Radical Sanctuary: Faith Groups Rally Around Migrant Youth

On any given Tuesday or Thursday afternoon, nineteen-year-old mothers holding babies crowd into a small, storefront room of the Evangelical Garifuna Church in the South Bronx, New York. Wearing GPS-monitored ankle bracelets that mark them as recently released detainees from immigration enforcement facilities, they huddle over asylum applications with Gregoria Flores—a Honduran refugee herself.

A reverend holding her daughter stands in front of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"If the U.S. government does start deporting kids out of the community, some congregations are ready to stand up and say, ‘You can’t deport them to certain death,’” says Reverend Allison Harrington of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Alonso Parra.

“I came here without my family,” Flores said. “Some organizations showed me what to do. I’m taking my experience to help other people now.”

Flores, who is forty-seven, was granted asylum in the United States in 2007, after her work in Honduras with the indigenous Garifuna community there led to death threats from her government. These days, resituated in a Honduran enclave in the Bronx, she’s become the go-to person for Honduran immigrants for help on everything from buying Metro cards to finding a lawyer.

“A lot of people knew me in Honduras,” Flores said. “One day when I came out of my building I saw somebody I knew from Honduras. He said, ‘Somebody told me you live in this neighborhood, so I’ve been looking for you. I need help. You worked with us in Honduras, why are you not working with us here?’”

So Flores began to offer advice to her community. She translated documents, enrolled children in school and referred women in abusive relationships to domestic violence shelters. In July, with twenty-seven other volunteers, she began holding regular drop-in hours at Evangelical Garifuna, a local Mennonite church that let Flores, who attends a nearby Pentecostal church, take over a room. Flores’s group doesn’t have a website; people who show up hear about her from friends and family. Yet within a month of opening, Flores’s clinic had provided donation, referral, or translation services for more than 300 people. By mid-October that number had grown to 500. Ninety-eight percent of her clients, Flores said, are refugees fleeing gang-related violence in the Honduras.

“Our first priority is getting legal help,” Flores said. “Second, education. Third, clothes and information.”

All over the country, people like Flores in communities of faith are on the front lines of a renewed and growing movement pushing for basic aid and a path to legalization for some 11 million migrants living in the United States without legal status. Many are organizing relief for tens of thousands of recently arrived women and youth migrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

In New York, the Mennonite church that hosts Flores’s clinic kicks down $600 every month to help clients cover transportation costs. Flores’s services are gaining other supporters as well. A Catholic church nearby will be helping her to open a new legal clinic soon, and an immigrant rights nonprofit, the New York Immigration Coalition, is helping Flores’s group reach more immigrant youth in the area.

Woman stands by water.

Gregoria Flores is "the go-to person for Honduran immigrants for help on everything from buying Metro cards to finding a lawyer," writes Lo. Credit: Gregoria Flores.

In Chicago, Tucson, Philadelphia, and the San Francisco Bay Area, congregation members and clergy are creating networks and expanding existing services to support recent and long-time undocumented migrants. They’re visiting adult and youth migrants in detention centers, helping them reunite with their families upon release, and collecting and donating money for legal assistance and other needed services.

Unaccompanied Migrant Children

“The story of unaccompanied migrant children is as old as the story of baby Moses in the book of Exodus,” said Rev. Deborah Lee, addressing the San Francisco Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights at a meeting this September. “It took many people willing to take risks, to cross borders, to transgress orders, to open up their hearts and homes to save baby Moses from danger.”

Lee, the coalition’s director, called upon the interfaith community to act similarly to the midwives who “chose the protection of life over Pharoah’s law of genocide and death” and allowed baby Moses to live.

“When laws, edicts of death and genocide lie before us, what is our personal call to conscience?” she asked. “How ought we to organize for the protection and preservation of life and give account for our actions?”

Lee is currently supporting four congregations in the San Francisco Bay Area that have declared publicly that they will defy the law to offer room, board, and support to immigrants facing final deportation orders. And she is working in coalition with a total of forty congregations in twelve cities across the country that have declared the same.

Visiting the West County Detention Center

Since June, the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, a program of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California, and two other groups — CIVIC – Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement and Centro Legal de la Raza — have formalized and coordinated a system to connect volunteers from supporting congregations with migrants in detention, facing immigration hearings, or getting released from detention. Known as the Post Release Accompaniment Program, it is based on a similar program that the Interfaith Committee for Immigrant Detention began in Chicago seven years ago. It now connects forty volunteers with around thirty migrants leaving detention per month.

