These Undocumented ‘Sanctuary Leaders’ See Direct Action as Their Only Hope

"Direct action can produce results that legal avenues can’t always get you to."

[Photo: Advocate rallying to support sanctuary leader Alirio Gámez in North Carolina.]
"Whatever the approach, people can literally spit in your face or like, do the political version of that,” said one advocate. “But you do it because you have a family that needs you and you need these people with power to pay attention to you.” Grassroots Leadership

For nearly nine hours on October 10, Carmela Apolonio Hernandez put her body on the line at Democratic Sen. Bob Casey’s office in Center City, Philadelphia, risking arrest—or worse.

The undocumented mother has a final order of removal, which pushed her into taking sanctuary at the George W. South Memorial Church of the Advocate last December. After ten months in sanctuary, she left the church that day with one goal: to see the Pennsylvania senator and ask him to do more for her.

Casey has been in touch with her family and attorney, but Hernandez and her advocates are asking him to do more: to introduce a private bill on her behalf, like the Democratic representative for Pennsylvania’s District 1, Bob Brady, did in the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in April, or to use his authority to put pressure on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But Casey hasn’t yet intervened in those ways.

Hernandez’s action at Casey’s office is just one of many recent examples of disenfranchised, vulnerable people using confrontation to disrupt the status quo and speak their truth. Ana Maria Archila and Maria Gallagher come to mind. Archila and Gallagher cornered Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona in an elevator earlier this fall after a hearing in which Christine Blasey Ford testified against then-nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. They made Flake listen to their stories of survival, and when it became too uncomfortable for Flake to make eye contact with the women, Gallagher yelled, “Don’t look away from me! Look at me and tell me that it doesn’t matter what happened to me.”

Flake had previously said in a statement that he would vote in favor of Kavanaugh, but after the exchange in the elevator, he called for an FBI investigation into Ford’s allegations. Flake did eventually vote to confirm Kavanaugh, and despite Ford’s painful testimony, which she called her “civic duty,” Kavanaugh’s nomination advanced. But Archila and Gallagher’s action still made a difference, especially for survivors.

Archila told Rewire.News’ Katelyn Burns that telling her story in such a public way was cathartic and she hoped it would force Flake and others to see the humanity of sexual assault survivors. “This is a demonstration that what thousands of people have been doing—telling our stories and standing up for ourselves—is working,” she said.

Immigrants who have taken sanctuary at churches across the country are hoping to see their direct actions start working in similar ways.

Hernandez, who recently announced she was leaving Church of the Advocate to take sanctuary at the Germantown Mennonite Church, is a member of Colectivo Santuario, an informal nationwide group comprised of people in sanctuary—or “sanctuary leaders,” as they are called by the activists working with them—who are organizing together for their freedom.

In the weeks since the sanctuary leaders gathered in Durham to learn organizing techniques, including strategies for direct actions, sanctuary leaders like Hernandez have left their churches to perform acts of civil disobedience, confronting elected officials after months of being ignored. Some have seen their elected officials write letters of support on their behalf, while others have struggled to receive what they feel is an adequate response.

The day Hernandez took over Casey’s office, she never saw the senator and only spoke to him by phone. Casey did hold a press call that day about Hernandez, during which he released sensitive information that she said Casey was not authorized to disclose publicly. She told Rewire.News that Casey’s office didn’t inform her or her attorney about the call and didn’t tell her before sharing that sensitive information with the media.

“I wanted [Casey] to really see me and really hear me and to let me tell my story,” Hernandez said.

In the days after the direct action, Casey visited the other two families in sanctuary in Philadelphia, who are also represented by David Bennion and his organization, the Free Migration Project. But Casey did not visit Hernandez in the Church of the Advocate. The mother of four believes the senator made a decision not to visit her because of her direct action. But “protest should make people uncomfortable,” she said.

When asked by Rewire.News to respond to Hernandez’s claims, a Casey spokesperson said the senator’s office “continues to work with Ms. Hernandez and her family on her case.”

Though her day-long ordeal resulted in nothing tangible for her family, who remain separated, Hernandez said that something good did come out of it.

“Nothing has changed for me here, but maybe my actions are why he visited the other families,” she said. “And [if so] I’m happy with that.”

“All We Want Is Freedom”

Other sanctuary leaders who have taken direct action include Alirio Gámez and Hilda Ramirez, who have both been in Austin, Texas, churches since January. On September 26, Austin Sanctuary Network accompanied the sanctuary leaders to the offices of U.S. Reps. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) and Will Hurd (R-TX), where they performed a sit-in and confronted the Texas lawmakers, telling them their personal stories of migration, criminalization, and the human cost of immigration enforcement.

Ramirez is a slight, soft-spoken, and shy woman, which is clear in the video of her speaking to an aide at Hurd’s office. Her bottom lip trembles as she tells her story, wiping tears away from her eyes. Being on display in such a vulnerable way with cameras rolling is Ramirez’s version of a nightmare, but it is yet another way she has been forced to dip into a seemingly never-ending well of courage to propel herself forward.

Ramirez is an indigenous woman from Guatemala currently detained at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin. This is the second time she has had to take sanctuary. Previously, she spent 11 months in family detention with her son. Her experience in the United States has almost entirely been in confinement, and she is tired of it.

Gámez, a Salvadoran immigrant who was denied asylum, is currently detained inside Austin’s First Unitarian Universalist Church. In the 15 months he has spent in sanctuary, Gámez has been rushed to the emergency room at least five times, according to organizers who work with him closely. He has experienced a number of health issues, but the underlying issue is stress. Ramirez says she too feels “sick,” suffering from bouts of anxiety and depression.

