By: Roxane Ramos
More than thirty years ago, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson began a Sanctuary Movement that ultimately included over 500 congregations. Once again, they are at the forefront of moral action, offering safe haven to immigrants threatened with deportation.
On May 13, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz sought refuge with his wife Karla and 13-year-old son Carlos, a U.S. citizen, at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. He was the first immigrant to take sanctuary there in three decades.
Back in 1982 in response to the threatened deportation of more than 500,000 Central Americans back to their war-torn homelands, Southside Presbyterian pastor, Reverend John Fife, declared the church a sanctuary for refugees fleeing the violence. He invoked an age-old multi-denominational tradition of providing safe haven to those in need and those in danger, the “stranger(s) among us,” but in reality, our neighbors, co-workers and friends. Ultimately, 500 congregations joined the movement, and approximately 14,000 immigrants turned to Southside Presbyterian for help. A successful lawsuit resulted in altering U.S. asylum laws to include Central American petitioners seeking refuge.
This past spring, the movement was resuscitated, and again, Southside Presbyterian led the way. With the arrival of Daniel and his family, the New Sanctuary Movement (or Sanctuary 2014) was born. According to Reverend Alison Harrington, the church’s pastor, “It’s less about the four walls, and more about the community that is sheltering them with advocacy, love and support.”
A resident of Tucson for 14 years, a taxpayer, and a police-trained neighborhood watch volunteer, with a job, no criminal record, and an American-born child, Daniel was pulled over for a smoking tailpipe. When he could not present documentation, he was taken into custody and spent a month in detention. There, none of the 100–200 detainees was allowed to shower or receive first aid; they were subjected to chilly temperatures, day-and-night music, and frequent insults shouted by agents. Karla sold their car to pay the bond, hire a lawyer, and bring Daniel home.
After one failed—and mismanaged—attempt to grant a stay and close his case, a new lawyer, public defender Margo Cowan, from Keep Tucson Together (a volunteer legal clinic run under the auspices of No More Deaths which was co-founded by John Fife in 2004) fought Daniel’s deportation on prosecutorial discretion grounds. A 2011 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) memo permits the use of discretion to close a case when a migrant has no criminal record and is not a threat to the public. This same memo advises ICE to refrain from entering “sensitive areas,” such as churches, schools and hospitals.
With his unblemished record, Daniel was finally granted a work permit and a year-long stay of deportation a month after seeking sanctuary. Two other immigrants, one in Phoenix and one in Chicago, were also granted reprieves. But eight others wait for resolution of their cases. One of them, Rosa Robles Loreto, the mother of two and an Arizona resident for more than a decade, has been in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian since August 7. In all, 24 congregations in 12 cities have declared themselves part of the movement and another 79 congregations are providing financial support, expanded services, legal assistance, and networking on behalf of the movement.
Today’s Sanctuary Movement differs from the earlier one in a number of ways, not only in the composition of the populations affected, but also in the openness of the activities. In the 1980s, the civil wars in Central America were partly funded by the U.S., creating a situation in which offering asylum to refugees was tantamount to taking responsibility for the bloodshed; the Sanctuary Movement had to proceed in an “Underground Railroad” way, keeping activities under wraps and protecting the identities of those seeking refuge. These days, the precise language of the 2011 ICE memo, the front-burner status of immigration reform, and the sheer numbers of people affected by deportation orders make publicity a tool. Moreover, in our internet age, information about the plight of immigrants with children and families in the U.S. can be—and is—transmitted instantaneously.
With last month’s announcement of President Obama’s executive order to grant three-year stays of deportation to up to 5 million undocumented immigrants, that still leaves 6 million without recourse. And with 1,000 deportations each day, there is a volume and urgency to the situation that is increasingly difficult to ignore. The New Sanctuary Movement is modest by earlier standards, but these congregations stand ready to act on their faith and protect those who seek refuge. In the meantime, our political leaders and legislators have failed to respond adequately to the issue. History has shown that the Sanctuary Movement, guided by conscience and bolstered by community, as Reverend Harrington pointed out, will not back down, and will continue to offer shelter and solace.
To Learn More: For more information about Sanctuary 2014, and sign petitions on behalf of those in sanctuary, see: http://sanctuary2014.org/