Circle of people gathered in a vigil.

The Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights holds a monthly vigil outside of the West County Detention Facility. Credit: Alex Madonik.

Here’s how the Bay Area system works: Every Friday, a handful of volunteers visit between thirty and eighty detained migrants in West County Detention Center. The migrants are typically locked up for three or four months before they’re either deported or released. Because all phone calls from detention centers are collect calls and are generally too expensive to make, the volunteers pass on information between detainees and their families.

Yanina Salazar spent the last month coordinating rides and tracking travel plans for twenty-nine people she had never met before, all of whom were released from West Contra Costa County Detention Center in Richmond, California. The majority of migrants look younger than twenty-four—and many are “barely eighteen,” she said. She rattled off some of their names and then noted who actually got released, and when.

“It’s never like they say it will be,” she said, sighing. She’s been the main volunteer coordinator since August.

By and large, Salazar said, the fifty volunteers she’s been coordinating are brought together by faith-based groups in the San Francisco Bay Area and are mainly white, Baptist, Catholic, or Unitarian, and over fifty-five years old. They’re working in tandem with a Spanish-speaking, predominantly Latino church in East Oakland, Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana. The pastor there, Father Pablo Morataya, reached out to allied churches in the area after his congregation was joined by several families that recently migrated from Central America to escape violence there.

Drawing on the information passed on by the volunteers who make visits to the detention center, and from an Oakland-based legal nonprofit, Centro Legal de la Raza, which helps families negotiate for more affordable bail amounts, Salazar knows which detained migrants will be getting released and approximately when, how to contact their families, and where they need to go.

If they’re scheduled to be released, then Salazar lines up a ride and housing for them—but possibly she just goes herself.

Several people stand, some waiting to pick up food donations on a table.

In its first month of operation, the clinic at Evangelical Garifuna Church "provided donation, referral, or translation services for more than 300 people." Credit: Gregoria Flores.

Volunteers like Salazar become de facto personal assistants, travel agents, translators, and life coaches for people with very few resources navigating an incredibly complex bureaucracy. Salazar has found herself on the phone, talking a Quechua speaker through faxing a document at Kinko’s. She’s encountered obstacles that confound immigrant families daily, like how, in order to pay the bond for a detainee’s release, you have to drive all the way to the nearest U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office. That means if you live in Las Vegas, you have to get to Los Angeles. And once the bond is paid, Salazar has learned, you still have to call the detention center every hour.

“Even if you paid at 9 a.m., the person might not be released until 5 p.m.,” she said. That’s what happened the night before, she said. She picked up one man, whom she took back to her home, where he washed his clothes for the first time since he was picked up by Border Patrol. She made him dinner, and he showered.

What you notice after a while, Salazar said, is “coming out of jail—they just want to feel the breeze and breathe. You also start noticing how much they eat. You just don’t want to eat until they’re done.”

Once they’ve showered and eaten, migrants face challenges traveling to meet family. People released from detention often only have identification bracelets from jail. Volunteers providing accompaniment generally have to negotiate with security agents and staff supervisors at airports or bus stations before migrants are allowed to board planes or buses.

“I get calls as early as 5 a.m.,” Salazar said, “and as late as 10 p.m.”

Since June, eighty-one migrants have received support from Salazar’s network. “It’s hard to see them go,” Salazar said.

Taking Sanctuary in Places of Worship

The faith community has a long tradition of providing support and refuge for immigrants. In the 1980s, when more than 500,000 people fleeing death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador were not recognized by U.S. asylum laws as political refugees, more than 500 congregations became part of a sanctuary movement that operated an “underground railroad” to provide safe passage for refugees and connected them to legal advice, money and safe houses, according to Sanctuary2014.org. The movement prevented thousands of Central Americans from being deported, the website states, before it successfully filed a lawsuit that changed U.S. asylum laws to include Central American petitioners as refugees.

Woman sits in front of shelves of clothes in a church.

Threatened with deportation, Rosa Robles Loreto is currently taking sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Alonso Parra.

