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The Trump administration’s cruelty and callousness toward immigrants seems to know no bounds. After separating over 2,300 children from their parents at the border, the administration has shown a careless disregard for the importance of reunifying families now divided by state or even international lines. Distraught parents have been offered an impossible choice between deportation to a country where their lives may be in danger and remaining separated from their children. When ordering the administration to expedite the reunification of families, a federal court judge asserted that under the policy as it stood, “migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property.”
Yet people of conscience have been fighting back. From moms with babies occupying ICE offices to New Yorkers gathering at the airport in the middle of the night to organizers who are planning a major march for this coming Saturday, everyday decent people have been saying no to this inhumane policy. And the struggle against punitive immigration enforcement does not end there.
Even before Donald Trump announced his “zero tolerance” immigration policy, growing and powerful movements had emerged to fight the detentions and deportations playing out in cities and counties far from the border. These attacks on immigrants predated Trump, but they have intensified during the last 17 months, tearing apart families and spreading terror through communities. Among the many efforts at the forefront of the pushback is the New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of faith groups and activists working in communities all across the country. Its mission: to stand in solidarity with and, when necessary, offer protection to immigrants facing detention and deportation in their communities.
At times, this protection is quite literal. Dozens of undocumented immigrants across the United States, fearing arrest and deportation, have publicly taken sanctuary inside churches and other houses of worship in the last two years, while dozens more have gone into sanctuary under the radar. The Nation’s “Finding Sanctuary” series has documented the story of several of these men and women, including Aura Hernández who, accompanied by her children, has sought safety inside a New York church for months. She spoke to The Nation about the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of a US Border Patrol official, her decision to take sanctuary inside the Fourth Universalist Society, and her quest to tell her story and end the injustices suffered by so many at the hands of US immigration enforcement. The church that has rallied around her, the Fourth Universalist Society, is just one of the local community and religious organizations that have responded to the government’s ramped-up deportation agenda by taking it upon themselves to offer their neighbors something the government refuses them: basic security, a roof under which they don’t have to fear that federal authorities will arrest, detain, and deport them. That is: sanctuary.
The New Sanctuary Movement builds on similar efforts during the late 1980s and ’90s to protect Central American refugees fleeing US-backed wars against leftist insurgencies. Besides offering the physical refuge of a church or a temple, members of this movement seek to extend protections beyond church grounds, with the goal of creating safer communities and, eventually, turning the tide against anti-immigrant politics.
What does this work look like? Alan Yaspan, member of the Democratic Socialists of America Immigrant Justice Working Group in New York City, and volunteer with the New Sanctuary Coalition, says that part of it is “changing the culture,” including breaking down the myths about immigrants that allow people to look the other way as ICE agents stalk courthouses and conduct early morning raids.
Sara Gozalo, one of the organizers of the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC), a decade-old interfaith organization that has become a trailblazer in the movement, had an even more expansive conception of sanctuary. She defined it as “anytime you are making someone feel safe, supported, and empowered.” “Sanctuary is not just for immigrants,” Gozalo added, but extends to members of, for example, the LGBTQ community. “Everyone involved needs to feel that safety. The idea is to be a part of something,” Gozalo said.
A consistent refrain stressed by members and leaders of the New Sanctuary movement is the need to “build ourselves up as a community,” as Juan Carlos Ruiz, one of the founders of NSC, puts it. The guiding principle is “get to know your neighbor” and, from there, we can best learn how to support each other. Dan Fleshler, a NSC volunteer, explained it as “Giving friends and people a sense that neighborhoods have their backs.” Friends is how members of the New Sanctuary Movement refer to the immigrants and other people they are working to protect and build community with.
