Monday evening’s Sanctuary Meeting at First Unitarian Church in Providence drew over 200 people from dozens of religious congregations, as well as many individuals and representatives from non-religious organizations. All had come prepared to help create safe spaces within religious institutions for undocumented immigrants, refugees or anyone else threatened by the Trump agenda.
Few who attended seemed interested in talking about the theory or need of Sanctuary. This was a practical meeting, and people were there to plan and begin the process of creating Sanctuary. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning Muslim’s from entering the country, now temporarily suspended, was on everyone’s mind.
Reverend Donald Anderson, executive director of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, recalled reading that Trump may be interested in revoking the visas of the thousands of Syrian refugees who have come to our country. In that context, Sanctuary becomes a matter of life and death.
There seems to be no strict definition of Sanctuary. People seem to know it when they see it, and different threats will require different responses from what is quickly coalescing into a Sanctuary Movement here in Rhode Island. The meeting concentrated on the legal issues and the practical issues like food, showers, sleeping quarters, health care and the like. People were asked to volunteer skills, space, supplies and time.
“We don’t have an option about being here. We are called by justice to be here and act together. There are people with far less privilege than most of us in this room who have to be in this fight because they are fighting for their lives.,” said First Unitarian’s Reverend Charles Ortman, “We’re in this fight because we are called by the faith that we have, whatever it might be, to fight for justice.”
Katherine Ahlquist, co-chair of the Standing on the Side of Love Committee at First U told the story of how her church decided to begin the process of becoming a Sanctuary Church.
“After the elections in November, there was an immediate recognition that there would be people in our community who would be in danger from the incoming administration. There was a strong desire amongst people in our congregation to take action to prepare to counter the threats surrounding immigration and refugees bandied about during the election process. Our Standing on the Side of Love Committee, one of several social justice groups in our congregation, met to talk about what we could do and what our role might be in the Sanctuary Movement in our state. Quickly we recognized that what needed to be done required the efforts of not just one congregation, but many.”
(Full disclosure, Katherine Ahlquist is married to the author)
Kathleen Cloutier from the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island explained the current situation regarding immigration, refugees, DACA and our state. Last year Dorcas settled just under 270 refugees in Rhode Island, and the Roman Catholic Diocese settled about 85. Last year 135 Syrian refugees were settled in Rhode Island.
Per President Barack Obama‘s orders, 110,000 Syrian refugees were expected to be settled in the United States this year. Under Trump, whether the Muslim ban Executive Order is upheld or not, Cloutier expects that number to drop to 50,000. “There were 60,000 persons that were in the pipeline, assured, had gone through the vetting process, were expected to come sometime during the course of the year, and whether the ban is approved or not, the president will reduce the numbers to 50 (thousand),” said Cloutier.
During the temporary suspension of the Executive Order, Cloutier hopes to settle as many people who were stuck in transit as possible. After February 17, “We’re not sure what’s going to happen at all,” said Cloutier.
There are just under 150,000 immigrants in Rhode Island, said Cloutier. It is estimated that anywhere from 10-20 percent, or 20-30,000 people, are undocumented. Most of them did not commit fraud coming into the country, which would be a crime. Rather, most stayed after their visas expired, a civil infraction. “So the word ‘illegals’ sort of pushes everybody’s buttons to make us think they are criminals and in many, many cases they are not,” said Cloutier.
We also don’t know how many young people in Rhode Island received DACA status, but, “here we are quite a few years later,” said Cloutier, “and there are ramifications. These young people, when they applied for their status, shared information about their parents and their family members.” DACA status is granted in two-year increments. What happens when those two years are up and the present government has all that information on DACA kids and their families?
Roberto Gonzalez is an immigration lawyer in Rhode Island. Gonzalez wanted to draw attention to another Executive Order, the one that “changes the priorities of enforcement on actions of immigration.” (See: Executive Order: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements)
“That one affects people who are here already,” said Gonzalez.
There are not that many legal issues that churches will encounter for providing Sanctuary, said Gonzalez, but if House Bill 5093 passes at the General Assembly, providing Sanctuary will become a criminal activity. The intent of the bill is to “promote cooperation and assistance in the enforcement of immigration laws concerning potential immigration law violations, would create a governmental duty to investigate and report potential immigration violations, a private cause of action, and complaint procedures. Finally, it would establish civil and criminal penalties for failure to further the active enforcement of immigration laws.”
Right now there’s nothing in the law compelling local police departments to cooperate with ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement), but if the new law sponsored by Representatives Arthur Corvese ((401) 353-8695), William O’Brien ((401) 440-4063), Robert Phillips ((401) 762-2010), Stephen Ucci ((401) 934-2121), and John Edwards ((401) 624-8879) passes, local police departments stand to lose all the trust they’ve worked to build in immigrant communities, making everyone less safe.
You can watch all the video of the speaking program here:
After the speakers, there were group sessions that met for about thirty minutes. Then the meeting was wrapped up, as can be seen below.