When President Obama went before the American people to say that he was issuing an executive order to empower Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, to go after "felons, not families," he made no mention of those who are already in the throes of deportation. What's more, he also failed to acknowledge the seven Latino/a immigrants who have taken refuge in churches - in Tempe and Tucson, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Portland, Oregon - in public defiance of policies that threaten to separate parents from children, and husbands from wives.
The seven are part of the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), a growing faith-based initiative that presently involves 120 congregations across the country, 25 of them ready, willing and able to provide residential protection to those at risk of deportation. Church World Service (CWS), a 68-year-old service group that has assisted immigrants and refugees since the end of World War II, is coordinating their efforts.
According to Rev. Noel Andersen, national grassroots coordinator for immigrant rights at CWS, the New Sanctuary Movement is a "direct descendant of abolition, part of the Sanctuary tradition, the idea that people of faith can be a shelter, a buffer between unjust laws and the government. In the case of undocumented people, we can literally stand between the laws being enforced by ICE and the people directly affected by those laws."
The impetus for the NSM, he says, harkens back to 2006, when 1,300 undocumented workers employed by meat processing plants in Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Utah were raided in the largest coordinated immigration enforcement action in US history. Subsequent raids on plants in six additional states further energized - and enraged - people who found these practices repugnant. "Sanctuary has been a way for us to serve a moral imperative," Andersen said, "a way for us to lift up the story of those most impacted by our broken immigration policy."
Such activism is not without precedent. Back in 1982, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, became the first US congregation to allow an undocumented immigrant to take sanctuary behind church walls. By the middle of the decade, more than 500 synagogues, churches and temples had followed suit, angering - and in many cases embarrassing - the government.
A year later, in 1986, 16 Mexican and US-based religious leaders were indicted. According to law professor Ellen Yaroshefsky, one of the attorneys who represented those arrested, the 16 were charged with "conspiracy, encouraging and aiding illegal aliens to enter the United States by shielding, harboring and transporting them." Eleven people went to trial, Yaroshefsky says; eight were found guilty, with penalties ranging from probation to suspended sentences, to brief periods of house arrest.
This crackdown has not deterred today's activists. Instead, they say they are following a "prophetic tradition" that is grounded in Scripture.
The canonical Gospel of Matthew is frequently cited: "I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me."
Similarly, an Old Testament passage in which God ordered Moses to establish places of respite for people being persecuted, grounds the NSM and provides the rationale for an Interfaith Covenant of Sanctuary that was completed in October as a model for congregations to consider.
"There are mothers sending their children into the river," the covenant declares, "not the Nile like Moses, but the Rio Grande, in hope that they might escape violence. Children have come seeking safety and to be reunited with their parents and family. If we found Moses in the water, what would we do? If Mary and Joseph fled to the United States to escape violence at home, what would we do? They seek protection from violence, economic desperation, and our policies are seeking to return them to harm."
Dramatic? Absolutely. But as has been well-publicized, the Obama administration has for the past four years deported between 1,000 and 1,100 undocumented people per day, 368,644 in fiscal year 2013 alone.
"We can't allow this to continue," Sarah Lanius, co-founder of Keep Tucson Together, told Truthout. "If the only relief that is possible is for people to go into sanctuary, then so be it."
Lanius is working with Rosa Robles Loreto, a 43-year-old Mexican-born woman who has been in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church since August 7. Loreto was picked up by the Tucson police in September 2010 when she accidently drove her car into a construction zone. After being questioned by the sheriff, she spent two months in Border Control custody but was released after her husband paid her bond. "Her family had hired a lawyer who did the bare minimum," Lanius said. "He failed to ask for the one form of relief available, prosecutorial discretion."
Lanius is referring to a policy, outlined in a 2011 memo written by former ICE director John Morton, that allows the agency to use common sense when determining which cases to pursue. The memo asks apprehending officers to consider a person's criminal history and family ties before initiating deportation proceedings.
"Rosa has two sons, ages 11 and 8," Lanius said. "She came over on a visa, which she overstayed, but her family is rooted here in the US. She has 16 US permanent resident or citizen relatives here. Her kids are fanatic baseball players. Her husband coaches her older son's team and she is a community volunteer. Before she went into sanctuary, she used to organize carpools and supported the team and cheered her sons on, but now her boys only see her on weekends and holidays."
