Sanctuary from detention, large fines and near-certain deportation

Mothers being sheltered in PC(USA), other faith communities speak out against current U.S. immigration practices

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Thursday’s press conference included, in the lower left, Hilda Ramírez , who with her son lives in Sanctuary at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, and, to her left, Amanda Craft, manager of advocacy in the PC(USA)’s Office of Immigration Issues. (Screen shot)

LOUISVILLE — Six years ago, Hilda Ramírez arrived in the United States with her seven-year-old son, Ivan, after fleeing Guatemala. She spent a year in a Texas detention center, where she led women on a hunger strike. Four years ago, she and her son were offered Sanctuary at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, where they remain even as they face deportation and fines in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Ramírez and four other mothers, all of them in Sanctuary care at churches across the country, participated in a press conference Thursday organized by the Sanctuary Collective and local Sanctuary groups, including the Austin Sanctuary Network. View their discussion here.

“We have not been able to have a normal life,” Ramírez said. “I am afraid one day they will come in the church and take me away.”

Immigrant rights remains a deep divide in the nation, with presidential candidates Donald J. Trump and Joe Biden speaking about their plans for undocumented immigrants during Thursday’s debate. Biden said he favors a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Trump has proposed a merit-based immigration system and has ended protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, a matter that’s been brought before the Supreme Court.

During Thursday’s webinar, other mothers told stories of surveillance and six-figure fines levied against them by immigration authorities, fines that in many cases have since been reduced or rescinded.

“Last year I got a letter with a fine and a ridiculous amount I was supposed to pay,” said Abbie Arevalo, who’s in Sanctuary in a Unitarian Universalist church in Richmond, Virginia, after fleeing domestic violence in Honduras. “It was very painful for me to receive that letter.”

“It’s hard for us to keep living inside churches. We can’t go out,” Arevalo said. “The trauma of living within walls is enough, but I have children, and I want a bright, beautiful future for them. I don’t think saving my life is something I should be punished for.”

“We don’t know why the politicians aren’t supporting us,” said Edith Espínal, who’s been in Sanctuary in a Mennonite church in Columbus, Ohio for nearly three years. [Immigration and Custom Enforcement] is looking for ways to pull us out of Sanctuary … They are trying to intimidate us, to silence us. I think this is unfair, because there is no law against keeping families together. I will continue to fight for my case. I will not be silenced or intimidated. God will help me get through this.”

“We are isolated and unable to contribute to the community. It has been difficult for all of us,” said Vicky Chavez, who left Honduras with her two daughters nearly three years ago and is in Sanctuary in a Salt Lake City-area church. “We are tired, but we are not tired of fighting for our families.”

Also appearing during the news conference was Amanda Craft, the manager for advocacy in the PC(USA)’s Office of Immigration Issues.

Amanda Craft

“The decision to take Sanctuary really is out of the agency of each of these individuals,” Craft said. “It’s a decision that comes with such difficulty and challenge, but it’s made out of their sense of who they are … It’s really the act of these courageous women who are the stars of this ministry, and it’s from them that we take our lead how we accompany, support and engage advocacy on their behalf.”

Craft traced the roots of the Sanctuary movement back to Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, where the church’s pastor emeritus, the Rev. John Fife, co-founded the organization No More Deaths and was elected moderator of the 204th General Assembly (1992).

“That ministry was a specific expression to the denial of our government about its participation in civil wars and armed conflicts creating refugees in Central America,” who ended up at the U.S. southern border, Craft said. These days, Sanctuary is an interfaith ministry. Almost all faith institutions see their faith communities “as a location of refuge where people have the opportunity to be protected and have access to due process, which takes into account the family’s needs,” Craft said. “For the PC(USA), this ministry has been strongly supported in national church policy since the 1980s.”

The PC(USA) “continues to reaffirm the expression of faith done through Sanctuary and supports other denominations as they support those in Sanctuary,” Craft said. “It is the opportunity for the church to live out the fullness of God’s glory.”

During a question-and-answer session, Chavez said the best thing people can do is “help us lift our voices about all the suffering we are experiencing. This will show the government we have a lot of support from the communities and what we are living through is unjust and inhumane … We have been living in Sanctuary for three or four years thanks to this broken system and we don’t know what’s going to happen to our families.”

Following the news conference, Craft said in the past, most women and children who have sought Sanctuary have been able to leave the church in a matter of months or a year at the longest. “In general, it has led to stays of removal. They can live a more normal life and support their community,” Craft said. “It’s not a legal pathway to permanent status, but they can fight their case outside of Sanctuary.”

“What has become a challenge,” in recent years, she said, “is this really sinful way in which people’s humanity is completely erased. All this is being done to deter them from their rights.”

Craft praised the courage and fortitude it has taken for the women to wage their years-long battle in the U.S.

“These extraordinary women make impossible decisions to keep their families together. They do it with immense faith and immense hope,” Craft said. “Therefore, it is our responsibility to walk with them carrying that same hope regardless of a [possible] administration change. Our work and our commitment remain the same — to accompany the orphan, widow, and the stranger, especially when the world ignores, neglects, exploits or oppressed them.

“God’s hope is immeasurable,” she said, “and we must live into it.”

Learn more about the PC(USA)’s involvement in the Sanctuary movement here.


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