N.Y.C. Synagogue’s Legal Clinic Offers Migrants Help and a Welcome Dose of 'Rehumanization'

Dozens of shuls like Congregation Beit Simchat Torah are assisting undocumented immigrants at risk of being rounded up for deportation by the Trump administration

Volunteers helping undocumented immigrants at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, July 17, 2019.
Danielle Ziri

NEW YORK — Sitting at a makeshift desk in the basement hall of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in Midtown Manhattan, Noemi Masliah crouched over a printed document, head bent forward in concentration.

“I’m reviewing somebody’s statement that's going to support and explain their case,” she said. “It’s a couple. They’re asking for asylum. They came from Venezuela.”

Masliah has been an immigration attorney for some 40 years now. Every Wednesday evening in recent months she has been volunteering at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, also known as the LGBT synagogue of New York, offering legal advice to asylum seekers.

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The congregation, led by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, launched the weekly initiative in May: a legal clinic on immigration where volunteers help people complete asylum applications and navigate the system. While some of the volunteers, like Masliah, have legal experience, others come to help with translation or simply show support.

“It’s about repairing a broken world,” Masliah told Haaretz, lifting her eyes up from the text in front of her. “We all have to do a part and this is mine.”

Like many Jews in the past few months, Masliah says the current immigration crisis and the Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented people has become “more personal” to her.

“The sounds are very familiar,” she said. “We’ve seen it before. After World War II, everybody said ‘Never Again.’ Well, the never is here.”

As she put it, “How can we turn these people away? We saw what happened, how can we justify doing it again? These folks, they want to live in Guatemala, they want to live in Honduras, they don’t want to live here but they have no choice .... If you have to go through that you have to be doing it for a reason. How can we just say no?”

Masliah, who is the daughter of Holocaust survivors, was born in Havana and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 10, fleeing the Cuban Revolution. Her personal story and the high-profile immigration case of John Lennon in the ‘70s drew her to immigration law.

Signs of support at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, July 17, 2019.
Danielle Ziri

“We’re more than lawyers; I’m a social worker, I’m a psychologist,” she said. “That’s what I love about immigration law, because it’s more than forms, it’s lives and backgrounds, and at the end, everybody just wants a better life.”

Friends in English, Spanish and Russian

This past Wednesday evening at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, around 30 people gathered. They were divided into teams, each sitting at a square table covered with documents and forms, helping an asylum seeker whom they refer to as a “friend.” On the wall, a screen displayed a slideshow of messages welcoming refugees.

At some of the tables, conversations were held in Spanish, at others in Russian. One volunteer, Barbara, fished out an I-589 form, the Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, from a cardboard box.

“Some of these questions really force them to relive their trauma,” she said, flipping through the 10-page form in which asylum seekers are asked to detail the harm, mistreatment and threats they face in their home country.

The congregation’s legal clinic is held in partnership with the New Sanctuary Coalition, a network of houses of worship around the New York area that are offering sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. The coalition, established in 2007, aims to provide person-to-person support to anyone facing detention and deportation.

Reverend Micah Bucey, a minister at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, has been volunteering as an organizer with the coalition. Although the group has been dealing with immigration for over 10 years, it has expanded its network and programs “astronomically” since President Donald Trump was elected, Bucey said.

“The system and this administration are thriving on instilling fear and a sense of danger and alienation,” he said. “We are trying to create community.”

The New Sanctuary Coalition runs three main programs: a large weekly legal clinic, a bond fund to help bail detained immigrants out of jail and an “accompaniment program” where volunteers attend court hearings and check-ins with immigrants at the offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The coalition also operates a telephone hotline, and physical short-term sanctuary is provided, though it’s seen as a last resort.

“[The accompaniment program] is to support the friend, to comfort them, to make them feel like they have a network supporting them,” Bucey said. “It’s also designed to remind ICE and the judges that there is a network of people who are watching what they are doing.”

Buttons with the "S" sanctuary logo at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York, July 17, 2019.
Danielle Ziri

Using the word “friend” to refer to undocumented immigrants is “rehumanizing” in light of the “arbitrary cruelness of the system,” he added. “It’s a term that automatically models the behavior of a neighbor. So you are making a neighbor of somebody who you don’t know.”

S is for sanctuary

Dozens of synagogues like the Congregation Beit Simchat Torah have joined the New Sanctuary Coalition to help undocumented immigrants who are at risk of being rounded up for deportation as ICE begins raids nationwide.

Participating Jewish congregations in New York City include The Village Temple, East End Temple and the Upper West Side’s B’nai Jeshurun. They all display a circled “S” on their front doors or windows as a sign that they’re part of the coalition.

Inside these synagogues, immigrants find volunteers who will provide information on their rights and connect them to the larger coalition as needed. The clinic coordinator at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, Noah Habeeb, says the initiative aims to empower immigrants.

“In immigration court you are not entitled to an attorney,” he said. “So there is a huge gap in access to justice and there is a need for these sorts of models in order to provide the services that folks need.”

Beyond taking some of the workload off the larger legal clinic held by the New Sanctuary Coalition, the clinic at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah uses the synagogue’s history to provide more specialized help for LGBT asylum seekers.

“I think that’s what is important about this model: not just provide much-needed legal services but also community, acceptance, kindness, compassion and all of that,” Habeeb said. “I think and I hope that people leave feeling a little bit hopeful.”

Masliah added that although her job has never been easy, it has gotten a lot more stressful in recent years. She says anti-immigrant sentiment “has trickled down to the adjudicators,” adding that she has noticed significant delays and denials on deserving immigration cases that go beyond asylum seeking.

Masliah says she has been to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, the largest immigrant detention center in the United States, “and many of us are still going and doing the work. It’s really been very tough because once the folks get out of Dilley, the resources are not there to represent them. They come with nothing and these cases are not easy.”

In recent weeks, many U.S. Jews have taken action after seeing pictures of immigrants cramped in ICE detention facilities, sleeping on concrete floors with aluminum blankets. Also, a report by the inspector general’s office at the Department of Homeland Security showed that ICE’s detention conditions are “unsafe and unhealthy,” pushing progressive organizations to get involved.

Jews all over the country have mobilized to protest the treatment of undocumented immigrants and are taking part in the newly formed group Never Again Action, which has been gathering outside ICE centers across the country.

“Across all major faiths of the world, the idea of hospitality, the idea of welcoming the stranger and the idea of treating your neighbor as you would want to be treated in the same situation is an imperative. I don’t know how to be a person of faith unless I’m doing this,” Bucey said.

“If you call yourself a person of faith and you are not responding with compassion and urgency and empathy and trying to harbor those who are most vulnerable to this administration and to this cruel raid threat that’s out there right now, then I don’t know what your faith is in.”

As Masliah put it with a smile, “Birds don’t need visas” – she says the expression has become her professional mantra.

“Borders have a reason, but to keep people out who just want a better life because they’re fleeing horrendous situations; it’s heartless,” she said. “We can accommodate all of them without any problem. There has to be a way.”