“Knock, knock. Let me in the house!” said attorney Ali Saidi, pretending to be an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agent.
“No, I don’t consent to let you into my home!” Saidi answered himself, switching roles and pretending to be an undocumented immigrant.
Saidi works for the Office of the Public Defender of Contra Costa County and that afternoon he was delivering the first “Immigration Legal Observer Training” at the headquarters of the Catholic Charities of the East Bay in Richmond. The training was meant to inform residents about what to do in case they witness—or are the target of—an ICE raid. The goal was also to create a network of volunteers who would become legal observers to document and film ICE raids, in an effort to make sure that the law is being followed.
On February 6, Saidi was staging this dialogue to an attentive audience of 30 people, who were sitting in a U-shape. Ten of them had asked for simultaneous translation in Spanish. Two crucifixes and a child’s drawing were the only ornaments of the white big room at the Catholic Charities’ offices.
Saidi, continued his representation. “Where were you born?” he asked aggressively.
“Get the heck out of here. I don’t have to answer any of your questions. I know my rights!” Saidi then replied as the undocumented worker, now adopting an exaggeratedly agitated attitude.
The room burst into laughter.
“Is this de-escalating tension?” Saudi asked the crowd. They shook their heads no.
So he repeated his roleplay.
“Where were you born?” Saidi asked aggressively again.
“Officer, I don’t want to answer your questions. I would like to speak with an attorney,” he replied, this time in a very calm way.
The training was part of an initiative called Stand Together Contra Costa, which is organized by Catholic Charities of the East Bay, Centro Legal de la Raza, The International institute of the East Bay, Jewish Families Community Services, Oakland Community Organisations, Monument Impact and county officials. The next day, the same training was delivered in Concord and then Pittsburgh. More will come in the following weeks.
“On March 1, we will launch officially a rapid response network for the residents of Contra Costa. It is about time,” said Christopher Martinez, the chief program officer of Catholic Charities. Once the network is launched, if a neighbour sees possible ICE activity, he or she can call a hotline, 24 hours a day, 7 day a week. Then a dispatcher will send legal observers to verify if an ICE raid is actually happening.
“We don’t want fear to spread in the community. All it takes is one person to say, ‘ICE is here,’ and everybody is fearful. So our volunteers will go out and verify,” said Martinez.
People who are being approached by ICE agents can also call the hotline for assistance. “The hotline is also if ICE is at your door. The dispatcher can provide the person with essential information about knowing your rights and staying calm,” said Saidi.
In addition to the “alert system” for possible ICE raids, the network members will provide legal services for those who have been detained and “a service of accompaniment to the families that are left behind to deal with the trauma of the immediate separation,” Martinez said.
During the training in Richmond, Alyssa Simpson, the supervising attorney for Catholic Charities, emphasized that the role of the legal observers is not to stop ICE activity, but to “help lawyers in the court process” by documenting any possibly illegal detentions. “You may deter ICE just by being there, and observing them filming there,” said Simpson.
Legal observers receive specific training on constitutional rights and tension de-escalation techniques, like the ones Saidi was demonstrating. That afternoon, Saidi introduced ways to behave calmly when witnessing a detention. Once he was done, he asked the audience: “What are our rapid responders?”
“Calm!” they all answered at once.
Nancy Burke is a Richmond resident who signed up that afternoon as volunteer. “I am Jewish and this happened to my people in World War II,” she said at the beginning of the session. “I feel very strongly about protecting the migrant communities as much as I can.”
Burke has been involved in the protests against immigrant detention at the West County Detention Center. Joining the rapid response network was for her “the next step, as things are heating up in this country.”
She quoted the famous poem by Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.”
“We have to start with the people that are being attacked right now, and make sure that they are protected and stand up…” she began.
Her partner, Judith, finished her sentence: “And hope that they will stand up for us.”
Burke smiled and explained: “Me being Jewish, us being lesbians—we won’t be too long down the line”.
A Salvadorian man who asked to be identified as J.C. couldn’t sign up to become a legal observer. He said his Temporary Protected Status had been undone by the Trump administration, and now he fears being detained in an ICE raid along with his children. “If we get deported to El Salvador … my children will arrive to a country that they have never been in. They haven’t seen that level of violence,” he said. J.C himself has seen it, since he lived in El Salvador during its 12-year civil war. In 1999, he decided to flee. He said it took him a month to cross the desert to reach the U.S. border.
Today, an ICE raid could undo his decision from 19 years ago. But a volunteer’s call warning of such a raid could prevent it. In any case, after the training, JC said he felt more “strong” and “oriented”—and he might be more prepared if ICE knocks at his door.