Schenectady County

Group helps people in U.S. illegally

Pedro was not the man police were looking for.

Pedro was not the man police were looking for.

New Neighbors

“New Neighbors” is a three-day series looking at immigration in the Capital Region.

To read Sunday’s first part of this series, click here and here.

It didn’t matter. He was arrested anyway.

He was pulled over last winter while driving through Albany. Five police cars surrounded his vehicle and he was ordered to step out of his car. “When I got out of the car, they held guns up to me,” he said in Spanish, through a translator. “They pulled me out of the car and threw me on the ground.”

The police were searching, Pedro later learned, for a man wanted in connection with the robbery of a convenience store; the suspect had been described as Hispanic. But when police brought Pedro to the store, the manager said they had the wrong person. “They asked her three times,” Pedro recalled. “They said, ‘Are you sure it isn’t him?’ ” The manager said no, it wasn’t him, but Pedro’s problems were just beginning.

Pedro, 26, is an illegal immigrant. To protect his identity, The Gazette is using a pseudonym.

He’s lived in the Capital Region for five years after moving here from Mexico in the hopes of earning money to support his family. He was charged with possessing a forged instrument — a Mexican driver’s license — and possessing a weapon, the switchblade police found in the trunk of his car where Pedro keeps the tools he uses for work. He spent the next five weeks in jail wondering whether he would be deported.

It’s possible that Pedro would still be languishing in jail, or back in Mexico, if a new grassroots group called the New Sanctuary Movement hadn’t come to his aid. A coalition of labor and religious groups, the New Sanctuary Movement aims to help immigrants, particularly those who are in the U.S. illegally and run into

trouble. When coordinator Fred Boehrer learned of Pedro’s plight — the two men are friends — the group sprang into action.

The New Sanctuary Movement group in Albany is part of a larger movement.

Today there are more than 20 New Sanctuary chapters, all founded within the past couple of years, scattered throughout the United States.

The Albany chapter of the New Sanctuary Movement has been meeting since spring 2007, when immigration raids in Coeymans, Valatie and Schodack resulted in the arrest of about three dozen illegal immigrants.

Members say they formed the Albany chapter largely in response to stricter immigration laws that they consider overly punitive and harsh, as well as public discussion about the issue that they view as xenophobic and ignorant.

The New Sanctuary Movement isn’t exactly new.

In the 1980s, similar groups formed with the goal of assisting Latin American immigrants fleeing violence and war in their home countries; at that time, the movement was known as the Sanctuary Movement.

group’s goals

Boehrer said the Albany group has several goals. These goals include providing illegal immigrants with legal assistance and practical support such as transportation and information about health care, as well as educating Capital Region residents about immigrants and visiting immigrants in jail.

The group also plans to provide “radical hospitality” — safe places to stay, sponsored by religious congregations such as churches and synagogues — to illegal immigrants who have run afoul of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

There have been cases of radical hospitality in other cities, such as Chicago, where an illegal immigrant named Flor Crisostomo is living in Adalberto United Methodist Church, but none here. If a house of worship were to provide radical hospitality, New Sanctuary members would contact Homeland Security and inform them of the immigrant’s whereabouts.

The Sanctuary groups of the 1980s provided immigrants with shelter, but kept the locations secret. The new movement, Boehrer said, strives for openness in the hopes of sparking a conversation about immigration and publicly challenging the country’s immigration laws.

“[Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents are very leery of raiding religious congregations with the purpose of arresting and deporting people,” he said. “That’s part of what the movement is about. As religious organizations, we have the ability to provide a safe place, to welcome a stranger, the immigrant, in a way that’s practical and prophetic. . . . As a Christian, part of my faith tradition is to offer assistance to immigrants and welcome the stranger. There are times when what our faith teaches us is in conflict with what the country’s laws are.”

Not everyone supports the mission of the New Sanctuary Movement.

“It’s accommodating people who violate the law,” said Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for Immigration Reform, a group that supports stricter immigration laws. “These churches are overlooking one concept of charity — you can’t be charitable with other people’s resources. In this shaky economy, it’s befuddling why some want to provide additional resources and incentives and rewards for people who don’t have a right to be here.”

“These churches are not above the law, and they don’t make immigration policy,” Dane said. “Just because you don’t like the law doesn’t mean you can break it.”

He wondered whether religious congregations jeopardize their tax exempt status; federal law prohibits tax exempt organizations from becoming involved in partisan activities.

Dane said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement has the right to go into religious congregations and make arrests, but would run the risk of turning illegal immigrants seeking shelter in religious congregations into martyrs if it did so.

But he said law-breaking should never be overlooked, because it gives the impression that illegal behavior will be rewarded.

The New Sanctuary Movement chapter in Albany meets regularly at Emmaus House, a Catholic Worker house in Albany’s South End founded by Boehrer. Worldwide, there are about 200 Catholic Worker houses; these houses are run by volunteers, who advocate for peace and worker’s rights and provide people in need with temporary housing.

The meetings generally draw between 10 and 15 people from throughout the Capital Region. Discussions are practical; members talk about what they can do to help immigrants — at one meeting, a member wondered whether it would be possible to establish a bail program to help illegal immigrants make bond; at another, the need for volunteers to serve as translators is mentioned — and regular updates on Pedro, and what he needs, are provided.

legal assistance

The group is interested in providing legal assistance to immigrants, whenever possible, and at one meeting a local immigration attorney walked members through basic paperwork such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Application for Naturalization and a general intake form that asks immigrants questions about their family, their reasons for being in the U.S., and their work and educational history.

