I volunteered to help immigrants on Inauguration Day. Here’s how it went

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On Friday, hundreds of immigrants poured into Seattle’s McCaw Hall to jump start the citizenship process and to receive legal advice on their immigration status. The men, women, and children hailing from most corners of the world were met by a sea of blue-clad volunteers and ushered to different destinations inside the performing arts auditorium. I was one of them.

Mayor Ed Murray insisted back in November that the day-long workshop, organized by the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, be held on Inauguration Day.

I arrived for my volunteer shift around noon. It was a few hours after Trump spoke of “American carnage” and cast a dark rhetorical cloud over the country. A long line had formed outside the building’s entry ways. Volunteers bearing shirts that read “Seattle United” with safety-pinned paper signs, indicating the languages they spoke (at first glance: Spanish, Russian, Farsi, Arabic, Mandarin, Amharic, Tagalog), were funneling the many-faced masses to the end of the line, answering frantic questions, chit-chatting.

The mess of logistics required focus. For many of us, the need to be attentive and productive was a welcome distraction from the dramatic turn of history unfolding on the other side of the nation.

At one point, before we were released to our respective duties, the organizers asked the dozens of volunteer interpreters to state our reasons for showing up. One by one we rose from our chairs and addressed the crowd. A burly Puerto Rican man simply yelled, “I don’t like Trump!” A Russian student said she wanted to help build “the sanctuary city of Seattle.” A Cuban software engineer at Amazon, who immigrated here by boat in 2007 and naturalized in 2013, said he couldn’t protest the government in Cuba; being here, he said, was the next best thing. A Costa Rican woman, tears pooling in her eyes, said her Chilean husband had recently become a U.S. citizen and was finally able to visit his family. He had not seen them in 25 years. One Mexican woman said her father had been deported, and she was here because she didn’t want that to happen to anyone else.

An Ethiopian woman stood up, stated her solidarity, and said proudly, “I have a big basement and I can hide [many people!]” The onlookers erupted in cheers.

We dispersed. There was an over-saturation of volunteers, so when we couldn’t be useful we spent our time wandering or talking among ourselves. I poked my head into a packed room where immigration attorneys were meeting with clients. I overheard an event staff member ask a lawyer about a mother whose son was detained in the Northwest Immigrant Detention Center in Tacoma; he has mental health issues and she didn’t know how to contact him. An African man—from where I’m not sure—and a lawyer were going back and forth over what seemed to be his claim for political asylum; neither seemed optimistic. A Japanese man with thick, black hair held back by a red clip entered the room; a tall white woman in a long leather trench coat followed. Someone asked, “Do we have anyone who speaks Cambodian?”

I eventually escorted a Mexican family downstairs to meet with volunteer attorneys offering advice on family safety planning. Mom, dad, and their daughter, who twenty months ago was born in a Tacoma hospital, had driven up for the city’s workshop. Stephanie, the little one, had her beautiful, bug-like brown eyes buried in an iPhone. The lawyer, who works in-house at Microsoft on employment issues, explained to me three legal documents that the family could sign and have notarized on site. As a volunteer translator, I passed this information along in Spanish.

The most important document we discussed granted legal authority to a family member or friend over their children in the event that the parents, both undocumented, were separated from them. The closest family member lived in Florida, the mother said, and it would take time for her to make it to Washington. They wanted to know what would happen to their three children in the meantime. The lawyer said that if they wanted them to stay in the United States, they would be turned over to Child Protective Services, and possibly a foster family.

We waited while the mother signed the documents, occasionally brushing tears from her eyes. The lawyer folded several pieces of paper into a tiny boat and passed it to Stephanie; she smiled momentarily, but soon, despite her father’s best efforts, returned to the screen.

I wondered what American immigration policy had in store for that little girl and her parents. What would America mean to her? Would it welcome and embrace her family? Would it do the opposite?

Even in the day’s more solemn moments, it was difficult not to be moved by this kaleidoscope of humanity, these uniquely American colors, and how starkly they contrasted with the flat tenor of Trump’s inaugural.

I wonder how safe Trump must feel inside the blue-hued confines of 140 characters. I wonder if he knows that young Americans carry plastic-covered power of attorney documents inside their backpacks, just in case mommy and daddy are deported while they’re in school. I wonder if he understands such courage.

To a large degree, the history of this country is a history of immigrants. But nativism and xenophobia, fear and exclusion, those themes are part of this American story, too.

But this would not paralyze us. In this grand auditorium, in the faces and stories, in the day’s overwhelming spirit of humility and civic duty, collapsing into despair didn’t seem reasonable. There was work to do, and there was strength and beauty in doing it.

According to preliminary numbers from the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, over 800 volunteers showed up to Friday’s workshop and hundreds of immigrant families received aid, advice, and support.