lawyer were quick to reveal that administrative closure was, in fact, akin to winning his case! A day that was meant to be for filing papers and moving the case along had actually become a momentous day, the day that marked the end of Carlos’ risk for deportation. So long as he does not enter into any criminal trouble, the government will no longer pursue his deportation, and he will receive both a social security number and work permit. While not an official legal status and not a path to citizenship, an administrative closure is as optimal of an outcome as many asylum seekers will see. Carlos is still pursuing his asylum claim, but, thankfully, he does not have to set foot in the immigration court house again. Nicole’s eyes filled with tears as she interpreted this result for him. While as a congregation we have only just begun this accompaniment journey with Carlos and his family, NSM has been accompanying Carlos in fighting his deportation order for the past three years. This was an incredible, hard-won victory.

As we continue to walk with Carlos, Elias, and Lizeth and to deepen our relationship with the New Sanctuary Movement, my hope is that we will continue to turn up for these moments, big and small, whether at court, church potlucks, or rallies, to bear witness, to offer words of support, to pray, and to give thanks. And to affirm that those navigating the uncertainties of court hearings on idle Thursday mornings are not alone.


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