Journey of Accompaniment

Michael and Karen Lauer have officially been sponsoring an asylum-seeker since November 10, 2018. Asylum-seekers cannot be released from detention without U.S. citizen sponsors. Homeland Security has approved Michael and Karen as sponsors.

The Iowa Sanctuary Movement (ISM), of which First Unitarian is a part, is currently helping two families (two mothers and two children) who are in Des Moines seeking asylum. Individual members of the faith communities that make up the Iowa Sanctuary Movement may wish to contribute. Financial donations may be made to a special Iowa Sanctuary Movement account at First Unitarian. Make checks out to First Unitarian and write ISM Asylum Support on the memo line. For additional ways to help, contact Lynn Howard, ISM Family Sponsorship Coordinator, at

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 17
Accompaniment Story: “It took awhile for the relief to sink in.”

by Karen Lauer

Trust. And keep moving in the right direction. It seems to work. All the same…!

You know that feeling at the peak of the roller coaster – just as the car plunges but your body lags behind? Suddenly the ground drops out from under you and you hear a somewhat distant full throttled scream – only to realize moments later that scream is your own?

Now imagine riding that coaster for more than a week straight.
That’s what this past week has been like.

Last week, Danna and Karla reached out to NIJC (National Immigrant Justice Center), an organization in Chicago that Wes Brockway, their lawyer from the Santa Fe Dreamers project thought would take their asylum cases pro bono, but were denied. We frantically tried to reach Wes, but he didn’t return our calls.

Now, I need to make it clear that Wes Brockway works day-in and day-out fighting for the rights of asylum-seekers. His entire career is dedicated to securing the safety of desperate people. In no way through all of this do I want to impugn him, his staff, nor the Santa Fe Dreamers Project.

That said, we were definitely frustrated and desperately worried. Karla has a hearing in immigration court in Omaha February 20 and there was no way we could leave her without an attorney.

We figured that Wes just hadn’t believed us when we told him that pro bono immigration attorneys or organizations are practically non-existent in this part of the country.

We reached out to Des Moines-SURJ and the group agreed to mobilize to raise money to pay attorney fees. I called every possible avenue for pro bono help and encountered, well, nothing.

We had no choice – I started calling immigration attorneys. One firm didn’t have an appointment opening until the end of February. Finally, a firm in Beaverdale could get Danna and Karla in for consultations – $100 each – Friday morning, Feb. 8. The receptionist told us the typical cost for an asylum case is $10,000, but it can be more.

I apologized to Danna and Karla for all the stress and assured them that, no matter what, we would ensure they had representation for their asylum cases. My exact words were, “You deserve safety and freedom. We will fight for you.”

And I knew in my heart I meant it.
No way could we leave these young women to the fates. They have to do nothing, nor be anything, other than fellow human beings to deserve justice.
And I will fight for them.

Fast forward to Friday morning.
I’m putting the lawyer’s contact information and address into my cell phone as I ready to take
Karla and Danna to the consultation when my phone rings.

It’s Michael, calling from work.

Wes had just called and apologized profusely for the confusion. The “usual” person at NIJC was out of the office, and the person Danna and Karla spoke to gave them incorrect information. A different contact at NIJC will review their asylum cases; and if the organization decides not to represent them, Wes vowed, again, to litigate their asylum cases himself.

It took awhile for the relief to sink in.

I can’t help but think of the thousands of desperate people who don’t have these resources.

A friend suggested we form a “plan B” in case pro bono representation ultimately falls through. I still worry about that possibility, but plan B is exactly what we did this past week; calling on the SURJ community to help raise funds to hire an attorney.

But for now, we can take a deep breath and trust in the knowledge that Danna and Karla aren’t in this alone; Michael and I aren’t in this alone; there is a web of good people who care that will step forward when needed.

We may not need you all at this moment, but undoubtedly we’ll be calling for help in the future.

Tuesday morning update: NIJC told Karla she would have to request a continuance on the 20th based on the need to find legal representation. Michael has been texting with Wes all morning; he tells us he is trying to arrange to represent Karla via telephone for her scheduled hearing in immigration court next week.

Wednesday, late afternoon update: Wes has arranged to represent Karla via telephone next week. Please keep us all in your hearts.


Journey of Accompaniment: Part 16
Accompaniment Story: Trust

by Karen Lauer

As we move further into the sponsorship relationship, I find myself having to trust others in a way I never have before. We are always living into the edge – certainty seems so very long ago.

It’s difficult to figure out just what we can trust right now; certainly not the government, nor the immigration system; not the immigration courts nor ICE. It’s hard to even find a “process” to trust in right now.

So where does that leave us?

Our First Unitarian community – and the wider Iowa Sanctuary Movement Community – have already helped in myriad ways. Donations of kitchen supplies, artwork, clothing, gift cards to grocery stores and pharmacies. It’s been amazing.

But the unknowns are always right around the corner.

From the time Danna and Karla were released from detention, their lawyer Wes Brockway, who works for the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, has assured us – and them – that they would have pro bono legal support.

Michael handles the “legal stuff” – filling out forms and filing paperwork, and communication with Wes. As December turned into January we pressed – and pressed – Wes for information. At one point, toward the end of January, he flat-out told us, “Look, don’t worry. I have this covered.”

Deep breath.

But January turned into February, and with Karla scheduled to appear in Immigration Court on February 20, we needed clarity – she deserved clarity – on what to expect. Finally, Wes send an email with instructions for Danna and Karla to contact the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) in Chicago to see if the organization would represent them or prepare them to represent themselves (pro se).

Represent themselves?
In immigration court?
That can’t happen.

We quickly checked with Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON) – if needed, would they review Danna and Karla’s cases?


We’re not sure why, though JFON is overwhelmed right now.

No choice but to wait.

Danna and Karla were given separate phone appointments to discuss their cases. Danna let us know yesterday that NIJC refused to take her case. Apparently they are only accepting cases of people in detention or living in the Chicago area. Karla presumed she would also be denied.

