By Mike Givens on August 1, 2019
Accompaniment is a process of journeying alongside immigrants in their fight for freedom and dignity. It offers UUs a powerful opportunity to show up for and with asylum-seekers and refugees, as well as our undocumented neighbors who have been here for years.
UUSC’s Activism and Justice Education team is developing tools, partnerships, and networks to support accompaniment in a variety of forms: in local communities around the country, at the U.S.-Mexico border, and in Central America. Aside from their work at UUSC, Angela Kelly of the UU College of Social Justice and Hannah Hafter of UUSC also volunteer with the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network, a group of individuals, activist groups, and interfaith communities working to address the harmful impacts of the United States’ immigration system. This is one of more than 70 accompaniment networks active across the country.
Kelly and Hafter speak about what accompaniment is and the transformative impacts it can have on individuals, our congregations, and our communities.
Based on the work you’ve been involved with so far, what is it about accompaniment in its various forms that seems to you most compelling?
AK: In the context of escalating immigration injustice, clusters of neighbors have organized all across the country to accompany one another to immigration hearings, ICE check-ins, legal and medical appointments, and more. Sometimes accompaniment looks like offering emotional care and comfort in times of stress and fear, sometimes it involves giving a ride or offering translation or advocating before a judge. It can mean meeting someone at a bus station with supplies for their journey, or welcoming someone out of immigration detention to help them navigate their next steps. It is an invitation to witness, to listen, to show up. It is a practice of being human together in the face of extremely dehumanizing systems and circumstances.
We are also learning how to show up in these times from people who have been most targeted. Those who are journeying to freedom are accompanying one another every day; the exodus from Central America, of people traveling together in caravans, is an example of that, people leveraging collective presence to build safety and urge each other onward. Those who are imprisoned by ICE find powerful ways to support and offer solidarity to one another, while they are behind bars and after they get free.
Accompaniment is both a powerful and humbling act of resistance in that it reminds us of our interconnectedness and shows us very clearly that injustice at the border plays out in harmful ways in communities everywhere. It’s a way of watching what’s happening, putting eyes on the system to watch judges, ICE officers, police officers, letting them know that the many abuses in these systems, and the brutality of the systems themselves, are seen and documented by communities organized to take action.
For those of us who are not directly targeted by ICE, it brings us more proximate to the violence of our immigration and criminal punishment systems, creating opportunities to build relationships with members of our community who are most impacted. As a result, many folks who engage in accompaniment become deeply transformed and politicized by the process, moving us to deepen our commitments to collective action to disrupt these harmful systems and to envision and struggle toward a more liberated future for all.
HH: My first experience doing accompaniment was not in the United States with immigrants; it was as a volunteer in Guatemala with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA). In the Guatemalan Accompaniment Program, having a visible U.S. presence in the rural areas of Guatemala where people had survived genocide contributed to safety and political space for them to speak out as witnesses in the genocide trials. It allowed for there to be international accountability if political or business leaders retaliated against people speaking out.
It has been interesting to see the adaptation of accompaniment into a strategy for immigrant justice work. What is compelling about doing accompaniment work here is that it’s an experience of being alongside someone else in their own struggle for justice. If I accompany someone to the ICE office or immigration court, I am there to support the self-determination of someone fighting deportation or seeking asylum. I’m using my privilege as a tool to flank their fight. Accompaniment is one way of building the world we want to be in, a world where we have each others’ backs; we are building community in the midst of the harm this immigration system causes.
Where in the realm of accompaniment have you seen UUs particularly involved?
HH: I’ve seen UUs everywhere that accompaniment is happening. Many UUs have become sponsors, opening their homes to individual asylum seekers and to whole families; some UU congregations are sponsors collectively. I’ve seen UU ministers use the power of their role as clergy to help those who are in immigration court or to speak out in rallies. So many UUs are providing rides, and giving spiritual and emotional support. At the border, there were LGBTQ couples in Mexico who wanted to get married in Tijuana before presenting themselves for asylum and UU ministers Ranwa Hammamy and Leslie Takahashi performed those marriages on the spot so that the couples could have the power and respect behind their relationships to support their asylum claims. It’s really about listening, being asked, and finding a way to do it, to show up.
AK: At the UU College of Social Justice, we hear from many groups of UUs, both youth and adults, who are eager to become more equipped to take action for immigration justice. One of our strongest partnerships is with BorderLinks, which has hosted roughly 40 groups of UUs at the border in the last several years through our Border Witness program. While there, participants learn about the power of expanding sanctuary and solidarity through many forms of organizing and accompaniment. They meet with our partners at No More Deaths, leaving water in the desert for people who are migrating. They witness Operation Streamline, a federal court procedure that criminalizes, imprisons, and deports dozens of people in just a few hours every day. They vigil at the heavily militarized border wall, memorializing lives lost there.
UU groups who travel to BorderLinks conclude their time there thinking about how they will take home what they have experienced, returning to their congregations, communities, schools and families to share their experiences and find ways to translate them into ongoing action. We welcome groups who want to join us in a journey to the border to galvanize or deepen their accompaniment, and we’re working with several partner organizations who have invited UUs to make commitments of time, skills, humility, flexibility and commitment as volunteers at the border and along Central American migration routes, as well. We have also been invited to learn from powerful models of accompaniment demonstrated by our partners in Honduras. In the months ahead, we will be developing further resources to support UUs in their accompaniment and sponsorship efforts and to lift up lessons from those long involved in this work. We are grateful to be in community with so many who lend so much strength and insight to these efforts, journeying, learning, and building power together.
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About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!