Exclusive: Five Immigrants Briefly Leave Sanctuary to Learn How to Organize

Not all of the collective's members could be in Durham for the three-day gathering, but those in attendance told Rewire.News that what they were learning would benefit all people in sanctuary—especially if they are able to get out. 

The strategizing in Durham has revolved around a simple theory: You have power. You need to figure out how best to use it, and then be willing to take calculated risks. Josh Edelson / Getty Images

Click here for more of Rewire.News’ coverage of the sanctuary coalition.

In the basement of CityWell Church in Durham, North Carolina, five undocumented immigrants, all part of a new nationwide collective, met in person for dinner. Up until then, they had only ever spoken on the phone or through video calls, but the August 10 dinner wasn’t just about sharing a bite. All five are facing deportation and, while on respite from sanctuary, risked detainment to come together and learn how to organize. It was an unprecedented move, and a historic one.

Hilda Ramirez came from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, where she has been forced to take sanctuary twice. Edith Espinal came from Clintonville, Ohio’s Columbus Mennonite Church, where she has been detained since October 2017. Samuel Oliver-Bruno has been detained since December 2017 in CityWell, which hosted much of the gathering. Pastor Jose Chicas, who has been detained in Durham’s nearby School for Conversion, was also there with his wife, Sandra Marquina, who for 13 months has been fiercely fighting for her husband’s release. Juana Luz Tobar Ortega almost didn’t come, said her oldest daughter Lesvi Molina, who spent the weekend at the meeting with her mother. Ortega was the first person to enter sanctuary in the state of North Carolina, and she has remained in Greensboro’s St. Barnabas Episcopal Church since May 2017.

“The night before, she thought about not coming,” Molina told Rewire.News at the meeting. “She had never left sanctuary before and this was a really hard decision for her. I don’t want anyone to think this was easy. But she heard of the others coming from Ohio and Texas, and she decided to do it. She needed to do this for her own sake because she knows nobody can push her case forward but her.”

Ramirez, Espinal, Oliver-Bruno, Chicas, and Ortega are part of Colectivo Santuario, an emerging, nationwide sanctuary movement first reported by Rewire.News that has members in Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Virginia. For various reasons, not all of the collective’s members could be in Durham for the three-day gathering, but those in attendance said that what they were learning would benefit all people in sanctuary—especially if they are able to get out.

“We have to fight for ourselves and fight for each other,” Espinal told Rewire.News during the first day of the meeting. “We can be a model for everyone else. We can’t let them just do what they want with us anymore; we can’t let others decide what we can and can’t do.”

The five sanctuary leaders—Edith Espinal, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, Pastor Jose Chicas, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, and Hilda Ramirez—at dinner on August 10. (Tina Vasquez / Rewire.News)

During the lunch break on August 11, the first full day of the gathering, sanctuary leaders sat together at a round table, enjoying the turkey tortas made by a local woman who catered each meal. They talked about how their peoples’ foods were different, how they were the same—banana leaves versus corn husks, spicy versus spiced—how their situations were different, and how they were the same. Ramirez, an indigenous woman from Guatemala who speaks the Mayan language Mam, fled familial violence in 2014. Espinal, an asylum seeker from Mexico, has been in the United States for almost 20 years. Oliver-Bruno, a Mexican immigrant, was apprehended in 2014 attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border to be with his gravely ill wife stateside. Chicas, who has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, fled El Salvador’s civil war. Ortega, who has been here more than 20 years, fled her native Guatemala after receiving death threats.

Despite their different paths, they were together, sharing lunch, and talking about their shared experiences of sanctuary, detainment, and family separation.

The facilitators of the meeting included Mohammad Abdollahi, a founding member of Dream Activist, Alerta Migratoria’s Viridiana Martinez, Claudia Muñoz, Alejandro Caceres, and Sulma Franco of Grassroots Leadership. Franco is very familiar with navigating the ins and outs of sanctuary, as she was previously in sanctuary in Texas. Lizbeth Mateo, an immigration attorney in Los Angeles representing several of the sanctuary leaders, was also facilitating. In March, she made history by becoming the first undocumented immigrant named to a statewide post in California.