Yesterday Wes sent Danna a list of other organizations to contact for pro bono legal representation. We haven’t seen the list yet. We have calls in to both Wes and his assistant.

Where to put our trust now?

We have applied to the Iowa Sanctuary Movement asylum support fund for assistance with medical bills, utilities, bus passes, and groceries for Danna and Karla. But the fund isn’t just to help us with Danna and Karla and already has commitments to other asylum-seekers in Des Moines.

What to do?

We don’t know whether pro bono legal support will be forthcoming after all. It’s possible Wes will represent Karla at her February court date, but what then? It’s possible to request a continuance – basically, postponing the court date for a period of time while Karla searches for legal representation; but that would stop action on her work permit.

I’m extremely worried.

No one stands a chance in immigration court without a lawyer – it’s just the way it is. We cannot leave these two young women without legal representation and Michael and I cannot afford it ourselves. Danna and Karla have been through unspeakable violence and trauma in their home countries solely because of their identities – and to risk them being denied asylum without a fighting chance makes me ill.

It’s possible this will all work out.
Maybe a different organization will take their cases.


I’ve reached out to the Des Moines chapter of SURJ to ask them to consider fundraising for legal fees. Some sponsors have GoFundMe accounts and SURJ-Memphis regularly holds fundraisers in local businesses. I’m waiting until Friday to call local immigration attorneys.

Are they accepting new clients?
How much is a retainer?
How much will it cost to handle their entire asylum cases?
We’ve seen numbers that are truly frightening in other situations; $3500 retainer; $12,000 to see the case through.


We may be facing a lesson in trust unlike any other.



Journey of Accompaniment: Part 15
Accompaniment Story: Things I know and things I wonder about

by Michael Lauer

“Karla and Donna possess the same inherent worth and dignity that I believe I deserve. Four months ago, three months ago, two months ago; I would have said this exact same thing. But now I feel it in my heart, in my bones.”

Johely, the transgender woman who we were supposed to sponsor for asylum, had an immigration hearing scheduled for January 11. Johely was denied bond and remains incarcerated in Cibola County Correctional Facility in New Mexico.

We were afraid she would be deported after this hearing, but we hadn’t heard from her or her lawyer, Wes. I texted her lawyer asking for the outcome of the hearing. We’ve stayed in contact with Johely through the mail and deposit money in her commissary account to give her access to items that are not standard issue when in ICE detention. We also didn’t know what happens to funds remaining in a detained person’s commissary account when they leave detention; whether released, deported, or transferred to another facility.

We wanted to make sure she had some money in her pocket if she were deported. How awful it would be to be dropped off across the border with no money at all. And how dangerous to be dropped off at the border with too little or too much money. We can imagine, but we can’t know.

Her lawyer, Wes, got back to us quickly. Johely’s hearing had been postponed to later this month. He didn’t say why. Is it because of the government shut-down I wondered? Is it because someone or the system was overbooked? Is it an arbitrary way to mess with a detainee’s mind? Is it an intentional effort to keep detainees, lawyers, and advocates off-balance? Wes didn’t seem disturbed by the postponement, but then, he knows the way the system works. He did share a glimmer of hope: the residual commissary funds are distributed to the detained person when she is released. How cynical of me to suspect that CoreCivic, the corporate entity that manages the largest share of detained immigrants in the country and that profits hugely under the current administration’s immigration policies, would simply pocket the money, or charge a large ‘maintenance fee’ for managing a detained person’s commissary account.

I was fortunate that Wes actually called so I could talk to him. I asked him about Johely’s prospects. He was more optimistic than I expected, indicating that there may be a couple of options for her if the decision at the hearing went against her. He didn’t elaborate on what the options might be, but it gave me a little hope. Is that hope groundless? A good attorney will exhaust every option for his client to be able to plead her case fully before the court. Maybe the judge will look favorably on her in this stage of proceedings, or maybe in the next stage… I can’t help worrying about what might happen to her.

Since I had him on the phone, I asked how the government shutdown was affecting current cases and the scheduling of pending cases. He said that hearings that are currently on the docket may well proceed. This tells me that Karla’s February hearing in Omaha may occur as scheduled. We need to make sure we have Karla at her appointment unless we have a written notice of delay/reschedule from the immigration court. And I wonder whether they have her current address; we sent the change of address form but of course, never received confirmation of receipt. Maybe we should have paid extra for USPS letter tracking? Regardless, unless we get written notice of a change, we will have her at her hearing.

And Danna has no court date. What about her hearing? Under the shutdown there will be no hearings scheduled. There are currently nearly 800,000 pending immigration cases in the US. We are in the Omaha jurisdiction where there are 10,650 pending cases with an average wait time of 866 days. What does this mean? A person in the asylum process without a court date might have to wait more than 2 years and 3 months for a hearing? What happens to the immigration court backlog when the government is shuttered? A person could be in limbo for years. The uncertainty is exhausting. And I have only begun this journey. And I am in accompaniment, not subject to the system. My future, my safety, my life are not in jeopardy.

I was also able to inquire about the status of Karla and Danna’s work permits. It turns out they have not yet been submitted. If an asylum seeker is granted asylum, she can apply immediately for a work permit. But this does not happen quickly or often and has not happened for them. If not immediately granted asylum she must wait 150 days with ‘no decision’ from the court before she can apply.

In 2018, US Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) began scheduling recent asylum cases before earlier ones. This prevents the 150-day clock from starting and can delay and discourage individuals seeking asylum. The system is complicated, and the approach introduced by USCIS in 2018 makes it more so. Here is what I found on the website:

“Your wait to apply could be even longer than 150 days. Various things can occur to “stop the clock” (stop the counting up of the 150 days). For example, if you request more time or fail to show up for a fingerprinting appointment, the government will stop the clock during this time. If USCIS requests more evidence from you in order to be able to make its decision, the clock will stop until it receives your response. If you’re in removal proceedings, the clock will stop if you ask for your case to be postponed so you can get an attorney; if you ask for more time to prepare your case; if you say no when the judge asks you if you want your asylum claim to be heard sooner than normal; or if you file a motion that delays your case.”

