“The importance of bearing witness"

Last month, leaders of a growing immigration accompaniment network in Bristol County gathered at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Fairhaven to share stories and discuss ways to further support their immigrant neighbors. Longtime Bristol County organizer Diana Painter shares her reflections. --Carly Margolis, Organizing Fellow, Episcopal City Mission

“The Importance of Bearing Witness”

BY DIANA PAINTER

I read an article about James Reeb this week, and after hearing a sermon on Dorothea Dix, I am thinking about how UUs have history of bearing social witness. Somewhere I read how one of the reasons the Holocaust happened is because it happened far away from people's view so there weren't enough witnesses who felt connected to the people and so they never stopped it.

At the immigration meeting at my church after the service, I thought one of the most interesting parts was hearing people's stories and the profound impact that witnessing the unfairness of the system had on people who had given rides to immigration court or to an ICE check-in.

We briefly talked about how we could get more people to give rides, even as observers, because once people see the chaos that immigrants are forced to live in as they try to become documented, they can more effectively advocate, or at the very least, comfort people who are going through a struggle that has a process that intentionally removes power and keeps people dependent and in fear.

For example, we talked about how Elizabeth had given a ride, and the woman came out with this infant child seat for her 5-year-old. Luckily, Elizabeth had a booster for a 5-year-old, but the family looked like they had already had a long and stern conversation with the child about how they knew how important a carseat was and that obeying every detail of the law was going to be important, and had prepared the child for a car ride in this ill-fitting seat and to do it without complaint. There was already a high level of anxiety, of course, for getting in a car with someone who doesn't speak your language, and who you have never met before to go to a check-in whose purpose is sometimes unclear.

Elizabeth also told us about how the day took 12 hours because the appointment was at 9am. You have to get to Burlington at 9am, but the receptionist can call your number in line at any time, so they waited there for nearly 5 hours before the woman could get in to see the person she had an appointment with. The driver said the room was full of the most well-behaved children she's ever seen, especially for sitting quietly for hours and hours. Food wasn't allowed in the office and people at the appointments couldn't leave the room, or they would lose their place in line. Because Elizabeth was there, she went to the car and got snacks and water for some of the people in the room with children, and also brought in some coloring activities for the children who were getting restless at hour 6 and 7. She also is pretty sure that because she is White, the staff didn't say anything like they might if one of the people with an appointment had brought in food and shared it.

She has several other stories about how the system was set up to be chaotic, and the stress she could see in the people at the office and the anxiety of the people who she had driven.

In the group, we discussed what other things can we offer the families beyond a ride, like comfort at a time of anxiety and even danger. Having a witness to an injustice may not be the kind of comfort people immediately think of, but I know that it helps if I have someone who also sees me being mistreated and can have my back.

Kelly is working on a guide for drivers, and is going to include some common friendly phrases like "What kind of music do you like?" with some options of radio stations or types of music, and some phrases in Spanish (and hopefully in K’iche’) like "Do you need to use the bathroom?", "Are you hungry?", "Would you like a hug?" - for after the meeting when people can be so stressed out they cry. If there are other words that are helpful for comfort and support, we are also trying to include some of those phrases.

We also discussed how people who don't have access to cars or have money to donate for gasoline can contribute (like making call to Rep. Strauss), and we discussed some snack creation or support in creating some quiet busy bags for kids who are spending so much time at these meetings and waiting in offices. The ability to be a witness should be more inclusive.

I expect the next meeting will also be effective because there are stories from people who are experiencing this chaos and who have the language skills to share their stories, and from the witnesses who can support the experience and understand it in detailed ways that get to deeper issues of the United States’ dysfunctional immigration system.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: About one hundred people eat dinner around long banquet tables. Caption: a photo from a recent gathering of drivers and riders from the bristol county transportation network.

IMAGE DESCRIPTION: About one hundred people eat dinner around long banquet tables. Caption: a photo from a recent gathering of drivers and riders from the bristol county transportation network.