Some of these organizers have relationships going back many years because of their collective fight to pass the DREAM Act in its earliest iterations, and because of their work with the radical youth-led organization National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), which fought for justice for undocumented people. Immigration attorney David Bennion, also present at the Durham meeting, assisted with the legal side of some of NIYA’s campaigns. Bennion currently represents Carmela Apolonio Hernández, a Colectivo Santuario member who has been detained with her four children in Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate since December 2017.

These Colectivo Santuario allies, many of whom are undocumented themselves, are using their experience strategizing, organizing, and creating successful deportation defense campaigns to help people in sanctuary get out. For many of the collective’s members, their cases have gone stale and public support has waned. The point of Colectivo Santuario is getting people out of sanctuary—not just for a three-day gathering, but for good.

Months prior to the meeting, Muñoz, Abdollahi, and Caceres visited the people in sanctuary and met with their families to learn more about their case and gauge their interest in organizing together. In the days leading up to the gathering, organizers drove Colectivo Santuario members from Ohio, Texas, and Greensboro to Durham, where they stayed in a local home and took part in sessions held at CityWell and a local nonprofit, the Center for Responsible Lending.

According to Hilary Cunningham, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and the author of God and Caesar at the Rio Grande: Sanctuary and the Politics of Religion, leaving sanctuary as a political act is not unprecedented. The professor said this was done in Arizona in the 1990s, as highlighted in her book. What’s truly groundbreaking about the Durham gathering, she said, is that the participants deliberately left to meet with others to support and organize. This “makes a stronger statement about refusing to be isolated,” Cunningham said.

“Sanctuary has been very much experienced like a lock-down, especially for those forced to stay for long periods of time,” Cunningham said in an email to Rewire.News. “Colectivo Santuario is articulating a longstanding and widespread critique within the sanctuary movement—underscoring that it is last ditch measure and not a solution. It also addresses the risk of being left to languish in sanctuary.”

In Cunningham’s ethnography, she explored some of the tensions inherent in sanctuary, covering everything from loneliness, isolation, and frustration, to paternalism, exclusion from decision-making, and internal division.

“Sanctuary communities engage with all of these,” the professor said. “What strikes me about Colectivo Santuario is its frank acknowledgement of the issues.”

[Photo: Juana Luz Tobar Ortega sitting next to her daughter Lesvi Molina.]
Juana Luz Tobar Ortega sitting next to her daughter Lesvi Molina. (Tina Vasquez / Rewire.News)
It’s true that members of the collective are experiencing tensions in their families, in their churches, and in their communities as a result of their time in sanctuary. Ortega’s daughter Lesvi Molina spoke candidly with Rewire.News about how her mom’s detainment has been hard on the entire family. While things are definitely tougher for Ortega in sanctuary, she said, her daughter has been bullied at school, with children on the bus taunting her that they saw her grandmother on the news and that she is going to be deported. The family is struggling to hold elected officials accountable and push for her release on the outside, while they are also working full-time, fulfilling day-to-day obligations, and routinely making the hour-long drive from Ashboro to Greensboro to spend time with their mother.

At times, the meeting felt like a group therapy session, a safe place for those in sanctuary to discuss the trauma of migration and the U.S. immigration system. Throughout their time together, voices would shake, tears would fall, people would have to pause from speaking to collect themselves as they discussed mistreatment by federal immigration authorities, paternalistic interactions with faith leaders, wavering support from once well-meaning community members who had no experience running deportation defense campaigns—and seemingly no understanding that a deportation defense campaign was necessary to ensure they didn’t languish in sanctuary indefinitely.

Some members of Colectivo Santuario have been told to temper their outspokenness. Abdollahi, an immigrant from Iran, explained that when he began organizing around the DREAM Act, he was expected to “behave respectfully,” to be “nice” to elected officials, to be of service to well-funded immigrant rights organizations.

“But our urgency was not their urgency,” Abdollahi said at the gathering. “This isn’t about being nice or staying in line; this is about moving whatever will work forward.”