We should receive Danna and Karla’s applications for work permits from Wes’s assistant in New Mexico soon. Then Karla and Danna need to provide two passport style photos, sign the form and return it. It is unclear to me that this assures that the ‘clock’ will start. The assistant will try to get the $495 application fee for the permits waived or reduced.

We will need to stay vigilant to get the ‘clock’ started and that we keep it running. We will need to learn everything we can to ensure we follow every arcane procedure that affects the process. I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never done it before. It is confusing. It is frustrating. But then, what would it be like to try to navigate the process if English was not your mother tongue? How terrifying would it be to navigate the process if your life was on the line? What if you made a mistake then? And if I make a mistake, lives are on the line.

I entered into sponsorship aware, in the abstract, of possibilities for personal growth that might come of this. I was aware that providing assistance in partnership with asylum seekers might have benefits for me. As I enter into relationship with Karla and Danna I learn about myself. I explore my fear of failure. I grapple with mistakes, and now I can’t turn away when mistakes make me uncomfortable. I tend to ‘group’ individuals, to generalize and categorize, to name and in so doing somewhat negate individual value. But Karla and Danna don’t belong in a group. They are individuals and deserve to be seen as such. They possess the same inherent worth and dignity that I believe I deserve. Four months ago, three months ago, two months ago; I would have said this exact same thing. But now I feel it in my heart, in my bones. They are giving me a great gift. They are accompanying me without knowing it, as my welfare becomes more entwined with theirs. They are leading me to an unaccustomed space. I am becoming vulnerable in this journey. I am becoming more human. It is a little thrilling. It is more than a little scary.


Journey of Accompaniment: Part 14
Accompaniment Story: “simple gestures of human kindness”

by Karen Lauer

Right before we left on vacation in November, Michael sent a note to Johely in Cibola County Correctional Facility in New Mexico. Johely is a transgender woman seeking asylum who we were originally assigned to sponsor; but she was deneid bond and will have to stay in detention while her asylum case proceeds. We continue to support her through small deposits in her commissary account – she has told us it is difficult to manage her diabetes with the meals the inmates are served there. With money in her account she can purchase supplementary foods and personal care items.

We came home to find our note returned as undeliverable. I feared that Johely had been deported, but a text to her lawyer assured us she is still in Cibola.

Puzzled, I pulled up the sponsorship document we received and found the page on how to send mail to inmates. Michael had addressed the letter to Johely by copying the return address on the letter she sent to us which had her name and A#, followed by the facility name and address; but in order for mail to reach her, the envelope must first list the name of the facility, followed by the inmate’s name and number, then the address.

I quickly sent her a letter and explained why she hadn’t heard from us. That very day we received a letter from Johely. I waited a couple of days to open it, fearful that she had felt abandoned. Instead, the letter was filled with her gratefulness to us; offering us blessings and asking god to do the same.

I’ve been struggling with our relationship with Johely. Not the support itself; sending letters and a little money to her commissary account is easy. It’s the gratitude that is hard to accept – her reaction almost makes me ill at times. To her our relationship means she has not been forgotten, that somewhere, far from her prison, there are people who care that she exists. To me, it is a constant reminder of the horrors our government is inflicting on innocent, desperate people.

What does it say about us – as a people, a society, a country – that such simple gestures of human kindness are so unexpected, so rare?

What must it be like to leave everything you’ve ever known, not because you want to, but because it is unsafe to simply be who you are; to seek safety in a country that is your only hope, yet be thrown into prison, held captive when you have committed no crime. How does one hold onto hope? Is it even possible to keep from sinking into despair?

It always takes me a couple of days to work up to opening a letter from Johely. I set the letter aside, relieved to hear from her but hesitant to expose myself again to her reality. I can’t find the words to explain how desperate I feel about her suffering, the worry I hold for this person I have never met, but whose life is now tied to my own.

I haven’t figured out yet what to do with my own feelings – a mixture of despair, anger, and helplessness. How do I encourage others to become aware? Take action? How do I react appropriately when family members continue to say to me, “But we can’t just take all those people into our country…”

How do I begin to accept the undeserved gratefulness?

Johely’s court date is January 11.

We have asked her lawyer to let us know the outcome.

He already has told us he doubts her asyum case will move forward.

I hope to find out this week if she will be given money left in her commissary account when she is deported.

I’d like her to have a little money in her pocket when she’s dropped off – migrants from Mexico are usually flown to U.S. border cities and either walk or are bused across the border.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 13
Accompaniment Story: “Out of the mouths of babes.”

by Karen Lauer

Last week the children in our Soul Matters for Kids class created holiday cards to send to shelters in the southwest that are helping asylum-seekers as they are released from detention. The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is collecting the cards to send messages of welcome and support to asylum-seekers to help counteract the hateful rhetoric so prevalent throughout the U.S. today.

In preparation for card-making, we shared some of what UUSC staff member Hannah Haftner witnessed in a trip to the border last month.

I had the uncomfortable task of explaining to this group of 4th-6th graders that our government is holding more than 2000 kids just a few years older than they are in tents in the desert , behind barbed wire and under guard. One child reflected, “That’s like what happened to Japanese-Americans during WWII.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

The compas are doing well and are so thankful for the help they have received from First Unitarian – they also had a great time at the holiday party! They both were delighted with the Christmas tree – it certainly makes their place more festive. We can’t thank this wonderful community enough for the support we’ve received. Thank you doesn’t seem adequate.

Karla and Danna took English placement tests and will start ESL classes through DMACC at First Christian Church in January. I was delighted to find out the classes – which run M-Th mornings – are free! They continue to be involved in the many activities at Trinity Las Americas Methodist church as well. Karla has a court date in Omaha in February, but we haven’t received word of Danna’s court date yet.

I continue to struggle with trying to speak Spanish – and hope I don’t sound as goofy as I feel. Google translate is my constant companion, though I often forget – and confuse the poor program – by speaking very broken Spanish into the microphone when I’m supposed to speak English.

