Monday, August 04, 2008

The New Sanctuary Movement

by Sara Foss
Schenectady Daily Gazette
August 4, 2008

Pedro was not the man police were looking for.

It didn’t matter. He was arrested anyway.

He was pulled over last winter while driving through Albany. Five police cars surrounded his vehicle and he was ordered to step out of his car. “When I got out of the car, they held guns up to me,” he said in Spanish, through a translator. “They pulled me out of the car and threw me on the ground.”

The police were searching, Pedro later learned, for a man wanted in connection with the robbery of a convenience store; the suspect had been described as Hispanic. But when police brought Pedro to the store, the manager said they had the wrong person. “They asked her three times,” Pedro recalled. “They said, ‘Are you sure it isn’t him?’ ” The manager said no, it wasn’t him, but Pedro’s problems were just beginning.

Pedro, 26, is an illegal immigrant. To protect his identity, The Gazette is using a pseudonym.

He’s lived in the Capital Region for five years after moving here from Mexico in the hopes of earning money to support his family. He was charged with possessing a forged instrument — a Mexican driver’s license — and possessing a weapon, the switchblade police found in the trunk of his car where Pedro keeps the tools he uses for work. He spent the next five weeks in jail wondering whether he would be deported.

It’s possible that Pedro would still be languishing in jail, or back in Mexico, if a new grassroots group called the New Sanctuary Movement hadn’t come to his aid. A coalition of labor and religious groups, the New Sanctuary Movement aims to help immigrants, particularly those who are in the U.S. illegally and run into trouble. When coordinator Fred Boehrer learned of Pedro’s plight — the two men are friends — the group sprang into action.

The New Sanctuary Movement group in Albany is part of a larger movement.

Today there are more than 20 New Sanctuary chapters, all founded within the past couple of years, scattered throughout the United States.

The Albany chapter of the New Sanctuary Movement has been meeting since spring 2007, when immigration raids in Coeymans, Valatie and Schodack resulted in the arrest of about three dozen illegal immigrants.

Members say they formed the Albany chapter largely in response to stricter immigration laws that they consider overly punitive and harsh, as well as public discussion about the issue that they view as xenophobic and ignorant.

The New Sanctuary Movement isn’t exactly new.

In the 1980s, similar groups formed with the goal of assisting Latin American immigrants fleeing violence and war in their home countries; at that time, the movement was known as the Sanctuary Movement.

Boehrer said the Albany group has several goals. These goals include providing illegal immigrants with legal assistance and practical support such as transportation and information about health care, as well as educating Capital Region residents about immigrants and visiting immigrants in jail.

The group also plans to provide “radical hospitality” — safe places to stay, sponsored by religious congregations such as churches and synagogues — to illegal immigrants who have run afoul of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

There have been cases of radical hospitality in other cities, such as Chicago, where an illegal immigrant named Flor Crisostomo is living in Adalberto United Methodist Church, but none here. If a house of worship were to provide radical hospitality, New Sanctuary members would contact Homeland Security and inform them of the immigrant’s whereabouts.

The Sanctuary groups of the 1980s provided immigrants with shelter, but kept the locations secret. The new movement, Boehrer said, strives for openness in the hopes of sparking a conversation about immigration and publicly challenging the country’s immigration laws.

“[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents are very leery of raiding religious congregations with the purpose of arresting and deporting people,” he said. “That’s part of what the movement is about. As religious organizations, we have the ability to provide a safe place, to welcome a stranger, the immigrant, in a way that’s practical and prophetic. . . . As a Christian, part of my faith tradition is to offer assistance to immigrants and welcome the stranger. There are times when what our faith teaches us is in conflict with what the country’s laws are.”

Read more here.

© The Daily Gazette Co. 2008

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