“We were told to wait too. We were pushed aside, told to be quiet. We were told to wait for comprehensive immigration reform while our people were deported. We didn’t have time to wait, and neither do you.”

The overwhelming sentiment expressed by those in attendance was frustration; members were tired of being confined and tired of being ignored by elected officials. Few have been as outspoken as Pastor Jose Chicas and his wife, Sandra Marquina, and because of this, so-called allies have dropped away, even telling them their speaking out is “inappropriate.”

“We have been told we are not acting respectfully. We have been told that because my husband is a pastor, he must set an example,” Marquina said. “We have been told that my husband should leave the church and if he gets deported, ‘it’s God’s decision.’ But I don’t accept this, I do not accept that for my husband the only options are deportation or to be in the church the rest of his life.”

Marquina is strong in her resolve that she and her family have to be willing “to do anything” to get her husband out. She doesn’t believe the families of people in sanctuary can rely entirely on organizers to free their loved ones, or get their cases moving forward.

“I tell Viri[diana Martinez] all the time she can’t do everything,” Marquina said. “It’s on me, it’s on us. It’s on all of us to do things for ourselves. I tell my husband that I’m working on the outside, so he must work on the inside. We can’t wait for people to do things for us and that’s why we’re here [at the gathering]. We have to move forward, and we have to leave fear behind.”

Some members of Colectivo Santuario have had significant support from their communities and elected officials in their area. In April, for example, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D-PA) introduced a private bill to the House Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Hernández family, with the goal of getting Congress to intervene in their case and grant them permanent residence in the United States. And in June, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution that calls on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to reopen the family’s asylum case, and urges Congress to provide relief for Hernández.

For Colectivo Santuario members in North Carolina, however, there has been no such movement. Because of the circumstances of their particular cases, private bills may be their only chance of getting out of sanctuary.

It’s not that they haven’t tried. Marquina understands that she needs to get the support of any elected official who has the power to intervene in her husband’s case. So, earlier this month, she worked with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the director of the School for Conversion, where her husband is in sanctuary, to send an email to the office of Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane.

“Over the past 13 months, Congressmen Butterfield and Price, Senator Bernie Sanders, Mayor Steve Schewel and city and county officials in Durham have petitioned ICE on my husband’s behalf, in addition to making public statements of support,” the August 6 email read. “A few weeks ago, many of these officials came together to mark one year of our family being separated with public statements of support. As the Mayor of Raleigh, where our family lives, I hope you will please make a public statement of support …. Please, Mayor McFarlane, we need the support of everyone in this struggle to keep our family together.”

On August 10, Sarah Baker, a senior policy analyst with the mayor’s office, sent Marquina a terse response.

“The City of Raleigh does not get involved with immigration issues,” Baker wrote. “These matters fall within the purview of Federal Law Enforcement and Federal regulations. If you have further questions, please contact the Raleigh Police Department.”

Under Mayor McFarlane, Raleigh signed on to become a “welcoming city” to immigrants. The mayor’s 2014 proclamation said that Raleigh “is committed to continue building a welcoming and neighborly atmosphere… where all people, including recent immigrants, are welcome, accepted, and integrated.” This doesn’t gel with the silence Pastor Chicas has received about his case, or the email that his wife received when reaching out for support, according to the couple.

“We live in Raleigh, we pay taxes in Raleigh and it felt very inappropriate,” Marquina told Rewire.News in a phone call. “My son, my family, we took it as a threat. There was no reason to tell us to talk to the police. It felt threatening. It was inappropriate.”

The public information officer with the city of Raleigh told Rewire.News that Baker responded to Marquina “correctly”; that the city of Raleigh does not comment on federal matters, and that their response “is not intended to be ‘threatening.'”

Calculated Risks

Like many in sanctuary in North Carolina, Chicas’ case initially drew a lot of attention, including a visit from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who, Chicas said in a recent video, told him that the only way for people in sanctuary to be liberated “is for the Democrats to win the 2020 election.” But historically, a Democrat in office has meant very little to immigrant communities. Under President Obama, who critics dubbed “deporter-in-chief,” border security ramped up, asylum seekers were detained and quickly deported, and comprehensive immigration reform never came.