“I want the American people to listen to the voices of people in sanctuary, and I want people to care about us and help us get out. We are all sick in our churches, the stress makes us sick. If we get deported, we face death. This is all very traumatic and all we want, all the people in sanctuary want, is freedom,” Ramirez said.

Other families likewise just want to be left alone.

Lesvi Molina’s mom, Tobar Ortega, has spent the last 20 months of her life in sanctuary at St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. The family feels like they’ve exhausted all other avenues—from phone banking and lobbying in D.C. to having a Fourth of July cookout outside the High Point office of North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. At this point, Molina said in October, “direct contact is all that’s left.”

Molina visited D.C. with organizers in October with the goal of meeting with Tillis in his Senate office. Since her mother’s earliest days in sanctuary, her family has hounded the Republican senator to “do the right thing.” Tillis has remained steadfast in his unwillingness to introduce a private bill or work with the family in any way to show his support for Ortega to remain in the country.

No one understands how broken the immigration system is better than her family, Molina told Rewire.News, and what they’re asking for isn’t an overnight overhaul. They just want their mom to be able to live her life outside of the Greensboro church’s walls without fear of deportation.

“Direct action can produce results that legal avenues can’t always get you to,” explained Bennion, who works alongside the team of activists and organizers helping members of Colectivo Santuario with their deportation defense campaigns. “When you situate the injustice in an individual so clearly and so directly, it can be very powerful.”

From the civil rights movement to the Movement for Black Lives, Black people have paved the path for organizing and direct action in the United States. Following their lead, immigrant rights organizers have made significant strides for their undocumented communities.

As examples, Bennion cited the seemingly endless number of sit-ins, public protests, and other acts of civil disobedience in 2010 led by undocumented youth pushing for the DREAM Act. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pushed for the bill’s passage in part, Bennion said, because he was afraid of losing the Latino vote. The federal DREAM Act never came to fruition, but Latinos “did save Harry Reid” in his 2010 election against Sharron Angle.

And while journalists and other people in media often frame DACA as something President Obama “gave” to undocumented young people, immigrant rights activists spent much of 2012 protesting Obama’s mass deportations and demanding recourse against detainment after the failure of the DREAM Act. Bennion said undocumented organizers were working with Republicans for the possible passage of a bipartisan DREAM Act. In order to “stop the political bleeding,” as the attorney said, Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Bennion said it would be wise for Democrats to remember the many instances in which immigrant communities made a significant impact on their political futures; such was the case for Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan, who lost her election in North Carolina largely because of the ways she turned her back on immigrant communities. One of the people who publicly held Hagan accountable was Viridiana Martinez, who at the time was a young, undocumented organizer in the state. She is now the co-founder of Alerta Migratoria NC, an immigrant-led grassroots organization based in Durham, North Carolina, and focused on deportation defense work. Martinez is also one of the primary organizers working with Colectivo.

A Bipartisan Approach

Part of the reason undocumented organizers have succeeded in some deportation defense campaigns is because they take a bipartisan approach, reaching out to conservative Republicans who do support immigrant communities. This is certainly true of Martinez and Claudia Muñoz, the immigration programs coordinator at the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership, who also works with Colectivo. On two separate trips in October, Martinez and Muñoz went to D.C. with faith leaders and members of the sanctuary leaders’ families. The trips were about lobbying Democrats and Republicans, not protesting. Sometimes the ask was a private bill; sometimes it was about help obtaining deferred action, depending on whose office they were speaking to.

Muñoz, who is undocumented, lobbied with sanctuary family members, faith leaders, and other undocumented organizers, including Sulma Franco, who was in sanctuary in an Austin church before joining the Grassroots Leadership team as an organizer. Franco is also an organizer with Colectivo.

“The majority of the group that went to D.C. with us were people directly affected and I think that was good for the offices we visited to see, but half of the offices were not at all attentive or receptive. They basically told us that they couldn’t talk about these issues right now and that the solution was to elect Democrats,” Muñoz said. “You have to know that going in. A lot of Republicans won’t be receptive and a lot of Democrats will offer you nothing and tell you that the solution is getting them re-elected. That’s why my goal is just to get people talking about sanctuary as a national issue, because it is one and it’s getting harder to win these cases.”

Samuel Oliver-Bruno’s case is one such example. The husband and father chose not to participate in a direct action, believing it would be too risky given the serious health issues of his wife, Julia Perez Pacheco. Instead, the crux of his deportation defense campaign was pursuing deferred action so that he could leave his church, be with his son, and take care of his wife without the fear of immigration enforcement. But undercover ICE agents took him into custody at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office and quickly transferred him from North Carolina to South Carolina to Georgia before sending him to Texas, where he was deported.

Elected officials did eventually write letters of support, but advocates say their pleas to DHS to release him were too little too late.

“Sanctuary encompasses so many of the things people say they care about: family separation, criminalization, unjust deportations, you see all of those issues in each sanctuary case,” said Muñoz.

Martinez, who said she is party neutral as long as it serves her community, is currently working with elected officials on both sides of the aisle to collect letters of support for North Carolina’s Colectivo members.

Martinez said lobbying and direct action, while different efforts, both require affected people to use their bodies to make demands. When an elected official realizes an undocumented person or their family member is in the room, the dynamic shifts. “You have family members showing up and [members of] these offices have to sit in a room with them, they have to see them and hear them; there’s no pretending. It tells them these families are organized, they’re talking to each other, and they’re not alone. That’s really powerful,” the organizer said.

But it’s important to note that political action of any kind, whether it takes the shape of rolling out a public deportation defense campaign or a sit-in or a sit-down with an elected official, should not be romanticized, Martinez said.

“This shit is really hard and it sucks. Whatever the approach, people can literally spit in your face or like, do the political version of that,” Martinez said. “But you do it because you have a family that needs you and you need these people with power to pay attention to you.”