Faith in sanctuary
How New York churches and volunteers are offering refuge and help to undocumented immigrants
After receiving a call from Faith in New York, an group organizing progressive New York City churches, the Fourth Universalist Society, at Central Park West and 76th Street, voted to make its facility a short-term refuge for undocumented immigrants. Photo: Razi Syed
The Rev. Schuyler Vogel inside the Fourth Universalist Society, at Central Park West and 76th Street on Feb. 15. Church officials and congregation members have designated the church a refuge for undocumented immigrants. Photo: Razi Syed
The New Sanctuary Coalition works out of Judson Memorial Church on Thompson Street to provide sanctuary and legal aid to undocumented immigrants. Photo via Wikimedia
After hearing reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids around the country, an Upper West Side congregation voted to make itself a short-term refuge for undocumented immigrants.
“Hopefully it won’t be necessary to use that but there are raids that have already begun in New York City,” said the Rev. Schuyler Vogel, senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society. “So we are prepared for that, if necessary.”
On Feb. 3, Vogel received a call from an organizer from Faith in New York, a group rallying congregations to work on various social justice issues, and was asked if Fourth Universalist Society would become a short-term sanctuary. Fourth Universalist Society is not currently a member of Faith in New York but plans to become more involved in the group’s work going forward, Vogel said. Onleilove Alston, executive director of Faith in New York, said she’s been pleased to see congregations throughout the city have stepped up with commitments to provide sanctuary.
“We’re Unitarians,” Vogel said. “They have this history of asking hard questions, fighting for democratic values and liberty, and we’re part of that. Allying with other progressive, liberal people of faith was a natural avenue for us.”
Erin White, a longtime congregation member and president of Fourth Universalist Society, drafted a resolution on Feb. 5 to make Fourth Universalist Society a sanctuary, which the congregation then unanimously approved.
“We see this as being connected to our faith,” White said. “Part of our particular church’s mission is to welcome people — and this is just welcoming people in another way.”
In addition to offering sanctuary for up to 24 hours, Vogel hopes his congregation can help vulnerable communities in other ways as well.
“We’ve recently formed what we’re called a rapid response team,” Vogel said. “I gave a sermon basically asking the congregation to start getting organized. Around 70 members of a congregation of roughly 115 people signed up for the rapid response team.
“Basically, we have their contact information and we can say, ‘Our allies in the community have asked us to show up and help with this refugee situation, or with an ICE raid,’” Vogel said. “When the call does come, we’re ready to help escort people to ICE appointments, if that’s what’s needed.”
Despite the progressive values held by the majority of the congregation, Vogel said the 2016 election has been beneficial to the church, noting that attendance and participation has markedly increased in the weeks since Election Day.
Vogel said he is baffled by the nativist and nationalist views sometimes expressed by members of the religious right.
“It’s puzzling to me that you can have a religion whose savior is literally a brown-skinned Middle Easterner who is forced to be a refugee and not have that religion embrace the experience of being a refugee,” he said. “And we are a country of immigrants — most everyone in this country, except for a few, came here in some way, probably faced trouble, and the lack of foresight and compassion for people who are similarly trying to live out the American dream is hard to understand.”
Elsewhere, New York City officials are teaming up with community faith leaders to provide help for undocumented immigrants.
Panic spread through immigrant communities after the New York Immigration Coalition leaked a memo two weeks ago stating that ICE arrested “nearly 40” people in the New York City area.
Since the leak, there have been rumors about ICE agents raiding the 7 train, which runs through immigrant neighborhoods in Queens. That spurred Ravi Ragbir, leader of the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City, to hold an emergency meeting.
The New Sanctuary Coalition is a group of churches, faith leaders and volunteers working together out of the Judson Memorial Church on Thompson Street to provide sanctuary and legal aid to undocumented immigrants. Since the inauguration of President Trump, the coalition has been offering “Know Your Rights” clinics so that people know what to do during an ICE raid.
On Feb. 15, about 15 faith leaders and New Sanctuary Coalition members gathered under the rose window and Romanesque arches of the meeting hall at the Judson Memorial Church to speak with Jonathan Soto, executive director of the mayor’s new Center for Faith and Community Partnership. They discussed ICE raid rumors, plans for a rapid response team and how they can team up with city officials to move forward.
“There’s a lot of rumors and there’s a lot of misinformation. People are terrified during this process,” said Ragbir, who is himself an immigrant from Trinidad at risk of deportation.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has said that New York City will continue to be a sanctuary city despite Trump’s executive order threatening the funding of such cities. But many are still unsure of what it means to be a sanctuary city. In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, de Blasio defined a sanctuary city as ensuring that the NYPD will not hand over information about undocumented immigrants to the federal government unless that individual has committed one of the 170 “deportable crimes.”
“We want everyone in this city to cooperate with the police and know that it means they won’t get taken away from their family,” said de Blasio.
But in some instances the city has been stymied. On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security released documents that showed the change in deportation policy since Trump’s executive order, which authorize expelling undocumented immigrants convicted of any offense, no matter how minor. The new policy also expands “expedited removals,” allowing ICE to deport anyone immediately. In December, Staten Island Republicans blocked de Blasio’s efforts to destroy records of undocumented immigrants associated with the IDNYC program. In addition, under the Secure Communities program, which came into effect in 2008, the fingerprints of anyone booked by local or state police are sent to the federal government where they are likely to end up in the hands of ICE, whether or not the individual committed a deportable crime.
While meeting with the New Sanctuary Coalition, Soto talked about the Trump administration’s “muscular approach” to immigration enforcement. An AP story released last week unveiled contrasting accounts coming from the White House about plans to mobilize the National Guard against undocumented immigrants. And according to Soto, some of the individuals arrested by ICE in New York—he said there were 41—did not have any convictions, mirroring a case in Seattle last week, where a 23-year-old man was taken into custody by ICE despite having no convictions and being part of the DACA program.
“The reality here is that state and federal law trumps municipal law,” said Soto.
Soto remained hopeful that by using their first amendment rights as religious groups, the sanctuary movement and the city government can work together to calm the rising panic, provide more resources for individuals who might be in danger of deportation and create public pressure to influence the federal government.
“The [Trump] administration has no scruples about trying to push as far as they can the enforcement of the law,” said Soto. “It’s our time for the faith community to stand up and to be able to not only articulate loudly what we can do, but also create a system of networks to protect one another.”
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