Journey of Accompaniment

Michael and Karen Lauer are officially sponsoring an asylum-seeker and this is week five of their account of that journey. 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 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.