Rapid Response Network steps up immigrant assistance
As the coronavirus spreads through communities, advocates say the need to protect the undocumented population increases in order to ensure they can safely get help if they become infected.
Petaluma became a so-called sanctuary city in 2017, affirming that city law enforcement officials would not work with federal immigration officials except in cases of serious crimes. That December, Petaluma residents joined the North Bay’s Rapid Response Network and began training to protect local undocumented residents.
Rapid Response Network volunteers are trained for a quick response to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent raids across the North Bay.
Due to concerns for undocumented local citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic, Susan Shaw, Executive Director of the North Bay Rapid Response Network said that they are trying to compel Sonoma County officials to restrict ICE and to push the federal government to stop ICE activities during the pandemic.
Fear of ICE could cause local citizens to avoid getting help, which in turn could mean more spread of COVID-19. The RRN hotline - 707-800-4544 - will remain operational during the pandemic.
Petaluma physician Dennis Pocekay, a Rapid Response Network volunteer, said he is ready to act if ICE enters the community.
“After Trump was elected, I decided I had to get more active in working against his policies and slowing him down,” Pocekay said.
He decided that the RRN was a place to do something more hands on. Things have been fairly quiet so far.
“Over a year ago, we were notified that ICE had made unannounced visits to 7-Eleven stores in Petaluma,” he said. “We went out to talk with store owners and then developed ‘Know Your Rights’ information packets for employers and their employees.”
The Rapid Response Network also offers trainings in the community and passes out “Know your Rights” and RRN hotline cards, in English and Spanish.
One way to help undocumented community members is by quickly contacting a well-trained team that promises a rapid response, Pocekay said.
“Once ICE is at the door, we ask that people immediately call the hotline number and provide an address or the nearest intersection,” he said. “The dispatcher will then contact the closest trained legal observers.”
While RRN observers rush to the scene, the bilingual dispatcher will stay on the line with the caller, making sure they know their rights and instructing them on how best to respond to the situation.
Pocekay explained that the first observer to arrive becomes a videographer, the second begins taking notes, and the third acts as a second videographer. The fourth to arrive will be a liaison with community members, and the fifth will liaison with ICE operatives.
The observers work together to provide legal evidence that will be helpful to the undocumented citizen.
“It is said that over 99% of ICE actions do not include a signed judicial warrant, and are therefore unconstitutional,” Pocekay said.
Undocumented citizens are protected by several constitutional amendments.
If someone is arrested or detained, the dispatcher is able to provide referral for legal services, as well as accompaniment for the family. An accompaniment team consists of five or more people who coordinate with the family to determine what they need most in terms of support, and help them to access community resources.
When children are involved and a parent is being removed, Pocekay said he would call in a psychologist friend to help. He said that although they haven’t yet dealt with this issue in Petaluma, they seem to be able to find volunteers for whatever is needed.
“With children, my advice as a physician would be to be flexible, try to listen, feel what they feel and what they need, then offer support and positivity,” Pocekay said. “We have not had occasion to help a Petaluma family divided by ICE. However, we decided early on that we would also do what we could to help any family facing an immigration crisis.”
Pocekay explained that they have helped two refugee families applying for asylum, assisting them with transportation to court dates, referral for legal help, jobs, housing, food, clothing, bedding, bikes, cars and auto insurance.
“These folks seeking asylum don’t come here for a vacation,” he said. “Often family members have been held for ransom and murdered, and relief is seen as impossible.”
Pocekay explained that the journey can take up to four months in some cases, much of it by foot, and that all suffer significant trauma. Their cases often don’t get adjudicated for three or more years.
“Many of us see our own families in them, whether ours arrived one, two or three generations ago,” he said.