The concept of places of worship offering sanctuary, or safety, to people in trouble goes back thousands of years and is common to many faith traditions. There are no laws in the United States that prevent Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from entering a site of sanctuary, Anderson from Church World Service said, “but we know symbolically the tradition of sanctuary holds significant moral values within our culture and society.”

Courts have ruled both ways on whether it’s illegal for a church to aid someone who is in the country without status. Sanctuary activists hope that a 2011 memo issued by the ICE director at that time, John Morton, will mean that immigration officials will stay out of sanctuary sites. The memo allows officers prosecutorial discretion, stating that undocumented migrants who are not a threat to public safety and have no criminal history are not to be prioritized as targets for deportation. ICE also has a policy of staying out of “sensitive areas” like churches, hospitals, and schools.

The Revival of the Sanctuary Movement

Today, frustration with the Obama administration’s continued deportations at the rate of 1,000 people a day, plus the humanitarian crisis at the border, has prompted many people of faith to organize more formally, in the spirit of a “new sanctuary movement,” to support new arrivals from Central America as well as undocumented migrants who have long lived in the United States.

Noel Anderson, a grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, a faith organization that advocates for immigrant rights, convened the first national conference call in early September that brought together fifty people working in different coalitions to discuss national sanctuary strategy for the first time since the 1980s. Church World Service has members from thirty-seven different denominations working on immigrant rights issues, Anderson said.

“We are beginning to mobilize nationally,” he said. “Everyone is coming back together.”

A GPS-monitored ankle bracelet on an ankle.

A migrant at the Evangelical Garifuna Church displays the GPS-tracked ankle bracelet she is forced to wear. Credit: Gregoria Flores.

Before a case gets to the point of sanctuary, there’s plenty to do, said Anderson. He refers to this as “accompaniment.” For adults facing deportation, accompaniment includes making calls to the local ICE office and the Department of Homeland Security, writing letters, creating petitions, and holding vigils and actions. If none of that works, Anderson said, “Then sanctuary becomes a real opportunity to win their case and for us to lift up these stories of immigrant prophets in the larger public square to influence national policy around granting deferred action at the national level.”

So far, seven people have taken sanctuary in churches this year. The first person was thirty-six year-old Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, who stayed at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, for nearly a month in May before winning a one-year stay on his deportation. A Mexican immigrant, Ruiz had lived in Tucson for eleven years when, three years ago, he was stopped by a cop for a smoky tailpipe and eventually served a final deportation order. Rosa Robles Loreto, described by Southside Presbyterian’s pastor, Rev. Allison Harrington, as a “soccer mom” facing deportation, is currently staying at the church.

“What makes sanctuary work is that all of the sudden, people can come out of shadows and into community support,” Harrington said. “It’s less about the four walls and more about the community that is sheltering them with advocacy, love, and support. Right now Rosa is not just sitting. We are working every day to get her case closed and lift up her story.”

Tucson was the birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s. As many as 14,000 Central American refugees passed through her church alone, Harrington estimated, adding that it was a lot of “church ladies who made casseroles” who held together that movement.

Today, “the movement is growing,” she said. “We’re still trying to figure out: How strong are we? How many? I would say that if we really started counting congregations that are ready to go it’d be close to 200 right now nationally.”

The Distinct Needs of Unaccompanied Minors

Increasingly, the masses of undocumented youth who show up at the U.S. border—only to be detained, then rushed through an overwhelmed immigration court and possibly sent home again—have become a powerful symbol, rallying people on every side of the immigration debate.

Accompaniment for Central American children often looks different than for adults. The children who are being deported are those who are unable to cross the border without falling into the hands of ICE—a rapidly increasing number due to the militarization of the border. They’re taken to detention centers, and depending on whether an immigration judge decides their case should be considered for asylum, these children are either deported directly from ICE facilities or released to family members in the United States.

Woman testifying at a city council meeting.

Betsy Plum testifies before the New York City Council on the issue of unaccompanied migrant minors with one of the youths from the Garifuna community seated next to her. Credit: New York Immigration Coalition.

Due to the increased militarization at the U.S.-Mexico border, said Betsy Plum, who works for the New York Immigration Coalition, not even “coyotes”—smugglers who, until recently, escorted migrants trying to cross the border North into the United States—are able to cross anymore.

“They just stop the truck and surrender the children to Border Patrol,” she said.

