Our Unjust Immigration System: Why My Arrest Was Too Easy

On March 16th, 2017; a Citywide Coalition of Faith Leaders held a rally at Washington Square Park, followed by march to 201 Varick St., where 10 clergy members and 15 lay-leaders knelt down to pray in front of the Immigration and Customs and got arrested for blocking traffic in an act of civil disobedience to call on Mayor DeBlasio demanding deep protections for Immigrant and Refugee Community.

Photo credit: Min. Erik McGregor, https://www.flickr.com/photos/erikcito/albums/72157681406062396

Guest Post by Melanie Christian, Manhattan leader & Faith Over Fear Civil Disobedience participant

Photo credit: Cynthia Trinh, Activist NYC, http://activistnyc.tumblr.com/

I was arrested on Thursday, March 16th during a protest in New York City regarding our unjust immigration system as part of the Faith Over Fear Week of Action & Resistance. The arrest was expected. I had signed up for it. Faith in New York coordinated the protest and asked 4th Universalist members, among many other congregations, to stand with them. Nine of us attended the protest and three volunteered to be a part of the planned arrests. Faith in New York provided extensive training on what to expect when being arrested, as well as directly communicating and coordinating with the police, lining up free legal support (shout out to Legal Aid Society and National Lawyers Guild!), a post-jail support team to welcome us immediately upon release from the precinct, and giving us assurances of a quick release. I was prepped so well that I went into the civil disobedience unafraid of any consequences, but what I experienced went so much deeper than a fun way to protest.

We were arrested for blocking traffic in front of 201 Varick Street, which is an unmarked immigration detention center here in New York. There were 28 people arrested in all, with hundreds of our fellow protesters watching from the sidewalks. The jail support team from Faith in New York welcomed me with open arms when I was released. They asked me what my experience of being arrested and detained for 5 hours was like. I spoke about how dehumanizing it was to interact with the criminal justice system, no matter how polite and professional any individual arresting officer may be. I spoke about the uncomfortable and depressing jail cells, the lack of privacy when using the toilet, the vulnerable feeling of losing all personal liberty while being in the custody of a powerful system like the NYPD.


Photo Credit: Analisa Freitas, Bronx Organizer, Faith in New York

And as I reflect on my arrest, I’m struck with the fact that as intense and eye-opening of an experience it is was, I had it incredibly easy. Too easy. I was surrounded by friends, singing and chanting as each person joined us in the cells, along with a supportive group of people waiting for me outside. I had free legal representation lined up, assurance of a release in under 24 hours, no permanent criminal record expected, and no fines or bail to pay. I couldn’t help but imagine how much more painful it would have been had I been detained by ICE for deportation proceedings, rather than booked in a local jail for a few hours as a US citizen.

People detained by ICE don’t have the same civil rights as US citizens. They don’t have any right to legal representation if they can’t afford a lawyer. They don’t have the right to a speedy trial. They often languish for months in ICE detention centers without access to a lawyer, without a court date, and without any knowledge of what their options are for staying with their families.


Graphic credit: crImmigration Project

Fortunately, the New York City council funds the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project (NYIFUP), which provides legal counsel to low-income immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. However, this program needs additional financial support from the mayor and city council as more immigrants will be detained in Trump’s America. The program also can be improved by assuring that legal representation can begin from the moment immigrants are detained, rather than at their first court appearance, which is now often 2 to 3 months after being initially picked up.   If we have human rights regarding a speedy trial and legal representation for US citizens, it is only just to also afford those same human rights to people who aren’t citizens. Their citizenship status doesn’t make them any less human. Our immigration system treats non citizens like their human rights (and humanity) don’t matter, and punishes them as guilty until proven innocent, without any recognition that many immigrants haven’t committed any crime at all.


Art credit: http://justseeds.org/graphic/sanctuary-churches/

This gap in funding and the criminalizing of largely innocent people are only a couple of the major reasons why we need to stand up against deportations and our unjust immigration laws. We need to make New York a true sanctuary city by abolishing “Broken Windows” policing that disproportionately targets people of color and immigrants for criminal enforcement of low-level offenses. Arrests for these minor infractions, for things as small as jumping a turnstile, can now lead to deportations and separation of families. Our city must stand up to the current national administration’s policies that cause people to be harassed and detained at our airports and provide places of safety and refuge for people who are at risk of being torn from their families and exiled from their homes.

Experiencing a small taste of imprisonment cracked open my heart for the plight of the undocumented and those who are in danger of being thrown out or banned from our society because of their religious affiliation.  Can you imagine if you were told you are an “illegal” human being simply for leaving behind one country to build a better life in another? Can you imagine if your life was regularly threatened because you choose to cover your hair or face? Can you imagine if you were constantly discriminated against because you speak another language apart from English?

1If this is not the type of society that you envision, please join me, our faith-based partners, and individuals from across the city, in the fight to Build a Beloved City in New York, where the vulnerable among us, and really all of us, can be free from an unjust system that doesn’t honor the inherent dignity and worth of every person. We’ll be gathering this Thursday 3/23/17 in Rego Park at Our Lady of Angelus Church at 6 PM to debrief our week of action and continue planning forward to hold our local decision makers accountable to our vision of the Beloved City, and ensure sanctuary for all. Join us! You can easily RSVP on Facebook, as well as on the web here.
If you can’t make the cohort meeting, you can also check out Faith in New York’s website calendarTwitter & Instagram for other upcoming meetings and actions. If you want your congregation or faith community to get involved, send us a message here. We must have faith in each other so that we can protect and love each other while working to triumph over fear and hate. If the communities that came before us can do it, we can too – together.



[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://faithinnewyork.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2015-Melanie-headshot.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]About the Author: Melanie Christian is a member of the Justice Team at 4th Universalist Society in the City of New York, a participating member of Faith in New York. She is also an organizer of support groups for ex-Mormons and ex-religious fundamentalists in New York City.[/author_info] [/author]