By Parishioner Aurora Camacho de Schmidt, with Nicole Kligerman of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
How do we, as a Catholic community, respond to the truth of Christ, the migrant and the call of our Lord to welcome the stranger? We manifest this truth and respond to His call in. all aspects of our ministry—pastoral care, social services, education, and advocacy—and accomplish it by the participation of all in the Catholic community—clergy, religious, and the laity. As a global institution, this obligation transcends national boundaries and national interests, and thus places the Church as a defender of immigrants and refugees around the world.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, “The Catholic Church and Immigration Reform, 2009”
With immigration so critically present in the news, the New Sanctuary Committee of St.. Vincent, de Paul thought it was time to give you a sense of where we are and what we are doing. We invited the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) Philadelphia staff Nicole Kligerman to write this article with us. On Monday, February 16th, a federal judge in Texas placed a temporary stop on President Obama’s executive order to suspend the deportation of nearly five million immigrants currently in undocumented status. While this ruling is under appeal, it highlights the degree of animosity against immigrants and the ignorance on the part of significant political groups and the public of what their presence means.
THE ROOTS OF THE CRISIS
During President Obama’s tenure, 1,100 people have been deported each day, breaking families apart. This appalling number has been achieved through increased border militarization, involving local police departments in the deportation process, and anti-immigrant, legislation, much of which has been lobbied for by the private prison industry. For example, the Corrections Corp. of America, the largest private prison company in the country, was instrumental in crafting Arizona’s SB 1070 law and lobbying for it. This anti-immigrant, legislation enabled law enforcement to stop and detain any individual suspected of being in Arizona without, papers. In 2007, Congress passed a “minimum bed law,” mandating that 34,000 jail beds be filled with immigrants in deportation each day. The private prison companies that lobbied for this legislation, including the Corrections Corp. of America and the Geo Group Inc., incarcerate almost 60 percent, of all detained immigrants who face deportation in federally funded prisons. The United States operates the largest immigrant detention program in the world, and Amnesty International and other organizations have reported violations of human rights in the system. After the tragic terrorist acts of 2001, the Bush Administration placed immigration in the context of national security. Soon the country would see some of the harshest anti-immigrant laws ever debated in Congress, increased high-tech border vigilance, longer border fences, and an unprecedented number of detentions and deportations. There are 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of which 170,000 live in Pennsylvania. They are Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans, even some Europeans. They come to work, and sometimes they have escaped the constant threat, of violence. Most of them are employed, pay taxes, and live peacefully in this country. Employers in key sectors need undocumented workers, while at the same time immigration laws along with some politicians and interest groups reject them violently. Sociologist Douglas Massey refers to this rejection as “America at war with immigrants.”
DEFENSE OF IMMIGRANT RIGHTS
Not all of America is at war with immigrants. The presence of deportable Central American refugees in the United States gave rise to the first Sanctuary Movement as an active interfaith effort in Philadelphia and other cities thirty years ago, the direct precursor of the New Sanctuary Movement. Everywhere people of good will are reaching out to immigrant workers and their families. Massive demonstrations by undocumented immigrants and their allies in many U.S. cities in the last twenty years are part of a civil rights movement that includes citizens and legal residents. Historically, communities of faith have played critical roles in bending the moral arc of society towards justice. The Catholic Church is an immigrant church. Its care for foreigners rests on a long tradition of social justice theory and practice and a theology of migration contained in numerous documents by U.S. bishops, as well as the declarations of Pope Francis and his predecessors. We are heirs to a powerful tradition of care for those who have left their countries and find themselves unwanted and mistreated in a new land.
THE NEW SANCTUARY MOVEMENT IN PHILADELPHIA
The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia is an interfaith immigrant justice organization working to end injustices against immigrants. NSM’s 17 member congregations include Philadelphians from across Latin America, Haiti, Liberia, Indonesia, and the U.S. As a member congregation, St. Vincent’s organized with NSM as part of the successful Philadelphia campaign to end “ICE holds,” or cooperation between federal law enforcers and local police in deportation procedures. Philadelphia now has one of the most progressive local anti-deportation policies in the country. Recently, NSM celebrated the victory of Angela Navarro’s Sanctuary campaign. Immigration officials halted Angela’s final deportation order after she had spent 58 clays without leaving West Kensington Ministry. NSM is currently organizing to obtain driver’s licenses for undocumented Pennsylvanians, a campaign to resolve a problem that immigrants identified as one of the most pressing ones in their lives. Deportation, mass incarceration, and family separation violate our shared faith values of justice, dignity, and hospitality. As NSM immigrant leaders develop campaign strategies for just and humane immigration policies, they count on the continued solidarity and support from St. Vincent’s to persist in the struggle.
THE NEW SANCTUARY MOVEMENT AND ST. VINCENT’S
Saint Vincent’s joined the New Sanctuary Movement in May of 2011 with the full agreement of the congregation. At that point “Lucia,” a parishioner, contacted the members of the NSM committee. She had heard of “accompaniment,” a way of being present with someone at a time of distress, and “walking” with that person by giving support and encouragement. Lucia arrived in the United States at age 16 in 1996. She has two daughters. Last April, she had an accident on the job that severely damaged her shoulder. Lack of insurance and legal status prevented her from receiving the proper medical care right away. She had surgery recently and is expected to have to rest for a few months before going back to work. She will need our support, including financial help, while she recovers and cannot work. The committee expects that eventually a workmen’s compensation settlement and her physical recovery will give her and her family new independence and a measure of normal life. While St. Vincent’s cannot offer sanctuary to a person under threat of deportation, it can practice “accompaniment” as an exercise endorsed by the NSM, which often invites its members to simply be present at the hearings of children and adults in immigration court in downtown Philadelphia. To “accompany” requires a degree of identification with accompanied persons and their difficulties. But accompanied persons are in turn teachers. Their hope strengthens the faith of the congregation that offers accompaniment. The national immigrant rights movement that frames the New Sanctuary Movement is not disconnected fi*om the larger struggle for racial, economic, and social justice for poor people, and especially people of color in the United States. On the contrary, the two share goals and strategies, especially a nonviolent witness to the possibility of building a community of peace and equality, where no one is rejected, diminished, exploited, or devalued. “God upholds the cause of the orphan, the widow and the stranger,” says the Book of Deuteronomy (10:8-19). Orphans, widows, and strangers have all been severed from the person or the community that sustained them; they are close to God’s heart because of their special vulnerability. The text continues, “You too must love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thus, as the humility of our own origin is evident, we become strong, because we are the vehicle of God’s love for struggling people who face rejection and uncertainty. Only in this way we can “respond to the truth of Christ the migrant.”