When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced at the beginning of this year that it would be intensifying its efforts to deport certain undocumented immigrants, Hilda Ramirez decided it was time to seek sanctuary.
Ramirez and her son Ivan came to the U.S. from Guatemala in August 2014. Until recently, Ramirez had been unwilling to reveal her identity to reporters; she previously told the story of her time in Karnes to the Chronicle under the condition of anonymity (see "Choosing Detention Over Death," Dec. 25, 2015). As detailed in that story, the Ramirezes were detained for 11 months in the for-profit Karnes family detention center. Upon her release from Karnes, Ramirez was outfitted with an ankle monitor that she cannot take off until her case is finalized. Before seeking refuge in St. Andrew's, the Ramirezes had been staying in an Austin shelter with other refugees.
When Ramirez asked St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin for help, the church did not hesitate to offer sanctuary. "For us, it was a wonderful gift," said St. Andrew's Pastor Jim Rigby. He explained that it was an opportunity for the church to do something practical instead of feeling helpless. "Without social justice, I don't think religion has much to offer to the world."
It is against ICE policy for agents to raid churches. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson reiterated this in a recent statement: "[W]hen enforcing the immigration laws, our personnel will not, except in emergency circumstances, apprehend an individual at a place of worship, a school, a hospital or doctor's office, or other sensitive location."
The recent ICE raids, as explained by Johnson in a press release, target: "adults and their children who (i) were apprehended after May 1, 2014 crossing the southern border illegally, (ii) have been issued final orders of removal by an immigration court, and (iii) have exhausted appropriate legal remedies, and have no outstanding appeal or claim for asylum or other humanitarian relief under our laws." (See "Women and Children First," Jan. 15.)
Ramirez, who fled Guatemala in fear of her life, has been denied asylum. Her appeal of the initial denial was also rejected. Yet there is still hope that Ivan, who is now 10, will be granted asylum on appeal, explained Alejandro Caceres, immigration organizer at Grassroots Leadership and coordinator of the ICE Out of Austin campaign. Additionally, Ramirez's attorney plans to file for a stay of removal, which would prevent the Department of Homeland Security from carrying out an order of deportation. Through "prosecutorial discretion," ICE has the authority to suspend deportation cases that are not priorities, such as immigrants who do not pose threats to national security, border security, and public safety. "We want Immigration to use the power they have to withhold Hilda's deportation because, clearly, she is not a priority," said Caceres.
"When you look at Hilda and Ivan, you know they are not the criminals. Anyone who has studied the history of Guatemala knows that we [Americans] are the criminals there," said Pastor Rigby, noting Americans' role in Guatemala's current instability.
"Can we listen to Hilda's painful story of escaping from the violence of her nation, and not take responsibility for the role our own nation played in producing the violence from which she is fleeing?" Pastor Rigby asked in a press conference.
The Sanctuary Movement started in 1980 with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Ariz. The two congregations began legal and humanitarian aid to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.
Nationwide there are 50 churches willing to offer sanctuary to immigrants who need protection from deportation, six of which are in Texas, explained Amy Beth Willis, national sanctuary organizer in Tucson. Since May 2014, the Sanctuary Movement has won 10 cases, getting some kind of relief from deportation for immigrants.
The previous sanctuary campaigns have won through public pressure and calling immigration to use prosecutorial discretion to suspend deportation orders of immigrants like Hilda. Last year Sulma Franco, a Guatemalan immigrant who had sought refuge in the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Austin, was granted a stay of removal and was able to stay legally in Austin. (See "Sulma Is Welcome Here," Aug. 18, 2015.)
Caceres explained that many immigrants lost their asylum cases because they did not have access to legal representation. "They did not show up in the courts because they were not provided any information after their release from detention."
Since being in sanctuary, Ramirez and her son have not left St. Andrew's. Ivan is only allowed to go to school, and cannot participate in extracurricular activities. "It is hard to explain to a child that he cannot play soccer because he can be picked up by immigration in a soccer field," Caceres said.
Deportation to Guatemala is something Ramirez is desperate to avoid: The country has the third highest rate of femicide (gender-motivated killing of women) in the world, according to the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies. Stories of immigrants from Central America who were killed a few days after being deported from the U.S. have been retold.
When asked by the Chronicle if the church should rally behind an immigrant who some would call "illegal," Pastor Rigby said, "Moses was illegal, Jesus was illegal; unlike the worldview of people as classified by the rich and powerful, every human being is legal in the spiritual realm."
To learn more about the Sanctuary Movement in Austin, visit www.facebook.com/austin-sanctuary-network.
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