My youngest daughter and I took the compas to their second ICE check-in this week. All went smoothly for them, but it’s hard to explain the almost tangible feeling of despair; every smile shared masks the fear that lies just below the surface. While we waited for Danna and Karla’s turn, we saw people unsure of where to go or what to do as there are no signs and no directions once you figure out you’re in the correct room. One must fill out check-in forms, written in English, though there is a form taped to the wall indicating in Spanish – but no other languages – what information is needed.

The small room was full of people, all of us crammed into three rows of chairs; many clutching manila envelopes full of official documents. Taped to one woman’s envelope was a large sign, “I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH. WHICH BUS DO I TAKE?”

Two ICE officers sit in vestibules in front of computer screens; everyone tries to remember who came in first, as there is no system for deciding who is interviewed next. A woman stands in the doorway with two teenagers, a boy and a girl; she speaks English and says she is the children’s neighbor. The ICE officer tells her the children are in official deportation proceedings; apparently they missed their court date in Omaha. She doesn’t seem to know anything about this; the officer tells her he won’t take them into custody, though he could. They have one month to either show proof of plane tickets back to Guatemala or evidence that they are fighting the deportation order.

My daughter asks if I can give them information; next time I’m there I will carry cards with AFSC-Iowa’s phone number. But there is little anyone can do to help; without legal assistance the teens have no hope of asylum, and there are few pro bono or low cost immigration legal resources in the Des Moines area.

My daughter also notices that the young mothers have ankle monitors. Why them and not others? I wonder the same. I doubt there is any official policy determining who must live under “house arrest” with monitors and who has more freedom of movement.

While we wait, a 30-something man is interviewed. Were you here with a child? I can’t hear his answer, but there is no child with him today. The ICE officer escorts him through a door that leads deeper into the building. He is to be deported.

Danna and Karla’s next ICE check-in is March 12.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 12
Accompaniment Story: A Letter From Johely.

by Karen Lauer

A couple of weeks ago, I sent a letter along with the cards of our Soul Matters for Kids class, to Johely, the compa who was denied bond. She remains incarcerated at the Cibola County Detention Facilty in New Mexico, the same facility where Karla and Dana were held, while her asylum case moves through immigration court.

Just a few days later, faster than I imagined a large manila envelope could navigate the U.S. post and the prison system, I received a letter from Johely! Written in Spanish, I could get the gist of what she wrote, but I needed to understand her correspondence more fully.

Michael works with a man from Costa Rica; he took the letter to work to ask if Federico would translate it for us. Later that day, I arrived early for an appointment. I opened my email in the car to find a voice recording of Fed translating Johely’s letter.

The “blessings” she speaks of are the cards and letters the children sent; when she speaks of food being expensive, she’s referring to foods separate from the standard cafeteria meals. We were dismayed to hear she had not yet received the $50 we had sent to her commissary account.

Here is her letter:

It took me a minute to catch my breath from this brutally heartbreaking expression of thankfulness. Actually, I’m still trying to recuperate from the raw emotion, the desperate need, the unnecessary inhumanity our politics is inflicting on thousands of people.

On second thought, I don’t want to ever recover.

We quickly added an additional $50; there is no way to verify that a deposit actually makes it into the desired prisoner’s account; we had a “receipt,” but no way to double check. All we could do was wait to hear from Johely.

Thankfully, just last week we received another letter from Johely; she finally could access the funds in her account. We plan to deposit $50 in her account monthly and to stay in touch via mail. While we have the contact information for her lawyer (the same lawyer helping the compas we are sponsoring), he doesn’t have the time to keep us
informed about her case. I can only imagine the hours he dedicates to helping asylum seekers on both sides of the border.

I encourage everyone to consider sponsoring an asylum-seeker; there are many different levels of support available, from writing letters to migrants living in detention, to providing them financial support, to housing a compa. Follow this link for more information:


Journey of Accompaniment: Part 11
Accompaniment Story: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 8:15 a.m.

by Karen Lauer

We assemble the same cast of characters from last week (Michael and myself, Dana and Karla, and a friend fluent in Spanish). Through security, elevator to first floor; the light in the hallway is on this time! We enter the small waiting room. I grab two check-in forms. Karla and Dana fill them out with our friend’s help. There are two small offices right off the waiting room; a ICE officer in each. There aren’t any instructions, but there are several families and individuals in the room, and we watch what they do. We make sure not to choose the officer we encountered last week. This officer searches through Karla’s and Dana’s papers, instructs them on how to mail in change of address forms, and gives them their next check-in date: December 18, Tuesday, 8-12. The compas’ lawyer told us to submit written notice that we will be out of the country for two weeks, including the name and contact information of a “temporary sponsor” for while we’re gone. Michael explains to the ICE officer, but he doesn’t want the paper and makes no notation of the information. “We don’t keep any paper files here.”

And that’s that for this check-in.
Karla and Dana are ebullient – no confusion, no belligerent officer, and no ankle monitors.

We have arranged for a two-bedroom house for Dana and Karla to live in for 6 months; once they get work permits, they can choose to stay and pay (some) rent or move to their own apartments. It’s a lovely house near the North Side library, a grocery store, and CVS/Walgreens. It’s also on a DART bus line. There are so many things they will need to learn how to navigate, but most will have to wait until we get back.

Today my oldest son (home for Thanksgiving) figured out how to add international minutes to the compas Tracphones; after a fruitless trip to a local Walmart (the phones were purchased at a Walmart in New Mexico shortly after their release from detention), he was able to find the information online; and after 2 months for Karla and 3 for Dana, they were finally able to speak with their families in Mexico and El Salvador. Such a simple thing, making a phone call to your mama or abuelita; as a mom, I can’t imagine the worry and fear I would experience if my child made the perilous journey these young women have, not knowing where they are or whether they are safe. Making the calls, Karla and Dana’s excitement was contagious.

