Congregations Seek Ways To Protect Immigrants


strong desire to do something tangible to help vulnerable immigrants in their community led clergy and members of Woodlands Community Temple, a Reform congregation in White Plains, to launch “Immigrant Friends at Woodlands.”

“We want to know what we could do to push back against the administration, and what role we could play,” said Woodlands Community Temple’s Rabbi Billy Dreskin.

The decision was to focus on immigrants, and become part of a metaphoric sanctuary movement that has nothing to do with sheltering undocumented immigrants in the physical space of the synagogue but rather to be part of a network of supporters.

“This is about different levels of sanctuary, out of the physical space, by accompanying non-citizens in removal proceedings,” said Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New York City-based New Sanctuary Coalition, an interfaith network of individuals, congregations and organizations. “That changes the way the system treats the person.”

During a nearly two-hour training session in late summer, attended by about 60 people from Woodlands Community Temple, as well as other synagogues and churches, Ragbir offered specific techniques and strategies participants needed to learn to be effective advocates, without confrontation, during removal and deportation proceedings in lower Manhattan at Federal Court.

“Your role is to bear witness to what happens and hold the system accountable,” said Ragbir.

“Your role is to bear witness to what happens and hold the system accountable.” – Ragbir

With more than 600,000 immigration cases throughout the country, and only about 300 immigration judges, the idea, said Ragbir, is “to protect the right to the court process.” For example, someone who doesn’t know English is more likely to sign away rights. Simply walking in with the undocumented immigrant conveys a powerful message, he said.  “The larger community makes a difference.”

One woman, who asked that we only use her first name, Kate, said, “I’m one of those people checking in with ICE. It was terrible before accompaniment. When they know you have someone standing up for you, it’s very helpful. You get that feeling of support.”

Working for undocumented immigrants reflects a commitment on the part of Woodlands, and other faith communities in Westchester, to fundamental values.

For Rabbi Mara Young, associate rabbi/educator at Woodlands, “this is a moral issue that the Jewish community should be engaging in. We must care about this and do what we can to help. This is a fear Jews have known in our history. We can’t stand idly by.”

She added, “These are our neighbors and our friends. We’re coming at this from the community standpoint. Their story feels like our story.” She noted that the volunteers are not only adults, but also younger people. “We do a lot of justice work with our young people, who care deeply about these issues,” she said.

Melissa Hinnen, pastor of Asbury Methodist Church in Croton-on-Hudson, said the faith leadership group in her community in Northern Westchester wanted “to see what we could do to protect the residents. It’s so very encouraging that there’s a strong social justice strain through the community. These are our neighbors. We want to do what we can to journey with them and stand up to injustice.”

“You have to answer the call. We have the moral power. We have to use it.” – Jonathan Gordon

It’s an issue that hits close to home for many in the area. In Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino (who was defeated in his re-election bid this month) vetoed a Democrat-sponsored bill, the Immigrant Protection Act. An attempt to override that veto failed on Sept. 25. However, in August, the Westchester District Attorney, Anthony Scarpino, announced the creation of a new bureau that will make it easier for undocumented immigrants to report crimes without having to worry about deportation.

For Roberta Roos, co-chair of Woodlands’ social action committee, these efforts are part of an overarching concern “relating to ‘the stranger.’ It’s about being an ‘upstanding’ community. For Westchester, there’s a significant population [of undocumented immigrants]. These are people we depend upon. We’ve spent time educating a large number of congregants who want to help immigrants.” (Woodlands had been in the process of becoming a host community for a Syrian refugee family, along with others in Westchester, before the current administration’s refugee policies put that on hold.)

To some degree, there’s a sense that this isn’t optional, reflecting a compelling historical moment.

“You have to answer the call,” said Woodlands Cantor Jonathan Gordon. “We have the moral power. We have to use it.”