Calling all moral witnesses

Putting one’s self on the line at an immigration bust

While tens of thousands of protesters were massing outside and inside the international terminal at San Francisco International Airport last Sunday, several hundred others, at St. Agnes Church in the city’s Haight district, were there to learn about being civilian first responders and “moral witnesses” to immigration raids targeting homes and businesses in the area, which are certain to ramp up in the age of Trump.

“We were hoping to have 30 people here. This is overwhelming,” said Natalie Terry, director of the Ignatian Spiritual Life Center at St. Agnes, looking out at the 365 millennials, baby boomers, seniors — a large number, like me, white-haired — filling the pews in front of her. All with one thing in common: a desire to do something, to go for what is needed, to push back against the gathering darkness.

Guiding us through what being a first responder entails, Lorena Melgarejo, coordinator of parish organizing at the Archdiocese of San Francisco told the audience, “we have a special responsibility to stay awake.” Said co-presenter Luis Angel, an immigrant law attorney, himself a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient: “The Trump threat, it’s emboldened me. The tide is only going to get bigger.” A Chilean woman sitting behind me, a refugee from the Augusto Pinochet’s tyrannical rule in the 1970s, whispered in my ear, “this country may have to learn what it’s like to live under a dictatorship.”

Photo/Dace Hines

So, on to the training: how to be a legal observer and “moral witness.” Basically it’s being present at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid as it’s happening. Your marching orders come via a text,, transmitted by a 24–7 on-call network that learns of raids as they are being launched, and matches up first responders in the same or nearby zip code as the address ICE is targeting. Haul out your smartphone, take video and photos of ICE officers and their vehicles. Request to see IDs (but, with emphasis, “do not engage”). Record, in writing, what’s happening as the bust goes down — “what is being said and the tone.”

For example, the witness team could have come in handy last week in San Francisco’s Mission District, at the scene of a botched ICE raid that mistakenly targeted the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, complete with on-site preschool.

Should the raid have resulted in an arrest, first responders would turn things over to an “accompaniment team” that talks to family members of those taken away, connects them with local attorneys, and provides other support, like transportation to appointments (including court dates), food and other necessities. Right now, the project is a work in progress. The 24–7 hot line to call for households and businesses getting a pre-dawn knock on the door has been set up. The next step, the most critical, is to spread the word, and the hot line number among vulnerable immigrant communities, of which there are suddenly many more.

Lorena Melgarejo: “A special responsibility to stay awake.” Photo/Dace Hines

“This is a new chapter in the sanctuary story. We know we’re walking into uncharted territory,” said Natalie Turner. There’s a learning curve, to be sure, said Lorena Melgarejo, but “in San Francisco, we got this. We’re gonna be ready, and we can use model here to expand to other places.” The Rapid Response project is being led city-wide by the San Francisco Immigrant Legal & Education Network.

The Catholic Church, from local parishes to its upper echelons, has been among the most vocal religion-based opponents of Trump’s anti-immigrant posture. Referring to Trump’s Muslim ban, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, said in a statement Sunday: “This weekend proved to be a dark moment in U.S. History, The executive order to turn away refugees and to close our nation to those, particularly Muslims, fleeing violence, oppression and persecution is contrary to both Catholic and American values.”

There are approximately 450 houses of worship nationwide providing sanctuary or other assistance to threatened immigrants — “more than doubled since the election of Donald J. Trump,” according to the New York Times. Up to now, houses of worship have been regarded as no-go “sensitive locations … unless they have advance approval from a supervisor or face ‘exigent circumstances’ that require immediate action,” an ICE spokeswoman told The Times. However, the possibility that Trump-Bannon administration might greatly expand the definition of “exigent” has not escaped sanctuary providers. “We can’t assume that churches and houses of worship will remain safe locations,” Rev. Alison Harrington, senior pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church, in Tucson, Az., told the paper last month.

Putting one’s self on the line, facing off with armed federal agents despatched by the Trump-Bannon administration is certainly “uncharted,” not to mention risky. Still, 298 citizens signed up to be first responders and/or members of the accompaniment teams.

Plus, “we know the power of prayer, so we will also bring prayer on site at the time of the raid,” a handout accompanying the training reassured us.

Update: Another training session is scheduled for Thursday, February 9th, 6.30–9pm at St. Agnes Church.