We have a crew of friends from First Unitarian, Trinity Las Americas, and from the ELL program at Las Americas, who will assist Karla and Dana while we are out of the country the next two weeks. It’s hard to leave the compas barely two weeks after their arrival, but I trust in their ability to persevere and in the dedication and caring of those who are ready to help while we are gone. The two organizations that coordinate compa sponsorships emphasized the importance of developing a community of caring to assist us in this endeavor. I am proud to know that we are part of such a community.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 10
Accompaniment Story: Welcome to insanity

by Karen Lauer

We just had the most bizarre experience today at the Des Moines ICE office. I’m not sure I can accurately describe how stressful and surreal the encounter was.

Karla and Dana have official paperwork – U.S. government/Homeland Security paperwork – that required them to go to the ICE office in Des Moines for check-ins Thursday, Nov. 15, at 9 and 9:15. Fortunately, a friend who is fluent in Spanish (and who graciously hosted us in her home for brunch the other day) came along – I don’t think google translate could possibly have explained what transpired.

I had heard through the grapevine that the Des Moines ICE office reduced its hours for check-ins (and any other in-office services) to Tuesdays, so we were able to warn the compas that the office might be closed. So the compas, our Spanish translator, Michael and I, all piled into our van and headed downtown.

We went through security, which directed us to the ICE office on the first floor. The hallway was dark, the door was locked, and there a sign, “Closed. Return next Tuesday between 8 and 12” posted in English and Spanish. Earlier in the week we spoke to a New York imigration attorney during a conference call for sponsors and told him that the Des Moines ICE office had restricted its hours; he was flabbergaste. He warned us to carefully document that Karla and Dana had indeed come at the appointed date and time for their check-ins.

Michael had his phone out to record and I took a picture of the sign on the door; then I noticed an intercom.

So I pushed the button, and pushed the button, and finally, a disembodied voice a la wizard of Oz, said, “We’re closed. Come back Tuesday.”

The voice demanded that Michael put his phone away, “It’s illegal to video in the Federal Building.” So the phone now in his pocket, Michael asked the voice if there was a way for us to prove the compas had arrived for their scheduled appointment times.and After repeated explanations and multiple requests, the voice finally consented to write down (as far as we knew) Karla and Dana’s “A numbers” – immigration identification numbers.

He didn’t ask for their names.

We left the building, but in the skywalk our translator suggested we go to the senators ‘offices to let them know that people are being given appointments only to show up to a closed office and the demand to come back on Tuesday. We trooped back in through security; when the guard said he didn’t need to see our ids this time, I quietly joked about Trump’s assertion that people could leave, put on a disguise, and vote a second time. I gently pushed back when he asserted, “We wouldn’t have a problem if everyone had to show an id to vote.”

I pushed back ever so gently.
This visit isn’t about me.

So up we trooped to Senator Ernst’s office, where a nice young woman was obviously surprised at our story. We filled out forms allowing her to copy Karla and Dana’s paperwork (as further proof that they had indeed come for their scheduled appointments). While photocopying their papers, she noticed that the room they were to report to was actually on the 5th floor, not the 1st, where we had gone. Whew. I was relieved – and we still weren’t late!

She came with us to the fifth floor only to find another sign, directing us back to the ICE office on the second floor, not the first floor where we spoke to the voice. Back into the elevator we travelled to the second floor, to find a sign directing us back to the first floor where appointments were only from 8-12 on Tuesdays. We pushed this intercom button and this time the wizard actually came out from behind the curtain.

“You were just here. Are you a lawyer? I explained to you. Why is she here? Why are you trying to get me in trouble?” For the next 15 minutes or more, we tried to explain that we weren’t trying to get him in trouble; that yes, he did tell us to come back on Tuesday, but we had no proof that Karla and Dana had appeared when and where they were supposed to according to Homeland Security; that we didn’t want to harm their cases by doing something wrong; that we went to the senator’s office so we had proof and to let the senator know that people are being given appointments for ICE check-ins in Des Moines when the office was actually closed; something that ought to be fixable.

Meanwhile, he was joined by another ICE officer (who was much calmer). I couldn’t help but wonder that there was time to argue with us in the hallway (under constant watch of security) but not time to note that Karla and Dana had checked in.

We did our best to try to smooth his feathers, to try to make him understand that lawyers told us to document our visit, that we are official sponsors (he actually argued for several minutes that there was no such thing, until he stopped blustering long enough to actually listen to us). I used my calmest voice, the tone I would use to coax a frightened cat out from behind the couch, when what I really wanted to do was tell him what a jerk he was being. Doesn’t he realize he’s messing with people’s lives?

But again, this isn’t about me. Right now, it’s about Karla and Dana, and making sure nothing interferes with their asylum cases. I think we might finally have calmed him down, though I don’t think he could see past his persecution complex, and we left the building.

All of us are rattled, anxiety riding high. Michael headed to work, Karla and Dana headed upstairs, I’m sure to decompress from the experience, and I made myself a giant mug of coffee and a Pop Tart.

Welcome to insanity.
Thank goodnes we had a translator with us. I can’t imagine how stressful it was for Karla and Dana.
Next check-in, Tuesday, 8-12.


Journey of Accompaniment: Part 9
Accompaniment Story: “Karla and Dana were granted parole”

by Karen Lauer

I got home late Tuesday afternoon and opened my email to find a simple note: “Karla and Dana were granted parole and will be released tomorrow. Have you heard from ICE?”

Um, no.

And ICE still hasn’t contacted us.

We don’t know why, but the women were released without bond (yay!) – there’s a team in New Mexico who picked them up from detention and gave them a few days to decompress before sending them on to Des Moines. Thankfully, they were able to fly here on Saturday, with us only contributing to the cost of the tickets.

Many of you know that I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder; my anxiety generally has been manageable these last couple of years, but the past few days have been difficult. Thankfully Michael is steadfast and has kept me relatively sane. Poor guy; apparently I can be mean when I’m anxious. Ahem.

We have a large, finished attic, that we fixed up as a bedroom/hangout space; Friday I bought an inexpensive internet-ready television at Walmart; Michael set it up so that the instructions are in Spanish, so Karla and Dana can stream Spanish-language movies, shows, and music.

