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Volunteers Train To Assist Immigrants At Albany County Jail

Lucas Willard
Albany Law School Professor Sarah Rogerson instructs a group of volunteers

As more than 300 immigrants wait inside Albany County Jail, attorneys and interpreters are organizing to gather more information on those being detained. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports dozens turned out Wednesday night to learn how to help.

The volunteer training session at the NYS Forum was standing-room only as lawyers with the Legal Project role-played to give attendees an idea of what to expect when interviewing a detained immigrant.  

“When the first time you entered the U.S.?”

The lawyers say establishing a rapport and building trust with the detainees is vital.

There are currently 320 immigrants arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border being held inside Albany County Correctional Facility. Many are seeking political asylum.

Several were brought to Albany from San Diego as the Trump administration cracks down on immigration.

The effort to triage the detainees and prepare them for what to expect is being led by Sarah Rogerson, Director of the Immigration Law Clinic at Albany Law School. She gave a presentation to volunteer attorneys and interpreters for what’s being called the Albany Jail Detention Outreach Project.

“The information you’re gathering and the timeliness with which you submit it to us is critical,” said Rogerson. “Because within 24 hours, we see an intake and there’s a child that’s been separated and the parent doesn’t know where that child is, we are immediately contacting the national groups to plug them in and find those families.”

Attorneys working in the jail have identified 16 individuals separated from family members. That includes eight who have been separated from their children, with at least two still unaware of where their children are being held. Two were separated from siblings. Others were separated from their spouses or adult relatives. Also being held: a father/son pair and two sisters.

Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple said the assistance from the volunteers over the last two weeks has been “tremendous.”

“The outpouring of support gives you hope that there’s some good left in the world. And I only say that because I’ve got people offering truckloads of avacados. I’m like, ‘I can’t take a truckload of avacados,’” said Apple to laughter. 

The immigrants at Albany County Jail are being housed in an area separate from the general inmate population. Prior to their arrival, the facility was at about half-capacity.

Sheriff Apple said he agreed to more than 300 arrivals because of the support network within the county, Albany Law and the Legal Project.

“When you saw people get off the plane and how dirty they were and how malnourished they were and looking around like ‘Where am I?’ Then you realize you did it for the right reason,” said Apple.

Individuals of all ages and cultural backgrounds wanted to learn how they could help.

Interpreters of all languages are needed. While Albany County knows where the immigrants are originally from, the federal government has not provided information on which languages they speak.

Volunteer Sarah Sanchez said she wanted to become involved after seeing news reports of families being separated at the border.

“Being fortunate to be bilingual in both English and Spanish I thought that it would be best to use my services and help these people really be able to get their point across and get the information across and kind of feel like somebody was on their side,” said Sanchez.

Shanza Masih, who speaks Punjabi and Urdu, has done interpreter work with the Albany County District Attorney’s office. Volunteering to work at Albany County Correctional, she appreciates the efforts by all those involved to assist the detainees.

“It’s a great opportunity and that it’s nice that they’re  reaching out to so many people who are vulnerable and it’s just really great that the community…so many people are coming together to help out,” said Masih.

Attorneys are needed to gather information during the interviews and fill out an Intake Form. That information can be used later, perhaps assisting immigrants when they appear before a judge.

Volunteer attorney Marcia Alazraki believes it is a civic and professional responsibility to help the detainees.

“They’re there through no fault of their own. They came seeking asylum, many of them. And I think the government’s actions are illegal,” said Alazraki. “And, in my view, they deserve and need all the help that they can get.”

Soon, Federal Asylum Officers will arrive at Albany County Correctional to conduct Credible Fear Interviews.  The process of preparing detainees for those interviews has already begun.

New York has two immigration courts, in New York City and Batavia, near Buffalo.

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