So beyond marching, calling Congress, and taking direct action to end the most recent injustices against immigrant families, how can you or your community stand in solidarity with and offer protection to those targeted by immigration agents in your community? Here are a few ways to join the New Sanctuary Movement:
1. Find Your Community. It’s important to remember that you probably don’t need to start from scratch. Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance there’s already an organization involved in the immigrant-rights or sanctuary movement nearby. Find it and attend a meeting. You can get started by checking out this map from Sanctuary Not Deportation, ”a growing movement of immigrant and over 800 faith communities doing what Congress and the Administration refuse to do: protect and stand with immigrants.” If you can’t make a meeting, reach out to see how else you can plug in.
If there are no organizations close to you, start building one. Sanctuary Not Deportation provides a Rapid Response Toolkit available for download. Beyond formal organizing, a key first step is simply initiating the conversation to learn about your community and the challenges and threats some of your neighbors might face. Ruiz emphasized the importance of “taking a risk, talking to a person [you] might not know.”
As you’re making your connections, keep in mind that “it doesn’t have to be physical sanctuary” that you offer, as Alejandro Caceres, immigration organizer for Grassroots Leadership, an Austin-based multi-pronged advocacy network, explained. You can hold Know Your Rights workshops, phone-bank members of Congress to pressure them to oppose anti-immigrant legislation and pass legislation that protects immigrants, or hold educational events to learn about the US immigration system and why people are migrating or fleeing.
2. Follow the Lead From Immigrant-led Organizing. While you’re looking for community to organize alongside and thinking about your strategy and the framing of your work, it’s critical that you take the lead from immigrant-led organizing. There are both national and local organizations doing amazing work to change the narrative and provide real protections and empowerment. Some of the key players include United We Dream, Make the Road New York, LUPE, the UndocuBlack Network, and Mijente. An easy way to support family reunification and organizing led by those who have direct experiences with immigrant detention is by donating to this crowdfunding project, sponsored by Pueblos Sin Fronteras and Freedom for Immigrants, two other inspiring organizations.
3. Go After the Institutions Detaining and Deporting Immigrants. Plug into #AbolishICE and #OccupyICE campaigns. See if there are detention centers near you and, if so, find out if there are any community campaigns to shut them down or make a productive fuss. Again, it’s worth stressing the importance of following in the steps of immigrant-led actions. One way you can do that right now is to sign up for Mijente’s call for immediate direct action to “shut down Jeff Sessions, abolish ICE, and resist a fascist future,” including an action already planned for July 2 in San Diego.
4. Donate. If you don’t have much time to give, you can always raise funds to support organizations that already offer direct services. This can involve donations to bail funds to get people out of immigrant detention or funds to help individual people in sanctuary, such as this one launched by Community Bonds. Beyond the groups and projects already mentioned, some other possibilities include the New Sanctuary Coalition, the Sanctuary Movement of Church World Services, the Immigrant Defense Project in New York, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, and Mariposas Sin Fronteras, an organization that supports LGBTQ people in detention.
5. “Accompany” or show up for vulnerable families. The work of the New Sanctuary Coalition also includes “accompaniment,” a form of supporting immigrants which involves groups of citizens joining their undocumented neighbors at their DHS check-ins or court dates, as well as rapid response networks, which involve activists descending quickly on locations of ICE raids or ICE presence and acting as witnesses and support, sometimes banging on pots and pans. At both the check-ins, in which people present themselves at an ICE office, and in courts, immigrants have been increasingly targeted in the past year for arrest. Yaspan describes accompaniment as “effective at keeping ICE in check,” as well as offering moral support. The goal of these collective efforts, he added, is to put up “as much resistance as possible.” We want to “create an environment where everyone is prepared for the worst, and ICE wouldn’t even try to enter,” Yaspan explained. Gazalo notes that a community presence also has a positive effect at bond hearings; a demonstration of support.