That’s what happened to Werner Anibal Zuniga Cruz, who last December at age seventeen spent two weeks making the expensive and perilous journey north to the Rio Grande from his hometown in rural Guatemala. After accidentally leading Cruz’s group astray for two days in the blazing desert heat, Cruz’s guide turned Cruz and about a dozen other migrants over to authorities at the U.S. border.

Cruz was taken to a juvenile facility in Harlinger, Texas, where he stayed for three months—until he turned eighteen. Cruz, unlike many in his situation, had access to a lawyer. Only half of unaccompanied minors appearing before Immigration Court have legal representation, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which looked at 100,000 cases. The clearinghouse found that in almost half of cases where a minor had a lawyer, the court allowed the child to stay in the United States. In comparison, in cases where a child appeared before a court without a lawyer, in nine out of ten times the child was deported.

Cruz was released from detention in June. Now he lives in South San Francisco, sponsored by an uncle he hadn’t met before. Cruz is one of the lucky ones. He qualifies for “special immigrant juvenile status,” an immigration classification that allows certain undocumented migrants under the age of twenty-one who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents to apply for and obtain legal permanent residence in the United States. He has a stay of deportation until April while his lawyer works on his case.

Cruz, whose family spent a total of $10,000 on his journey, rents a room in a house with an elderly couple for $400 a month and makes $10 an hour working with his uncle at an auto body shop in a nearby town. He also washes cars.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” he said incredulously. Only five people from his group of fifteen who left Guatemala together have remained in the United States.

Numbers of child and youth migrants detained at the border have been on the rise since 2000—and steeply since 2011. According to Border Patrol records, during fiscal year 2011, nearly 16,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended along the Southwest border. In fiscal year 2012 that number jumped to 24,000, and in fiscal year 2013, 35,000 minors were picked up. In fiscal year 2014 66,000 were stopped. Ten thousand children came over in June alone. (Since then, the numbers have dropped.)

Supporting Youth in Detention

Like Cruz, most unaccompanied minors are detained by ICE immediately upon arrival. For many groups it has been a struggle to figure out how best to channel the public outpouring of care into support for the real needs of undocumented youth that have arrived.

In July, the TODEC (Training Occupational Development Educating Communities) Legal Center—a nonprofit ten minutes away from Murietta, California, that provides legal aid and resources to immigrants—was flooded with faith-based and secular supporters who wanted to support migrant women and children after hundreds of anti-immigration protesters in Murietta blocked Department of Homeland Security buses attempting to drop off migrant women and children at a Border Patrol center.

A youth assistance fair carried out by Iglesia Garifuna in the Bronx to serve the needs of migrant children. Credit: Betsy Plum.

Earlier in the summer, youth at TODEC had begun putting together a database of people in the area that said they could offer support to migrants in need. The list of offerings included donations of backpacks and shoes, temporary housing, medical and dental services. Before the rally, the database listed offers of help from forty people, said TODEC employee Luz Gallegos. The day after the rally at Murietta made the news, the database swelled with 300 names. It now boasts 400 people.

“It surpassed the hate,” Gallegos said. “We got calls from people saying, ‘I was never in favor of immigration reform, but what I saw yesterday changes my mind.’”

For weeks after, the front door of the office would be nearly barricaded by boxes of clothes and other donations. Eventually, however, TODEC had to tell people to stop dropping off donations. They were not getting used.

Children, Gallegos explained, once released from detention, went to live with family who were already established in the area. They rarely needed outside support.

“This is a family reuniting itself,” she said. “These families have houses and businesses here, but not status. They were waiting to bring their families legally. But now that immigration reform is dead, what do these families do? Families want to be together. They migrate.”

Nevertheless, there is still a great deal that congregations can do to support undocumented children. Congregations are collecting items to take to children locked up at DHS holding facilities, providing religious visitation and pastoral care, donating for legal services, finding case workers for child migrants facing deportation, doing advocacy work around gang prevention, and opposing changes in immigration law that would make it easier to deport youth.

So long as children are apprehended immediately and deported from detention centers, “there’s no way to intervene,” Rev. Allison Harrington said. “But if the U.S. government does start deporting kids out of the community, some congregations are ready to stand up and say, ‘You can’t deport them to certain death.’”

This article is part of a Media Consortium collaboration on immigration reform. For more articles, please follow #TMCimm


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