Thank goodness for Google translate, a free app for phone and computer! My limited Spanish is getting a workout and even Michael can communicate the basics; Karla and Dana can use the app to translate into English.

Saturday night our son Zachary came over for pizza; his Spanish minor is only about 6 years old (while mine is 30+); and our daughter Sarah came over Sunday afternoon. Michael asked them what items they needed to “feel human again;” turns out a trip to Walgreens to buy makeup did the trick.

We haven’t asked any questions about what they’ve been through, though bits and pieces of their experiences have come out. We don’t have a right to their stories and are honored just to be in a position to facilitate their journeys. We will not be sharing any details of their stories here or elsewhere, except to say that Karla was in detention for 2 months and Dana for 3 months; they have shared that the experience was frightening and horrific.

They both have appointments with ICE Thursday morning. I spoke with one of the coordinators working with SURJ and UUSC yesterday. She wants to speak with the women to prepare them for these appointments. She said it is imperative that they understand that ICE officers are not their friends. She has witnessed situations in which a Spanish-speaking Latino officer tries to entrap an asylum-seeker into inconsistencies and/or confuse them about whether/when they can work. ICE officers in Des Moines do not allow anyone to accompany the asylum-seeker into appointments, while other ICE offices do. She also wants to prepare the compas for the possibility that they will be given ankle monitors; again, there is no rhyme or reason, no consistent policy across jurisdictions about who gets the monitors or why. If they do, they will face additional restrictions. We have asked a friend who speaks Spanish to come with us to help ensure they understand the proceedings.

Sunday we took Karla to church at Trinity Las Americas where services are conducted in both English and Spanish. We were warmly welcomed and saw many familiar faces from the Iowa Sanctuary Movement. The compas will meet with Rev. Alejandro on Tuesday and we will offer to take them to ELL classes at Las Americas Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Wednesday evening there is a Spanish-language Bible study there as well. We will offer, but it might be too early for them to jump into activities, though we’ve also been counseled that it’s important for them to “keep moving” so they don’t get depressed.

Please keep them – and Michael and me – in your thoughts this week as we stumble along.


Journey of Accompaniment: Part 8
Accompaniment Story: “The right path became clear.”

by Karen Lauer

This past week has been so full – of life and the transformative power of living our faith that I’m not sure where to start!

A couple weeks ago Michael and I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon with two women from El Salvador who are in Des Moines seeking asylum. They speak no English and my Spanish had to be dredged up from 30-plus years ago. As the afternoon wore on, and with ample help from Google translate, I could understand more and more and make myself understood much better. But conversational Spanish it was not.

As I thought about this experience, and added taking Spanish classes to my to-do list, I had a thought. My “having a thought” usually means Michael needs to brace himself, and this was no different. What if we sponsor two transgender women instead of one? Two women who know each other from detention and can help each other with the transition to living first with us, then on their own here in the U.S.? At the very least, they would have the comfort of having someone to talk with!

To his credit, Michael readily agreed and we contacted their lawyer, Wes, with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project. who is working pro bono with the women in detention at Cibola County Detention Center where many of the compas from this spring’s migrant caravan are interred. There are many women there in need of sponsors, so Wes was happy to pair us with our new compas – Karla, from Mexico, and Dana, from El Salvador.

We still don’t know when their bond will be set, whether we will be able to pay the bond ourselves or if we will need to reach out to the community for help; we don’t have any idea when they will arrive.

In our 33 years of marriage, Michael and I have never taken a vacation that didn’t include children or wasn’t attached to another event (such as General Assembly) – we never even had a honeymoon. In August we took the plunge and planned our vacation – a trip to Morocco through Smithsonian Journeys. When we decided to sponsor an asylum-seeker, we were sure he/she/they would have been with us for a month or two at least by then. But as time keeps ticking away and situations have changed (our first match found family to sponsor him; our second was denied bond), we began to worry about whether the compa would arrive before our trip. My anxiety began to grow, as it is wont to do, and in a tearful discussion we decided to tell the lawyer that the compa couldn’t arrive until after our return in early December.

The selfishness of this decision – to possibly force two trans women to remain in prison because of a vacation – underscored our privilege, again. Then my phone rang. It was Karla and Dana, and through a friend in Cibola who is fluent in both Spanish and English, they told us how grateful they are to us. They couldn’t believe there were people they didn’t even know who care for them. They called upon god to bless us for our kindness.

And just like that, the right path became clear.
It really was clear all along.
We aren’t worthy of their blessings or admiration; we are simply facilitators on their road to freedom and safety.
And I have yet another chance to live more deeply into my discomfort.
We sent another email to Wes; we will welcome the women whenever he can secure their release.


Journey of Accompaniment: Part 7
Accompaniment Story: We Begin Again

by Karen Lauer

I still feel so badly about missing Joely’s calls and hope to stay in touch via mail while her asylum case is processed. I’ve thought a bit more about that forgery conviction that prohibits her release from detention.

It makes me wonder if she forged some kind of identification – maybe to be able to work or to drive. And I worry that this will also be a roadblock for her asylum case. Out of curiosity I looked for stats on asylum cases from the immigration court in Omaha where Iowa cases are litigated; between 2012-2017, more than 80 percent of asylum cases were denied.

I help Tracy Beck with our Soul Matters for Kids class; an engaging and energetic group of 4th – 6th graders – and all boys! With this month’s theme of “Sanctuary,” we have talked about immigration and what it means that we are a sanctuary church. The kids know that Michael and I have applied to sponsor an asylum seeker, and I had told them about Joely.

Last Wednesday, I told the kids that Joely would have to stay in detention and wouldn’t be coming to live with us. We talked about how lonely and scared she must be and I asked the kids if they would make her cards and letters. I wrote out several phrases in Spanish – and looked up several more – as they diligently worked.

Sometimes the news of the day is so disheartening that’s it’s easy to lose faith in my fellow human beings. But seeing the kindness and welcoming spirits this group of children showed for a transwoman they have never met helped restore my faith – and my soul.

