Last month my fellow Crux contributor Charlie Camosy asked whether it might be time to for Catholic churches to become sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants facing potential deportation. One of President Trump’s signature policies is to expand plans for deportations and to make it easier for law enforcement officers to send undocumented immigrants back to their home countries—and the Catholic Church has been one of the most vocal opponents of these efforts.
In recent weeks, both Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago have expressed strong support for immigrants, while also urging caution against the sanctuary church movement out of fear that it may provide a false hope of protection. Like many other members of the Church hierarchy, Wuerl and Cupich have argued for long term, comprehensive immigration reform that will provide the necessary protection for these individuals.
As many Catholics and other people of faith are considering whether to join the opposition to the President’s plans—and how to practically do so—Christopher White recently spoke with Jennifer Piper who works as the Interfaith Organizing Director for Immigrant Rights at American Friends Service Committee.
Piper is based out of Denver, Colorado and spends her days connecting people of faith to immigrants who are in need of their support.
Crux: Tell me about the work of the American Friends Service Committee.
Piper: The AFSC’s work is rooted in Quaker values; principally that every human being has a spark of the Divine in them and therefore should be treated with respect and dignity.
Through my work at AFSC, I have learned to see that of God in those whose actions I do not understand or I disagree with, to speak truth and to challenge policies without personally attacking others. My work in Colorado began in answer to immigrants asking AFSC: “Where is the Church? Do they not believe my fight is a moral fight? Do my children not deserve to be with their parents?”
How has your work changed under the Trump administration?
I work to engage faith communities in dialogue about the immigration system we have. We are receiving overwhelming requests to lead workshops, as faith communities are disturbed by the dehumanizing rhetoric of the current Administration and the potential for indiscriminate separation of families. The challenge now is to help those concerned understand how quickly President Trump can move on his priorities and how critical their support is to immigrants of faith.
The Obama Administration and Congress funded a massive deportation machine, $18 billion a year more than all other federal law enforcement agencies combined. More than 3 million people were ripped from our communities under Obama, with the pace slowing from 400,000 people a year to 200,000 people the last two years.
You specifically work in the area of interfaith outreach. Can you describe the history of Sanctuary Churches and their current resurgence?
Sanctuary is a millennia old tradition where people who face unjust punishment claim space in a place of worship in order to negotiate for reconciliation. More recently, in the 1970s and 80s, people of faith from Mexico to Canada provided sanctuary to people fleeing the civil wars of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
At the time the U.S. government was backing the dictatorships of all four countries, and did not recognize those displaced by the conflict as asylum seekers. The government actively sought deportation for those who crossed into the U.S. When people were deported, they were often killed at the airport in their country of origin or disappeared.
Faith communities created a network to facilitate safe passage to the U.S. and on to Canada. Central Americans risked their lives to tell their stories to universities and churches, believing that if Americans knew what their government was doing, they would demand better policies. It worked. In 1986, as part of a larger reform, the U.S. government recognized Central American asylum claims.
Take, for example, Elvira Arellano. She had attended a Chicago church for two decades when she was placed into deportation proceedings. She knew the church had participated in the Sanctuary Movement of the 80s and invited them to join her in sanctuary. She was ultimately deported as she toured the country advocating for immigration reform.
The New Sanctuary Movement began in 2007 in response to Elivra, to large scale raids under the Bush Administration, and indiscriminate deportation under the Obama Administration. The Movement works to amplify the prophetic voice of immigrants like Elvira who can speak to where our system does not meet our values and whose reliance upon God for strength in the face of deportation is inspiring.
Jeanette Vizguerra started the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition in 2013. She was facing deportation and approached myself and the Rev. Anne Dunlap and invited us to help her seek sanctuary. We’ve accompanied dozens of people in the last four years, many of them winning their case before they needed to claim sanctuary.
How have Catholics been involved in this fight?
The Catholic Church has consistently offered sanctuary, and parts of the Church in Central America and Mexico were actively involved in the 70s and 80s. Liberation theology, inspired by the atrocities of state actors, pushed the Church to take a stand as being subordinate to the State, by turning people over or denying protection, or accountable to a higher law which meant risking the Church’s status with governments in the region. Archbishop Romero struggled with this divide for many years before taking a stand against the dictatorships and for the everyday people he ministered to.
Today Catholic churches in Philadelphia and Tucson are participating. Many of the people we accompany identify as Catholic and would like to see their congregations more involved in the spiritual support of their movement.
Would you like to see more Catholic Churches offer sanctuary?
I am hopeful that Catholics around the country will become engaged and raise their voices in support of fellow parishioners.
I hope that they will wrestle with Bishop McElroy’s charge to “… simply being in solidarity with individual people we know who are undocumented and terrified right now. They need emotional support and a sense that they’re not alone in this. The church needs to be with them, and we as individuals, as people of faith, need to be with them and help them through this.”
What’s morale like among the individuals and families that you are working with at the moment?
People in the immigrant community are working hard to overcome the fear and rejection instilled by the rhetoric of this moment. Suddenly, they face increased bullying at school and wage theft at work. Some people feel permission to treat someone as less than because they have an accent. I know people who’ve given up family activities and now only go to school or work and then back home.
It’s devastating to hear the fears children express and their questions about whether their parents will be taken from them. I know teachers and pastors who read this will agree that those questions are everywhere.
In Spanish language TV and news, every day a new raid is shown, new statements by our President and other officials are reviewed. People are receiving the consistent message that their dignity and contributions don’t matter. In spite of this, many of the immigrants I know have begun volunteering to help the homeless and participating in actions like a “Day without an Immigrant.” They are more determined than ever to fight or take flight to remain with their families. Most deportation cases cost the family between $7,000 and $20,000. Think of what else our neighbors could invest in if we allowed them a path to citizenship?
What would you consider a reasonable and just policy from the Trump administration when it comes to immigration rights?
The Trump Administration should reduce the budget of Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and redirect those resources towards Citizenship and Immigration Services or the social safety net. The Administration should be working towards leading Congress to pass just and humane immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship, streamlining our visa systems, and protecting the labor rights of all.
What are practical ways people of faith can help?
Almost everywhere we live in the U.S. there’s an immigrant community. Get to know them. In many Catholic churches there are masses in languages other than English. This is a great place to begin the work of integrating immigrants into the larger community and learning about our own selves. You already share a faith! Find out what events those groups are hosting and ask what would be helpful. Do they need childcare at their meetings? Would ESL classes help? Learn about their cultural expressions of the Catholic faith and teach about your own! Justice for Immigrants has excellent resources to get started.