Lanius' frustration is audible as she lambastes the Obama administration's lip service - but inaction - on "prosecutorial discretion." For the last few years, she sighs, "the administration has been saying that they don't want to deport people, like Rosa, who have extensive community connections and no criminal record, but so far they have been unwilling to exercise the authority they themselves have authorized."
Lanius also cites another inherent problem with ICE: the classification of people into categories of "good" immigrants who should not be deported, and their "bad" counterparts who should. "People with criminal records which render them deportable have very often been arrested for something so minor most of us would scoff at it, like shoplifting," she said. "They usually also have families that will suffer when one member is deported." In these cases, she asks why they can't just pay a fine or do community service, the same penalty that would be given to a US citizen who commits a similar offense.
It's a great question, so far unaddressed by the Obama administration.
Like Lanius, Chicago NSM staffer Lissette Castillo is working directly with people facing deportation proceedings. As a project of the 30-year-old Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America, the Windy City's NSM chapter also addresses the root causes of migration: trade policies, like NAFTA, that exacerbate wage gaps and increase the cost of basic goods; environmental degradation; violence; and war.
In her capacity as a community organizer, Castillo assisted 32-year-old Beatriz Santiago Ramirez, an indigenous Mexican woman and mother of two US-born children after she took sanctuary in Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in early September. Although the case had a relatively happy ending - Ramirez was given a work permit after eight weeks in sanctuary - Castillo says that Ramirez's situation highlights much of what is wrong with immigration policy.
Like Loreto, Castillo first tangled with immigration officials following a traffic violation. Neither case was anomalous: In fiscal 2013, nearly 58,000 people entered deportation due to vehicular infractions such as a broken tail light or making an unauthorized turn. But Castillo notes that Ramirez should never have entered deportation proceedings since she was eligible for a U visa. "A U visa protects immigrants who are victims of a crime but who cooperate with the authorities to nab the perpetrator," Castillo said. "Beatriz fell into this category after she was assaulted. Unfortunately, the process of getting a U visa is confusing and complicated. A lot of immigrants don't even know that these visas exist and in some places there isn't even a point person to sign the application for one."
Not surprisingly, by the time Ramirez learned of her eligibility, she had missed the filing deadline and was in the process of being deported.
Nonetheless, Castillo credits the support that Ramirez received from diverse religious communities for the positive outcome of her case. "ICE did not expect all these non-Latino parishes to come into a space that is typically isolated, to say, 'We're keeping tabs on this. We care about Beatriz.' The different congregations made clear to ICE that this is not just an issue for Latinos. It's an issue of morality and of faith."
Castillo also notes that the NSM has been working to open up dialogue on a broad array of immigration issues throughout Chicago. "Stories are incredibly important," she added. This summer, for example, she worked with many unaccompanied minors entering the United States. "When we spoke in different communities, folks had a lot of questions: What kind of a parent would send a kid on such a dangerous journey? We turned the question around, asking people to imagine the circumstances in which they might send a child off. Clearly, the only way a parent would do that was if the journey was a better option, that what awaited them at home was far worse than the possible perils of travel."
Most of her work, she says, involves "nonsense that impacts people with no criminal record who are simply trying to get by and live their lives." This is why sharing the experiences of people like Loreto and Ramirez matter, she says, since telling their stories helps to "debunk the narrative that classifies undocumented immigrants as criminals."
Toward that end, in April, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter signed an executive order ending collaboration between federal immigration officials and the city police department. "We worked for six years to end Philadelphia's local deportation policy," said Nicole Kligerman, a community organizer with the Philadelphia NSM. "Getting the police department not to automatically cooperate with ICE is one of the most important policy changes in the country." Under the executive order, those serving less than two years in Philadelphia jails will not be questioned about their immigration status or referred to ICE.
In addition, as of mid-November, a Honduran mother and her two US-born children have taken sanctuary in the city's West Kensington Ministry.
"Some local congregations have questioned the legality of this," Kligerman said. "We make clear that it is civil disobedience. We are seeking to break an unjust law."
Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Philadelphia's Tikkun Olam Chavura is actively supporting the NSM. "If you look at the prophets - Jeremiah, Jesus, Isaiah - they saw the truth and said to people, 'Wake up and act on these truths.' The New Sanctuary Movement comes out of that tradition. The US can't make it impossible for people to live safely in their own countries and then make it impossible for them to live safely in the US."