And the next day I packed all those beautiful pictures and loving words into a large manila envelope bound for the Cibola County Correctional Facility, hoping that Joely will feel the loving embrace from a group of kids in Iowa who have never met her, but welcome her just the same.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 6
Accompaniment Story: Bond Denied

by Karen Lauer

Several days had passed since we’d heard anything.

The bond hearing before an immigration judge in New Mexico, where Joely, the compa we were to sponsor during her asylum case, is in detention, was to have been on Friday. (“Compa” is Spanish for “friend”).

It was already Monday, and her pro bono lawyer, an attorney with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, had not yet contacted us.

How high would the bond be? Could we cover the cost ourselves or would we need to ask for help? Had the hearing been postponed again?

Over the past week I had received a number of calls from an 866 area code; the caller didn’t leave a message and a return call didn’t connect. I mentioned this to MIchael – who realized it was actually Joely trying to reach me from Cibola Detention Center! Michael had added the detention center number to his contacts but not mine! I felt horrible when I realized she’d tried to reach us; how could I have made such a terrible mistake? Did she think we didn’t care?

I emailed our SURJ contact; was there any way to let Joely know?
There is a group of women in New Mexico who are helping the compas in Cibola, she would have them tell Joely of our error. Thank goodness.

But what about her bond?

Her lawyer reached us late on Monday; Joely’s bond was denied because a criminal conviction for forgery subjects her to mandatory detention while pursuing asylum. He tried to argue for bond anyway, but the judge refused.

She could appeal, but her lawyer believes it makes more sense to move forward with her asylum claim, rather than delay any further.

Joely will remain in detention.

We will to continue to support her as best we can; we can send letters and will try to keep funds in her commissary account. But that’s all we can do.

Michael is traveling this week. When he gets back, we’ll send in the paperwork to sponsor a different asylum-seeker; the lawyer said there are many women in need.

Yesterday my phone rang – it was Joely!
I quickly answered, but the recorded instructions were in Spanish. I tried to follow directions, but after I pushed “1” the call ended. I’d missed her again.

I reached out to my SURJ contact – what do I do?

She told me the recording goes something like this, “You are receiving a call from Joely, a detainee at Cibola County Detention Center, to accept this call press “1” now.” Please note, she added, that if you press “1” before the option comes up the call does not get connected.

All I can do is hope Joely calls today.
Hope that I don’t mess up on my end – again.
And hope we can understand each other enough that I can tell her I’m sorry.
Tell her that we care.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 5
First step in helping compa

by Karen Lauer

Our SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) contact tells us that most of the single men SURJ and the UUSC (Unitarian Universalist Service Committee) on their list have found sponsors – would we consider a transgendered person? And I am reminded of the prejudice people face simply because who they are falls outside of societal norms.

I don’t know any details of her case nor why she left Mexico for the U.S. but I suspect our compa (Spanish for friend) faces discrimination and persecution because of her gender identity. And I am thankful the prejudice in the United States less pronounced, less dangerous.

I hope.

Of course we’ll sponsor her. Joel/Joely Campos Cervantes.

Thankfully Michael has taken on the task of filling out all the paperwork and navigating the detention system; my anxiety disorder is rearing its ugly head and I think the frustration might just tip me over the edge!

Our first step is to deposit money in our compa’s commissary account so she can make phone calls, buy necessities, maybe buy a little extra food to make her life more comfortable; and we enter a vicious circle. Each detainee has an “A” number, used to identify and track them through the Immigration and Customs (ICE) system. Joely is in the Cibola County Detention Center in New Mexico.

Our instructions are to go to the Cibola County Detention Center website to locate an “inmate.” And again we are confronted by the inhumanity of our asylum system; words such as “detainee” and “detention facility” are merely euphemisms. Asylum-seekers, people in fear for their lives, lawfully present themselves at our border and we – our government – imprison them.

We search the Cibola site for Joely and are rerouted to the CoreCivic homepage. CoreCivic (Better The Public Good), is the second largest private prison company in the U.S. Listed on the NYSE, CoreCivic’s largest source of revenue in 2016 came from contracts with ICE

So we select the Cibola facility on the CoreCivic homepage, and are kicked right back to where we started – the Cibola webpage. A closed loop.

Several days and multiple emails later, we are told CoreCivic is in the midst of rebranding itself (it used to be Correction Corp. of America) – so we try the old website. And we find her!

But we cannot deposit funds into her commissary account without her commissary number – which none of our contacts have. The deposit will have to wait several days until Joely’s pro-bono lawyer from the Santa Fe Dreamers Project is able to meet with her in person.

It’s taken more than a week, multiple emails, and a great deal of patience, to make that deposit.

Joely has a hearing in front of an immigration judge to determine bond today. Yes, parole is the only option she has to be released from detention – even though she has committed no crime. I check my email and discover the hearing has been moved to Friday.

And we wait.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 4
Community Support Helps Lauers Offer Sponsorship

by Michael Lauer

A number of people have expressed admiration that Karen and I are volunteering to sponsor an asylum seeker. We appreciate the admiration, but we do not seek it, nor are we worthy of it. We chose to offer support for an asylum seeker as a natural extension of the journey we have been on for the past 19 months as individuals and members of the Immigration Justice and Sanctuary Team. Together we all have learned and grown so much. We’ve begun to understand the complexities of our immigration policies, how those policies impact human lives, and how our government interprets those policies in ways that dehumanize our neighbors at the margins of society.

At one point, Karen and I realized that we were capable of sponsoring an asylum seeker. So what was holding us back? Our fear? Our comfort? Our busy lives? Upon reflection we realized that our inaction was a position we could not abide. We also realized we had access to resources far greater than we had previously considered. Our First Unitarian community, relationships we’ve built with the members of our Immigration Justice and Sanctuary Team, the year-plus we have worked with the Iowa Sanctuary Movement, the Des Moines SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) community. We take this step not alone, but in accompaniment with all of you.

We are humbled and honored to be associated with you all on this journey.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 3
Getting Closer to Sponsoring an Asylum-Seeker

by Karen Lauer

“Are you open to sponsoring a woman? A family? A man? A transgender person?”

