Plan To Disrupt Immigration Raids Will Enlist Songs And Prayers | KUOW News and Information

Plan To Disrupt Immigration Raids Will Enlist Songs And Prayers

Feb 24, 2017
Originally published on February 24, 2017 9:32 am

In the cavernous basement of St. Thomas Aquinas community center in South Philadelphia, a mock immigration raid is underway.

As one woman yells "Help! Help!" — pretending to be taken by federal immigration officers — volunteers being trained to disrupt a raid begin singing and sit down as one, blocking the officers' path.

This scene is part of a training by a nonprofit advocacy group called New Sanctuary Movement. The group hopes to leverage a long-standing policy that federal agents won't make arrests in houses of worship — to create a kind of mobile sanctuary wherever a raid is happening, through prayers and hymns.

President Trump's immigration enforcement plans are still evolving, but the ominous feeling that they've created in communities of unauthorized immigrants has spurred trainings such as this one across the country.

Here's how New Sanctuary Movement's response network will work: when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers approach a home, people inside are instructed to call a hotline. That call initiates a text alert to all of the trained volunteers.

For this exercise, about 150 volunteers are going through the motions of responding to an alert.

"You are not allowed to pass. Please stand back," says one volunteer acting as an ICE officer. "This is a law enforcement operation, stand 5 feet back."

It's intense — many volunteers say they feel anxious afterward. So far, 1,300 people in Philadelphia have signed up and 500 have gone through the training. In attempting to hamper enforcement, the New Sanctuary Movement has three goals.

"So yes, it is to be in solidarity and show up for families. Two, it is to shine a light, and then for some people who are going to risk arrest, it is to peacefully and prayerfully disrupt," says co-founder and director Peter Pedemonti.

That disruption means volunteers circling an immigration vehicle or a home to try to stop removals. If arrested, disrupters could face criminal charges for impeding officers.

Despite those risks, stories of deportations have drawn people to the training who want to take action.

"The targeting communities is something that makes me really angry," says language tutor Emily Grablutz. "It's like they purposely want to break up any sense of safety or stability in people's lives."

More volunteers are going through the training, but Philadelphia has yet to see large numbers of immigration arrests under the Trump administration.

Even without the big numbers, uncertainty about what future enforcement will look like is breeding fear.

Hector Portillo, who's from Honduras, says he's doing the the training to support his neighbors in South Philadelphia's Indonesian community, many of whom are undocumented — but he's not sure he'll show up for a raid.

"I like [to] help people," Portillo says. "[I'm] scared I get arrested, I lose whatever I got."

He's afraid he could lose his green card.

As these trainings continue, it's not clear that these tactics will work. Immigration attorney David Leopold says under the Trump administration, even the old policy of avoiding arrests in churches is in question — but protests, these disruptions could have an impact.

"In the past, ICE has been very sensitive to public outcry," Leopold says. "Mainly because they don't want to be embarrassed publicly."

Groups across the country have reached out to the New Sanctuary Movement for advice on starting their own response networks. A group in Austin, Texas, already has its own rapid response program up and running.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's remember the fight over so-called sanctuary cities remains a subtle one. Cities and some states say they do not want to enforce federal immigration laws and leave that to the feds, who can still operate in those cities and states. But as President Trump's administration prepares to intensify deportations, some citizens want to do more. Hundreds of people in Philadelphia are training to disrupt deportations. Here's Laura Benshoff from member station WHYY.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing unintelligibly).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: You are under arrest by immigration customs...

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: In the cavernous basement of St. Thomas Aquinas community center in South Philly, a mock immigration raid is underway.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (As arrestee, screaming) Help, help.

BENSHOFF: It's part of a training by a nonprofit advocacy group called the New Sanctuary Movement. The group hopes to leverage a long-standing policy that federal agents won't make arrests in houses of worship. The idea is to create a kind of mobile house of worship wherever a raid is happening through prayers and hymns.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As protest volunteers, singing) This is the light of God. I'm going to let it shine. This is the...

BENSHOFF: Here's how it will work. When ICE approaches a home, people inside are instructed to call a hotline that initiates a text alert to all the trained volunteers. For this exercise, about 150 volunteers are going through the motions of responding to that alert.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As ICE officer) You are not allowed to pass.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (As protest volunteer, singing in Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As ICE officer) Please stand back. This is a law enforcement operation. Stay 5 feet back.

BENSHOFF: It's intense. Many volunteers say they feel anxious afterwards. So far, 1,300 people in Philadelphia have signed up, and 500 have taken the training. Executive director of the New Sanctuary Movement Peter Pedemonti says there are three goals.

PETER PEDEMONTI: So yes, it is to be in solidarity and show up for families. Two, it is to shine a light. And then for some people who are going to risk arrest, it is to peacefully and prayerfully disrupt.

BENSHOFF: That means circling an immigration vehicle or a home to try to stop removals. If arrested, disrupters could face criminal charges for impeding officers. Language tutor Emily Grablutz says hearing stories about deportations moved her to come.

EMILY GRABLUTZ: Yeah. I think the targeting communities is something that makes me really angry. It's like they purposely want to break up any sense of safety or stability in people's lives.

BENSHOFF: Philly has yet to see large numbers of immigration arrests under Trump. Even without big numbers, uncertainty about what future enforcement will look like is breeding fear. Hector Portillo is from Honduras and says he's at the training to support his neighbors in South Philadelphia's Indonesian community, many of whom are undocumented. But he's not sure he'll show up for a raid.

HECTOR PORTILLO: I know - I like, you know, helping people, you know, support it. But I scared I get arrested, you know, I lose whatever I got.

BENSHOFF: He's scared he could lose his green card.

It's not clear these tactics will work, but immigration attorney David Leopold says, as protests, the disruptions could have an impact.

DAVID LEOPOLD: Well, in the past, ICE has been very sensitive to public outcry, mainly because they don't want to be embarrassed publicly.

BENSHOFF: Groups around the country have reached out to the New Sanctuary Movement for advice on starting their own response networks. A group in Austin, Texas, already has one up and running.

For NPR News, I'm Laura Benshoff in Philadelphia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHITA'S "OZORA ENTRANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.