In the shadow of a threatened ICE crackdown on undocumented immigrants, Berkshire County nonprofits are working to serve rattled residents.
In June, President Donald Trump announced and quickly delayed what he described as nationwide mass deportations of undocumented immigrants by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the two-week interim the president offered national leaders to find a compromise on border security – which theoretically ends July 6th – thousands of undocumented Americans are living in a state of limbo.
“Obviously it’s scary, and I’m sure that it will have an impact on the number of people who are attempting to come into the United States," said Michelle Lopez. She is executive director of the Pittsfield-based Berkshire Immigrant Center.
“It’s also affecting people on a local scale because we do have questions from people who come to see us at our offices about what they can do if they’re undocumented," Lopez continued. "So our wonderful caseworkers go through what their civil rights are. Doesn’t matter if they’re here illegally or if they’re undocumented.”
Lopez and The BIC estimate the county is home to over 10,000 immigrants.
“We’re going to be getting questions about what happens if someone is confronted on the spot while they’re doing their day to day activities and the answer basically is you don’t have to answer them, you don’t have to succumb to their orders," she told WAMC. "You have the right to remain in your house, to remain in your car, to not have someone search you. You have the right to ask for a lawyer.”
The center is also offering undocumented residents broader strategies to avoid undue attention.
“I recently was speaking to a lawyer in the Albany area about this, and he informed my caseworkers and I that if somebody is applying for a job and they use a fake Social Security number, there is no way for the employer to be able to investigate whether that Social Security number is valid or not, because if they were to do that, they could be brought up on charges of discrimination,” said Lopez.
The tightknit nature of the Berkshire nonprofit ecosystem means that the kind of jolt that Trump’s announcement produces is felt on multiple fronts. The Berkshire Immigrant Center works closely with Berkshire Children and Families.
“So what we see are families that are nervous, families that are scared, families who actually have no reason at all to be scared are scared, and they have fears," said Yolanda Palmer.
She is the Family Resource Director at BCF. Also located in Pittsfield, the nonprofit has therapists, clinicians, family support workers, ESL courses, and Spanish language cultural programming for residents.
“We are able to connect them to the appropriate resources for them to stay safe and successful," said Palmer. "If they have specific immigration issues, we will walk them through to the Berkshire Immigrant Center or to legal aid. We don’t just give them phone numbers and a business card, we kind of walk them through the process. We try to help them feel supported and safe and educated during times of distress.”
Wendy Krom says rebuilding trust with the county’s immigrant population is vital. She’s lead organizer for Berkshire Interfaith Organizing, also known as BIO. She highlighted the group’s Accompaniment program.
“We have 70 volunteers – more than 70 volunteers now – trained to accompany undocumented immigrants to their ICE check-ins and immigration court appearances," Krom told WAMC. "We have done about 15 accompaniments so far, accompanying about 10 or so of our immigrant partners.”
The program has a variety of aims.
“One of them is to prevent deportation and keep our diversity here," said Krom. "We also want to shine a light on what’s wrong with our immigration system and try to figure out ways that we can fix it. But the most important goal of that program is really building relationships that are based on trust and equality and integration. Those were the goals that our Accompaniment coordinating team came up with, which is made up of both immigrants and native Berkshire folks.”
Lopez has advice for anyone confused, afraid, or in shock.
“A lot of things that we’ve seen coming from this current administration has been used as a scare tactic," said the BIC executive director. "For example, Trump cracking down on people going to Cuba – it doesn’t mean that you can’t go to Cuba anymore, there are still 11 of the 12 categories in place. So basically, Trump’s making these grand statements and you have to really educate yourself and realize that what is said is not necessarily what is put into practice or what is necessarily true. Just do your homework.”