6. Help with legal support. The New Sanctuary Coalition runs a volunteer legal clinic where trained helpers and volunteer attorneys assist their friends in filling out paperwork, including asylum claims. In New York, Spanish speakers are urgently needed, and can show up for training at NYU Law School’s Vanderbilt Hall, Tuesdays at 6 pm. Successfully navigating the wilderness of immigration law without an attorney is almost impossible; one study found that immigrants in deportation proceedings with access to council are five and a half times more likely to be able to stay in the country. Access to even temporary professional help can make a big difference. If you can’t make it to the legal clinic in New York to lend a hand, there may be a similar project near you, or you can donate to nonprofit legal organizations that offer pro bono counsel, such as the Florence Project or CARA. To help with border communities specifically, see if you qualify to volunteer with the Texas Civil Rights Project.
7. Educate Yourself and Potential Allies. Another essential tool is NSC’s “Beyond Know Your Rights” initiative, which is not just educating those directly affected by Trump’s mass-deportation drive, but also building a network of more informed supporters and employers. They do this by canvassing businesses to train employers and employees on how to limit ICE’s reach. Other organizations have similar programs; the Immigrant Defense Project offers an extensive toolkit for dealing with ICE raids, and the ACLU released a video series, “We Have Rights” and other know-your-rights information.
8. Advocate. The best—and perhaps only—way to offer permanent protection to large numbers of immigrants is to change policy. The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD)—a NY-based organization that partners with local networks to support their struggles for racial justice, education justice, and climate justice, as well as a host of other issues—offers a Municipal Policy Toolkit for political action. Among other things, it encourages cities to provide “sanctuary” by reducing their local criminal-justice system’s entanglement with federal immigration authorities. CPD pushes for non-cooperation: local government not sharing information with ICE, not complying with ICE detainers (in which local law enforcement maintains someone in custody so ICE can pick them up), and not engaging in joint operations with DHS agencies.
When asked how effective sanctuary policies actually are for cities, Emily Tucker, CPD senior staff attorney, cites New York City as an example. New York first claimed a limited version of the sanctuary mantle in 1989, under then-Mayor Ed Koch, but it more functionally became a sanctuary city in 2014, when the City Council passed legislation limiting cooperation between both the Police and Corrections departments and the federal immigration authorities. Before this, the agencies regularly held detained individuals for ICE to pick up. Now the city keeps track of the number of immigration detainers received by ICE and the number of individuals held because of those detainers. In 2013, the first year it began tracking these numbers, the City received 628 detainer requests, and held 48 people for a longer period than it otherwise would have. In 2017, the City received 1,023 detainer requests, and held zero people because of those detainers. Sanctuary policies are far from absolute in their protection of immigrants—New York City in particular has had to contend with ICE agents prowling court rooms for people to target—but they do make a difference.
Cities that have used CPD’s toolkit to work with elected officials in order to pass, or try to pass, protective policies include Los Angeles, Denver, Milwaukee, Charlotte, Las Vegas, Baltimore; Winooski, Vermont; and Bridgeport, Connecticut. Beyond sanctuary policies, CPD’s toolkit urges cities to embrace even broader practices, like avoiding racial profiling, which tap into some of the more systemic problems—xenophobia, racism, jingoism—that are at the heart our country’s anti-immigrant policies.
Much of this policy work is being undertaken by community organizations on the local level. For example, the community organization Make The Road New York, a partner of CPD, was essential to passing the most recent sanctuary law in New York City. This sort of grassroots, local organizing, Tucker says, is a direct “response to the total intransigence in Congress…and a way to start building power from the ground up.” You can check out CPD’s list of partners to find a group doing similar work near you.
9. Simply provide a meal. If you or your house of worship aren’t ready to offer physical sanctuary, Reverend Alison Harrington of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, whom I spoke with last fall, suggested an easy first step to take: “Reach out to groups and organizations in your community and offer to provide a meal for one of their meetings.”
A meal can go a long way to start forging the connections that blossom into community, a place of safety and support—which is the ultimate goal of the movement. As another NSC volunteer, Kathy Wouk, put it simply, “The need is so clear. The fear is so great.”