Earlier this month, the New Sanctuary Movement sponsored a free immigration law training that drew about 35 people. They discussed what happens when an immigrant is arrested, what happens at immigration court and what questions to ask when visiting an immigrant in jail.

For New Sanctuary members, these are not hypothetical situations.

It’s not uncommon for people to come to the group’s meetings with an urgent request for help. At one meeting, a woman no one had ever met before dropped in and said a member of her church had been arrested; though she had lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, she was an illegal immigrant and had already spent several months in jail.

While church members visited her, the woman said, they weren’t sure how to help. New Sanctuary members made some inquiries. Within the week the woman, originally from Africa, had been released from jail on her own recognizance.

Albany attorney Steve Downs regularly attends New Sanctuary meetings. He said his support for the group is driven by long-standing friendships with immigrants; over the years, his family has sponsored Polish refugees, a Vietnamese boat person and an Iranian family looking to build new lives in the Capital Region.

“I’ve always liked immigrants,” he said. “They’re wonderful, hopeful people. They’re always looking for something better. They’re fun to work with, and they connect you with the rest of the world.”

Downs told his church, St. Ann’s/St. John’s in Albany, about Pedro’s situation during Mass, and managed to raise about $1,000 toward his bail. He said the New Sanctuary Movement is effective because it focuses on people, rather than lawmakers and immigration policy; when people hear Pedro’s story, they want to help.

“One of the things I like about Fred is that he’s starting at the bottom, rather than at the top,” he said. “At St. Ann’s, we said, ‘We’ve got a guy and his wife and kid who are about to be deported,’ and all of a sudden everyone’s saying, ‘I’ll give.’ That’s the power of starting at the bottom.”

“You can’t say ‘no’ when a person is there asking you for something,” said Martha Schultz, the communications coordinator for the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State and a regular at New Sanctuary meetings.

“The focus is really on people,” said Rabbi Michael Feinberg, who is involved in the New Sanctuary Movement in New York City and heads the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition. “The immigration system in this country is completely broken and dysfunctional. There’s a national humanitarian crisis with families being broken up. With the collapse of comprehensive immigration reform, something needs to be done to respond to the situation. We can’t just tell these families that there will be a solution in three years.”

In New York City, religious congregations affiliated with the New Sanctuary Movement are housing seven families.

“Most of them,” Feinberg said, “are facing deportation.”

churches involved

Though a number of religious congregations are involved in the New Sanctuary Movement in Albany, so far none have decided to go public as official New Sanctuary congregations. Doing so, Boehrer said, requires a process of discernment that takes time.

Pat Beetle, a member of the Albany Friends Meeting, said the group plans to become a New Sanctuary congregation; she recently picked up pledge forms to fill out.

The Albany Friends Meeting was involved in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, Beetle said, and assisted refugees who fled to the U.S. “It seems like the New Sanctuary Movement is a natural extension of that,” she said. “We plan to go forward in publicly identifying ourselves as part of the movement.”

The New Sanctuary Movement chapter in Albany has created laminated, wallet-sized cards and started distributing them to immigrants; immigrants can give these cards, called Rights Cards, to police officers if they are detained.

The cards say, in both English and Spanish, “I am giving you this card because I do not wish to speak to you or have any further contact with you. I choose to exercise my right to remain silent and to refuse to answer your questions. If you arrest me, I will continue to exercise my right to remain silent and to refuse to answer your questions. I want to speak with a lawyer before answering your questions. I want to contact this organization: Emmaus House.”

Marco Tomakin, a local immigration attorney who is originally from the Philippines, has gotten involved in the New Sanctuary Movement.

He said he understands what new immigrants are going through, and that he wants to help. “I don’t really buy into the term illegal immigrant,” he said. “I know and understand the feelings of immigrants, and how it is to earn money and send money home.”

“It is good that there is a discussion about immigration,” Tomakin said. “It’s a fundamental issue. We should talk about it. If you listen to the news, there’s always an immigration issue or angle. But I think the discussion should be responsible.”

help for pedro

Boehrer learned that Pedro had been arrested when Pedro’s wife contacted Emmaus House to say that he had not returned home. Boehrer called the hospital, the jail and the police station before finally locating Pedro, who was on his way to his arraignment.

As Pedro’s case wound its way through the system, Boehrer did some research. Concerned that the plea deal approved by Pedro’s public defender would hurt his immigration status, Boehrer found another attorney who was willing to take Pedro’s case pro bono. Eventually, Pedro’s charges, both misdemeanors, were pleaded down to disorderly conduct, a violation. This was important, Boehrer said, because pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges would have hurt Pedro’s immigration status.

New Sanctuary members raised the $5,000 needed to cover Pedro’s immigration bond, mostly from religious congregations and other concerned individuals, and he was released and allowed to return to his wife and young child. Boehrer recently drove him to Buffalo for an immigration hearing, and he will appear before the judge again in the fall.

Pedro is a soft-spoken man who comes from an area of Mexico that has a high unemployment rate; he attended school for four years before leaving to support his family. (He is one of seven children.) In the U.S., he’s worked in landscaping, construction and on dairy farms. He said he would like to stay in the U.S., if possible.

“The more I stay here, the more I like it,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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