At first I was taken aback. The idea that I would put conditions on whom I would sponsor seemed callous; how could I put my own “comfort” ahead of an individual’s freedom?

Now, I understand why those questions needed to be asked, and that there are real and valid reasons a sponsor might need to choose one gender over another. But Michael and I have no need to put conditions on our sponsorship.

So I answered as honestly as I could, that we would sponsor anyone and would work hard to help him/her/them find community in Des Moines.

A few days later I had my second interview. A woman working for SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) called from Tennessee; she had a list of men in need of sponsors; two men from Eritrea, two from Mexico, and two from India. Did we have a preference?

Again, I couldn’t make such a choice, and suggested we be assigned the next person on her list. We would sponsor a 23 year-old man from India who speaks Hindi.

There are two primary ways people enter the U.S. undocumented; if you are wealthy enough to come here on a tourist visa, you simply stay in the country once the visa expires. For everyone else, the entry is through the southern border.

My anxiety went into overdrive as we hurried to assemble our sponsorship documents; copies of our passports, proof of income, and letters of support, including signatures and scans of driver’s licenses.

I quickly contacted Rev. Jen and Katie Allen, our social justice counselor, as I knew Michael and I would need support from our First Unitarian community in ways I’m sure we have yet to imagine. Jen suggested we write an account of the process so the
congregation could follow along with us.

Michael scanned and sent all our documents, while I asked our contact a million frenzied questions. We might move to a different house, is that okay while the compa(term used by UUSC and SURJ for the asylum-seekers) is with us? Once he/she/they have some time to decompress from their ordeal, we’d like to find an apartment to give the compa more privacy; and honestly, as an introvert, to give me much needed space and solitude. Is this okay?

She reassured me that after a few weeks, most compas start to live their own lives. She reminded me that the compas are likely the most resilient and capable individuals I might ever meet, and cautioned me not to infantalize them. I am a sponsor, not a parent.

Shortly after our paperwork was sent, we learned that “our” compa found family to sponsor him. Great news! The best for him.

Would we take another?

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 2
The Steps in Needed to House an Asylum-Seeker

by Karen Lauer

So what does it mean to sponsor an asylum-seeker? It’s complicated.

With the arrival at the border of this spring’s migrant caravan, grassroots advocacy groups asked for volunteer sponsors. That’s when Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) got involved.

As members of SURJ, Michael and I knew we had to step forward.

Our SURJ contact warned us to expect the unexpected, which doesn’t help with the overall anxiety I feel about the process. It is overwhelming in so many ways; having a stranger who doesn’t speak English live with us, the knowledge that they might not be granted asylum, a fear for that person’s future. There’s also simpler concerns, like having to do more cooking than I typically do now that we’re empty-nesters, and visions of sitting uncomfortably together in a room without knowing what to say.

We’ve been trying to learn as much as we can about the asylum process, but the rules seem to change daily and often at the whim of individual within Homeland Security. But here’s the gist: An asylum-seeker must first pass a “credible fear” interview with USCIS, proving to the government agent that he/she/they fear returning to their home country because of persecution based on race or ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or because the person belongs to a specific social group; if the fear doesn’t fall under one of this categories asylum is likely to be denied.

When migrants arrive in the U.S., they are frequently detained for months or years while they pursue an asylum claim, unless they qualify for parole and can live with a U.S. citizen who vouches for them. An additional requirement for parole is payment of an immigration bond, paid in cash; the law calls for bond to be set at a minimum of $1,500, but it’s often much more. It’s important to understand that “detention” is a euphemism for “prison.”

As sponsors, we agree to support the individual for the first 6-12 months, making sure they attend ICE check-ins, and providing housing, food, transportation, assistance integrating into the community, etc. After 6 months, the individual can apply for a social security number and a work permit. Until these is granted, they cannot work.

It is also imperative to find legal assistance for the asylum case, as the vast majority of asylum cases ultimately are denied, especially if they have no legal representation.

Once we are assigned an asylum-seeker (“compa”) we will send copies of our passports, proof of residence, proof of income, letters of support from the community, and a letter from us stating that we agree to sponsor the individual to Homeland Security for approval. Once approved, we will be given the detention number of our compa so that we can put money in their commissary account; enabling purchase of necessities and the ability to make phone calls.

More than 250 people nationwide have volunteered to be sponsors through SURJ and UUSC; it’s important to understand that Michael and I could not even have considered this path without the support of our Immigration Justice and Sanctuary Team members, the First Unitarian Church community, and our local Des Moines-SURJ community.

The system is designed to create as much confusion as possible; to be so expensive and convoluted, so demoralizing, that people will give up. At this moment in history, it is imperative that those of us who are able take a step forward. Thank you for taking a stand for justice with us.

Journey of Accompaniment: Part 1
The Decision to House an Asylum-Seeker

by Karen Lauer

I tried to take the easy route.
I really did.
This spring when I heard about the migrant caravan, displaced people traveling from Central America to seek asylum in the U.S., I couldn’t imagine the desperation and fear, nor the courage, it would take to leave everything you had ever known; family, friends, culture, language.
But the migrants were greeted at our border with National Guard troops, many not allowed to legally request asylum; it was heartbreaking.
So when national SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) and the UUSC decided to work together to help the compas (“friends” in Spanish) I was relieved.
Someone was helping. Whew.
I quickly signed up for all the “easy” ways to help: letter-writing to members of the caravan in detention, sharing the story and ways to help on social media, connecting to local faith communities (via this Intercom). And for a while, I felt I had done enough.
But throughout the summer, government persecution of immigrants intensified; homeland security tore children from their parents, the anti-immigrant law SF 481 took effect in Iowa, and I witnessed the impact of ICE raids and deportations on members of my community.
And so Michael and I agreed; to do less than we truly are able in this challenging time would do more harm to our own humanity than to embrace the unknown in service to justice.
I contacted SURJ and asked them to amend our paperwork: we will open our home to an asylum-seeker.

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.