Now, under an administration that has doubled down on detainment and deportation, many at the Durham meeting wanted insight into how to effectively push back against Republicans in office who have “no conscience,” as Espinal said, and against Democrats and faith leaders who essentially tell them they have to wait until the next progressive president. The strategizing in Durham has revolved around a simple theory: You have power. You need to figure out how best to use it, and then be willing to take calculated risks.

“We have the power in our own bodies to push our agendas forward,” Abdollahi said.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance offers a case study. NIYA was known for its high-risk actions, including infiltrating detention centers to organize people detained inside—as Martinez famously did. The group also made nationwide headlines with its Bring Them Home campaign: the first round of which, the DREAM 9 action, was organized in part by Muñoz and Abdollahi. The DREAM 9 involved nine undocumented activists, including Mateo and Claudia Amaro (also present at the Durham gathering), who essentially “self-deported” to Mexico. They marched through the streets in their caps and gowns and presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border on a live global webcast, demanding that Customs and Border Protection let them back into the United States. The agents detained them briefly, but eventually they were all allowed to return.

NIYA did three rounds of this over the span of almost one year; the last two actions included previously deported people who were allowed to re-enter the United States with the organizers. For each action, there was an increasingly larger crowd. The DREAM 9 morphed into the DREAM 30, then the DREAM 150. All had the same result: Border agents eventually allowed the activists and deportees who had been living in Mexico to return to the United States.

Rev. Noel Andersen, national grassroots coordinator for Church World Service and a strong presence in the nationwide sanctuary movement, told Rewire.News in a statement that churches and communities often create “new tactics” in the effort “to win their [deportation defense] campaign.” Under the current administration, however, people in sanctuary and their allies have found it difficult “to gain relief through prosecutorial discretion.” In 2018, only seven cases have been won from claiming sanctuary, according to Andersen, but “the broader sanctuary movement efforts have helped hundreds get out of detention or win stays of removal throughout the country” since Trump took office.

Despite the challenges of the current political moment, none of the five members of Colectivo Santuario present at the meeting looked particularly nervous or scared. Many even repeatedly said they felt safe; leaving sanctuary to meet was the first “calculated risk” they were taking. But entering sanctuary is itself a calculated risk because it requires trusting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not violate its own sensitive locations memo. It is neither a law nor a policy, but simply a 2011 memo essentially saying that enforcement actions will not take place at schools, hospitals, churches, the site of a wedding, funeral, or other public religious ceremony, or a site of a public demonstration, such as a march or rally.

While U.S. Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) introduced the Protecting Sensitive Locations Act last year, it hasn’t moved in Congress. The 44 people currently in sanctuary, according to a list provided to Rewire.News by Church World Service, are left without any legal protection or recourse.

In a phone call with Rewire.News before the gathering, Bennion said that “the optics of dragging people out of churches” would not be good for ICE or the Trump administration. But whether that comes to be is another matter.

During the last day of the meeting, Bennion and Mateo sat in a conference room with the entire collective: listening to their stories; asking them questions about their families, their cases, their lives; and helping them formulate effective deportation defense campaigns. In the coming weeks and months, these campaigns will roll out, pushed by the sanctuary leaders and their families, who are now accountable to each other in a new way.

Over the course of the gathering, there was a noticeable shift in the ways the collective’s members discussed their predicament and their positions. Initially there was a sense they had no control over what was happening to them and their families, but by the end, members excitedly discussed plans for moving forward, acknowledging that they did have power and were ready to harness it and “move someone who can move ICE.”

When asked if she was afraid of any possible repercussions for leaving her church, or if she had any fears about moving forward, Espinal simply said “no,” and then laughed.

“I have already gone through so much, the government has already separated my family. There is nothing else to be afraid of,” said the mother of three. “I have no fear because I know I must fight for myself. I’m ready to fight and defend myself.”