On the Tuesday after the election, two dozen pastors gathered in the back room of a Lower Manhattan church to begin plotting the resistance. Most of the faith leaders were immigrants, and all of them members of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, an interfaith network of congregations, organizations, and activists. Since its founding in 2007, the coalition has worked on the front lines in the fight to protect undocumented New Yorkers from detention and deportation.
The meeting began with a prayer—“We pray you will give us all the right to remain in justice, in solidarity and in truth”—delivered by a soft-spoken Mexican priest, first in Spanish, then in English. Updates from the past week followed—reports of congregations in crisis, sleepless nights spent consoling worried parents, tearful children afraid to go to school. The mood was tense but focused, and before long they’d arrived at the main item on the agenda.
“We are here today to discuss the future of physical sanctuary,” said coalition director Ravi Ragbir, a towering Trinidadian immigrant who once spent two years in immigration detention over a wire fraud conviction. Since his release, he’s managed to avoid deportation through prosecutorial discretion, though he fully expects to be among the first targets of the upcoming raids. “It’s time for us to start thinking more radically.”
Since it emerged nine years ago, the coalition has acted in two distinct capacities. Publicly, they advocate for the city’s undocumented residents, lobbying for reforms while hosting legal clinics and solidarity events. Many of the group’s best known actions, like their monthly prayer walk around Federal Plaza to protest deportations, fall into this category. The second capacity, called physical sanctuary, is more discreet. Premised on the quasi-legal expectation that federal agents will not raid houses of worship, physical sanctuary is the act of secretly housing immigrants facing deportation. Sometimes the tactic is used to provide a temporary safe haven during an overnight raid, while other times it involves housing an immigrant for months as they await a court ruling. At least eleven Christian congregations in the city currently offer physical sanctuary.
The purpose of the meeting, Ragbir explained, was to begin thinking about how to expand the number of congregations dramatically before Donald Trump takes office. “We need to reach out to every group in this city, to every representative,” he said. “We need faith leaders to step up and show their support for physical sanctuary, because the present situation is only going to get worse.”
The present situation, Ragbir noted, is that the United States is currently expelling immigrants at a rate unprecedented in history. Under Obama, at least 2.4 million immigrants have been deported—a 21 percent jump from the previous record, held by George W. Bush. And these raids aren’t just happening in border states, like Arizona and Texas. Just a few weeks before the election, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents rounded up 25 undocumented workers during a raid on four restaurants in Buffalo. Such workplace sweeps were especially common during the Bush years, and as the legal director of the New York Immigration Coalition recently told The New York Times, the model may serve as a blueprint for the coming administration.