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Raided by ICE three times, Philly migrant works to help others who could face deportation

During the last 18 months, Maria Turcios and her volunteer allies have accompanied 350 migrants to court or to meet with government authorities.

Maria Turcios hugs a woman she accompanied to immigration court outside of the Nix Federal Building in Center City on Wednesday morning.
Maria Turcios hugs a woman she accompanied to immigration court outside of the Nix Federal Building in Center City on Wednesday morning.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

For migrants in trouble, Maria Turcios is what comes next.

What comes after federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pull them out of their houses and arrest them, or after they’re released from custody on bond, or ordered by the government to show up in court.

Turcios goes with them — offering advice on navigating a complex and intimidating legal process, helping with translation when needed, and perhaps paramount, providing steady emotional support with her calm presence.

In immigration circles, her work goes under the heading of “accompaniment,” a growing strategy of resistance against Trump administration policies. To Turcios, it’s God’s calling, to stand with those who might otherwise face the machinery of deportation alone.

She knows how it feels when federal agents arrive on your doorstep. Her home was raided by ICE. Not once. Not twice. But three times over a period of about five years, beginning in 2004. Six people including her brother were deported, returned to a Honduras homeland mired in poverty and violence.

“I’ve lived this situation,” said Turcios, 59. “There’s a lot of feelings in me, feelings of compassion."

Turcios is the staff “accompaniment organizer” for the advocacy group New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, whose mission is to show solidarity with immigrants, stop removals, and serve as witness in what it calls “spaces of injustice.”

During the last 18 months, Turcios and the core group of 20-some volunteers she mobilized have accompanied 350 people to court or to meet with government authorities. She’s in court — immigration, family, traffic, criminal — as often as four days a week, and is working to extend the program beyond Philadelphia to Media, Reading, and York.

“There’s not a lot of people who can do this job, because it’s so intense,” said Peter Pedemonti, NSM codirector. “But she is a rock. … She always talks about how for her this is not a job, but a vocation, that this is a way to live out her faith.”

This week, at 8 a.m. on a rain-splashed Wednesday, Turcios led two mothers, both from Guatemala and each with a young son, into the Nix Federal Building in Center City. They took the elevator up five floors to the waiting room outside Immigration Court.

The 30-some seats were mostly taken. Kids fidgeted in parents’ arms. Lawyers moved in and out. No one looked happy.

Six NSM allies soon arrived.

Turcios called all of them together to pray. Several men and women in the waiting room joined in, bowing their heads. She prayed that immigration judges be generous toward defendants, that defense lawyers be blessed with wisdom.

The wait lasted more than two hours, but the hearing, once it came, was quick. Turcios sat behind the families, occasionally clarifying a word in Spanish or putting her hand on a shoulder.

It was the first hearing for both families, who are seeking asylum. Judge Charles Honeyman confirmed the women’s identities and addresses, told them they would benefit from hiring a lawyer, and warned they could be ordered deported if they failed to show up for their next hearing, which he set for Oct. 16.

Outside on the sidewalk, the women and their kids wrapped Turcios into a hug.

“I think it helps people — people who feel so alone,” said nursing teacher Clare Brabson, 57, one of the volunteers. “You can see people’s fears, when they’re afraid, and you smile at them, and it helps.”

Turcios and other advocates believe accompaniment yields results, in the form of lower bond and more favorable rulings. When a crowd of supporters appears in court, they say, judges can see that a migrant is not merely a case file.

“Does accompaniment change the outcome of a case? Probably not,” said Brennan Gian-Grasso, head of the Philadelphia chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “But the effect is important on a larger scale. It is likely the only way that the community of the immigrant is in the courtroom. … They represent our interest in not having our neighborhoods disrupted and our neighbors taken from us.”

Family separation occurs not only at the Southwest border, but also across the United States, including big Eastern cities where undocumented parents are deported while their American-citizen children stay behind.

In Philadelphia, a “sanctuary city” that’s home to one of the nation’s most aggressive ICE offices, the Kenney administration confronts and challenges Trump decisions and orders on immigration. The city does not assist ICE but cannot halt its work.

Last year, federal authorities arrested 49 immigrants in the Philadelphia region during a seven-day operation that targeted those who had committed crimes, faced criminal charges, or had earlier been deported. The previous year, 107 area migrants were taken as part of a four-day nationwide sweep aimed at 10 sanctuary cities.

Accompaniment has been part of immigrant-advocacy movements for more than a decade. But it has expanded significantly during the last few years, as more undocumented migrants are being arrested after casual contact with immigration authorities and at what were once routine, face-to-face check-ins with ICE. Pastors, lawyers, activists, church members, and retirees have stepped up as immigrant allies.

Today, accompaniment programs operate across the nation in places such as New York City, Denver, Oregon, Boston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and Washington. The Unitarian Universalist Association runs “Love Resists,” and the Catholic Church launched pilot efforts in San Francisco and Indianapolis last year.

The movement even has its own prayer, written by a Boston pastor.

Turcios put her trust in God when she left Honduras in 1994. With their village store losing money, she and her husband, Rene, decided that she should find work in the U.S. He stayed behind with their young children.

From Honduras, she and 100 others walked five hours to Guatemala, as recounted in (Dis)Placed Philadelphia by Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. They traveled more than a week by bus and truck through Mexico, then climbed aboard pickup trucks that took them to the U.S. border. Turcios crossed a highway and into America.

She knew no one in this country. But a cousin had a friend in Philadelphia. Turcios settled in Kensington, found work as a seamstress, and sent her pay back to her family. After 18 months, Rene followed.

Four years later their lives changed.

In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch raged across Honduras, killing nearly 6,000 in what was the Western Hemisphere’s second-poorest country. Part of the U.S. government response was to grant Hondurans in America, documented and not, what is called Temporary Protected Status (TPS). The humanitarian measure allows those whose homelands have been riven by war, floods, droughts, or epidemics — currently about 320,000 people from 10 countries — to live and work here.

Maria and her husband qualified. They bought a three-story rowhouse, and their children came north to be with them.

There was snow on the ground that morning in January 2004, Turcios recalled. Her husband had already left for work.

At 6 a.m., headed out for her own job, Turcios opened the door to find several men standing there. They hadn’t knocked. They weren’t wearing police uniforms, she said, but showed official identification.

The men asked to search the house. She said yes.

Only at the end of the search, when the men showed her a photo of the person they sought — he didn’t live there — did Turcios realize they were immigration agents. By then, her brother and two sons-in-law were in handcuffs.

The three were undocumented. Foreign nationals are ineligible for TPS if they are not already living in the U.S. at the time disaster strikes their homeland.

One son-in-law was freed on $10,000 bond. Her brother and other son-in-law spent three months in detention before being deported to Honduras.

“There was nobody to help us,” Turcios said. “There weren’t organizations helping with ‘Know your rights.’ … This pain that happened, for me, it was like a death.”

The family moved to a different part of Kensington, renting out their rowhouse. ICE went to both places; three Hondurans in the rented home were arrested and deported. The third time ICE showed up, Turcios’ brother-in-law was taken.

The personal trauma of those arrests rises every time a migrant family phones NSM for help after a loved one has been detained.

“I see the difference when people have someone there that can help them, that understands, that has a word of faith, because when that happened to me, I didn’t have anyone who would listen to me,” Turcios said. “I tell people my experience, and they can leave their fear behind about speaking up."