The fight against deportations


A NEW faith-based movement to “awaken the moral imagination of the country” hopes to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants whose deportation would break up families.

Calling themselves the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM)–a nod to the 1980s effort to assist refugees from Central America fleeing the carnage of U.S.-sponsored wars–churches and religious activist groups held press conferences around the U.S. May 9 to announce plans “to protect immigrant workers and families from unjust deportation” by giving shelter and material aid to the undocumented.

 

The initiative comes in the wake of efforts by immigrant rights activists to pressure local governments for sanctuary city policies of non-cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

 

On May 8, Watsonville, Calif., became the latest city to declare itself an immigrant sanctuary. In other cities like Chicago, San Francisco and Oakland, activists have pressed city officials to reaffirm existing policies of refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials.

 

A key inspiration for the NSM organizers is the struggle of Elvira Arellano, a Mexican immigrant who last year made international headlines for publicly defying a deportation order that would separate her from her U.S.-born son, 8-year-old Saúl.

 

Arellano last year moved into Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago, and religious leaders and activists from around the city came to express their support. International media covered the story, and solidarity messages poured into Adalberto from around the world.

 

“We’re all inspired by the example of Adalberto United Methodist Church, of Elivra and her family, and the courage of that congregation,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, a key organizer in the NSM.

 

Since Arellano took her stand, the threat of detentions and deportations that break up immigrant families has become more urgent as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) steps ups its raids.

 

The detention of a nursing mother after a raid on a factory in New Bedford, Mass., in March, put the issue of immigrant family unity back into the national media spotlight. By holding coordinated press conferences, the NSM aims to keep it there.

 

“Families are being broken by a broken immigration system,” Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, of the Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United For Economic Justice, said in a statement. “Under current policies, detention and deportation are ripping apart parents from children, husbands from wives and sisters from brothers. Through our sanctuaries, we can help change the laws to create policies that are effective and humane.”

 

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THE CALL to join the movement was made by groups affiliated with a range of Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, and Muslim and Sikh organizations.

 

To participate, individual places of worship must pledge to host immigrant families in which a family member is facing an order of deportation. According to a document posted to the NSM Web site, eligible immigrant families are those with adults with a “good work record,” a “viable case under current law,” and “American citizen children.”

 

Bobo points out that NSM participants are free to support other undocumented immigrants who don’t meet all the criteria. The framework was agreed upon by a broad coalition; others are prepared to go further in providing assistance to the undocumented, she said.

 

And while the movement hasn’t taken a formal position on proposed immigration reform legislation, most are critical of current proposals. Interfaith Worker Justice, she said, opposes the enforcement provisions being discussed in Congress–”and the proposals on the table would establish a very large guest-worker program, which have been proven to be detrimental to workers.”

 

While the outcome of the legislative debate is uncertain, ICE raids are sure to escalate, and the NSM is preparing for the consequences–an increase in attempted deportations.

 

The NSM, based on a brief from the Center for Constitutional Rights, takes the position that its sanctuary efforts don’t violate the law, since they are being offered publicly and, as in the case of Elvira Arellano’s vigil, there will be no effort to hide the immigrants’ whereabouts from ICE officials.

 

While Bobo doesn’t believe laws will be broken, “ICE may take a different point of view,” she said.

 

Once faith communities agree to host a family, they will be asked to provide material aid in a variety of ways, starting with “legal triage”–help, including financial assistance, in the most urgent cases.

 

Families will be hosted for up to three months, and hosts agree to provide assistance in various ways–including meals and transportation to and from work or school. In addition, the faith communities agree to directly support the NSM itself through fundraising or donations of food, clothing and other goods.

 

NSM participants are also asked to support immigrant workers against the racist backlash. “The immigration reform agenda is just inseparable from worker justice at this moment in our history,” Bobo said. “The absolute worst abuse of workers that we see around the country is the abuse of immigrant workers, because they have no path to citizenship, and there’s no strong protection of workers’ rights for immigrant workers.”

 

An NSM statement spells out the operational conclusion: “Despite society’s ongoing desire for the services of day laborers and immigrant domestics, the climate of racism and harassment has reached a fever pitch. Faith communities are called to offer support through: being publicly present at existing day labor pick-up sites as a peaceful presence in the face of racist and hateful demonstrators; serving as an alternative labor/employer match site; and/or being advocates for worker issues.”

 

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THIS PLEDGE to defy the federal government and right-wing groups recalls the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when a coalition of some 500 churches and religious organizations helped refugees from Central America fleeing from death squads and counterrevolutionary forces aligned with the U.S. government.

 

That movement–in which activists helped refugees cross the border and live underground in the U.S.–was the target of repeated high-profile prosecutions by federal authorities. All failed but one: the conviction of the movement’s co-founder, Rev. John Fife of Tucson, Ariz., along with five others, including a Catholic priest and a nun, who were convicted on felony charges and given five years’ probation.

 

In a 1986 trial of sanctuary activists in Arizona, it emerged that two sanctuary volunteers were actually undercover agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Service–the forerunner of ICE–who drove a family of five refugees from El Salvador on a trip from Phoenix to Albuquerque, N.M., as they carried out a public speaking tour for the movement. This was part of the INS’s Operation Sojourner, an effort to infiltrate the movement.

 

But sanctuary activists had expected as much. “We intend to make it as widely known as possible that we are in violation of the law, an immoral and illegal law,” Fife told the Tucson Citizen in 1982.

 

Today, Fife, now retired as a pastor, is still active in support of immigrants. He’s a founder of the group No More Deaths, which provides water, food and assistance to undocumented immigrants crossing the border, often in defiance of the Border Patrol and right-wing vigilantes like the Minutemen.

 

Two student activists in the group, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, were arrested in 2005 for taking three undocumented immigrants to receive medical care, although charges were eventually dropped.

 

“These efforts are not only humanitarian aid efforts, they’re communities of resistance to the kind of violations of human rights the government policy is involved in,” Fife said in a recent interview with Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now! radio/TV program.

 

“And active resistance involves direct aid to the victims. It also involves speaking out and trying to get…border enforcement policy changed so that we’re no longer involved in massive violations of human rights and all that death and suffering.”

 

The Interfaith Committee’s Bobo said that she expects the NSM’s organizing to dovetail with efforts to implement sanctuary city policies, pointing to the organizing work to get the Washington, D.C., City Council to pass legislation strengthening the city’s stand.

 

The sanctuary movement, moreover, provides a counterweight to the spate of anti-immigration legislation at the state and local level–most recently, the law passed in a referendum in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch, which seeks to prevent landlords from renting housing to undocumented immigrants.

 

By going national and highlighting the sanctuary work already taking place at the local level, the movement aims to alter the terms of debate over immigration, its leaders said. “Through our sanctuaries,” said Rev. Salvatierra of Los Angeles, “we can help change the laws to create policies that are effective and humane.”

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