The case for sanctuary

by Liz Ibarrola, Director of Immigration Concerns, Human Rights Coalition, Alachua County

On Wednesday April 24, Westminster Presbyterian Church welcomed Saoud Al-Ammari into sanctuary. The act, one with deep history and religious significance, is supported by a network of allies, organized under the auspices of the Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County. Those allies choose to support Saoud and Westminster because they share a fundamental belief that our community should be, and can be, a place where all people enjoy equal rights and are treated with equal dignity. 

Saoud entered sanctuary because his life is in danger. Having lost his student visa in recent weeks and with an ICE detainer hanging over his head, he knows that he could be removed to his home country, Qatar, at any time. While the Obama administration began the trend of indiscriminate deportations, this policy has been accelerated under the Trump White House, and immigrants without secure legal status are being deported under expedited procedures. The process from arrest to deportation can take place in a few days.

As a young gay man, Saoud knows that his deportation would not simply mean a return to the place where he was born; his return would be a death sentence. Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and no protections exist for LGBTQ individuals. Little public information exists on the status of LGBTQ+ life there, and just last year, New York Times coverage of gay and transgender rights was censored in the Doha edition of the paper. Nonetheless, Saoud knows the realities. For him, return to Qatar would likely mean mandated “conversion” therapy, possible imprisonment, and living with zero protection from potential violence.

On Wednesday, Westminster Presbyterian received Saoud into sanctuary because they knew that their intervention would give him the time to apply for asylum in the United States. As a religious community, theirs was a decision based in faith. But it was also a decision based in opportunity, because Saoud has a chance to win. Since 1994, US immigration law has recognized persecution on account of sexual orientation as a basis for asylum status. While Qatari law offers no protection, U.S. laws offer him a chance to live, to thrive.  

Some have been quick to question why Saoud’s 2017 arrest for driving under the influence was not mentioned in the sanctuary announcement. The reality is simple: it does not have a bearing on his case.  While some may be personally disappointed by the transgression, the incident does not qualify as a “particularly serious crime;” one that would have a detrimental effect on the results of his asylum claim.

Of course, the social reality that produced this question is also clear.  American society today places much higher expectations for behavior on immigrants and their children than on those born in this country.  This includes, but is not limited to, strict adherence to the law. This is despite the fact that we know, thanks to a 2015 study from the National Academy of Sciences, that immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes than natives, and the presence of immigrant communities lowers crime rates. 

Instead, public opinion decides whether you deserve to remain in this country based on what you have done for it. Of course, many deported veterans will tell you that not even years of military service seem to matter for immigrants convicted of minor misdemeanors like marijuana possession. 

Asylum is not about picking and choosing those “good” immigrants who we want in our communities, it is about protecting those whose right to safety is in danger. What’s more, sanctuary, and Saoud’s case, is not about hiding a person’s past mistakes, or even forgiving them – it is about the right of all people to a fair legal process. 

The sanctuary movement in the United States today is built on the centuries old recognition of church property as politically neutral ground, but grows directly out of the U.S. movement that emerged in the 1980s. In particular, the sense of social consciousness and moral responsibility that emerged during that period continues to shape the practice today.

In the 1980s, church and state were put in conflict over the fate of Central Americans fleeing civil war in their home countries. Ronald Reagan was no more eager to welcome El Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants then, than Donald Trump is today. What’s more, Reagan had supported the military governments in those countries and when their rampant human rights abuses surfaced, his administration was quick to dismiss them. Those that fled were labeled “economic migrants” rather than asylum seekers and the Immigration and Naturalization Service detained and deported the migrants as quickly as possible, without proper observation of their right to petition for asylum. 

Realizing the deleterious effects of this combination of dangerous home country conditions and the governmental unwillingness to protect asylum seekers, church communities from Tucson to Chicago began sheltering as many of the refugees as possible and organized legal services to assist in the asylum process. 

Despite the help that was provided to many individuals and families, these actions did little to change immigration policies or practices.

The Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s created a sense of shared commitment and politicized moral activity, but did not engender change in the system. This truth holds constant today. 

What’s more, in the last two decades we have seen the responsibility for immigration policy shift from Immigration and Naturalization Services, under the Department of Justice, to the newly created Department of Homeland Security, and the invention of a law-enforcement force dedicated specifically to the pursuit of undocumented individuals, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE.) 

According to the Detention Watch network, the average daily population of detained immigrants has exploded, from about 5,000 in 1994, to 19,000 in 2001, and over 39,000 in 2017. 

While the flow of migrants was increasing during this time, these numbers also reflect an increased focus on the perceived crimes of individual migrants rather than the root causes of immigration. We have seen the effects of this change in the recent family separation policy, which tore parents from children in an effort to discourage immigration, and in recent attempts to refuse Central American migrants entry into the country, denying them their right to claim asylum. National immigration policy is focused on enforcement and imprisonment rather than opportunity and justice.  

It is important to remember that by providing Saoud shelter, meals, and company we do not correct our country’s damaged and violent immigration system. Our work must be accompanied by political progress.

In Gainesville and the surrounding area there is some hope for that progress, but we are a long way from achieving it.  Gainesville is a “Welcoming City,” but while that title reflects the wealth of positive sentiments towards immigrants in Gainesville, it does not guarantee that city or county policies won’t create harm for immigrant communities. 

What’s more, with Trump’s more and more aggressive approach to immigration, local police and sheriff’s deputies are being cajoled into cooperation. At the state level, SB 168 threatens to restrict funding to any law enforcement agency that places community safety above immigration enforcement by banning sanctuary policies, a shift that would directly affect our local law enforcement agencies and which the American Civil Liberties Union warns would “put immigrants at risk of violence, potentially forcing victims and witnesses to stay silent for fear of deportation.” 

While GPD and the Alachua County Sheriff’s office do not go out of the way to cooperate with ICE, a stance which has a dramatic and positive effect on the success of immigration cases, there is still plenty of ground to cover when it comes to creating policies that protect immigrants equally. This includes having access to translation services, limiting unnecessary data collection, and supporting programs that improve access to community resources. Our community must continue to push local law enforcement and political leadership in the right direction.

As allies of the immigrant community in Gainesville, the Human Rights Coalition hopes that by supporting Saoud we can ultimately achieve two goals. 

We first aim to provide him with the time and protection necessary for his asylum application.  Although his case is strong, it will not be an easy process, and our community must continue to support him over the coming weeks and months. However, we also hope that by supporting Saoud we can improve the status of all immigrants in our community. 

Our work did not begin when Saoud entered sanctuary. Although we could not anticipate the details of his case, our community has prepared for this moment. Affected immigrants and allies have joined together to build a sanctuary, but also to build sanctuary in the streets of our community. 

We have prepared parents and children for the possibility of family separation, we have held “know your rights” trainings, we have raised money for legal expenses, we have distributed community IDs to increase safety within our city and county, and we have connected individuals and families with the many dedicated organizations and individuals who seek to serve immigrants in our community.  Still, there is more to do.

Sanctuary means that our community takes one step closer to being a place where all immigrants are safe and welcome. 

I implore you to take a second step.  Lobby Governor DeSantis to reverse his position on SB 168, on the grounds that it decreases community safety. Ask Ted Yoho to renew his promises to Dreamers and sponsor legislation that offers them a path to citizenship. Call on Sheriff Sadie Darnell to formally endorse the Human Rights Coalition Community ID. Attend city council meetings and demand progress on the review of GPD policy concerning foreign nationals and translation access. 

These steps mean the difference between life and death, whole families and dispersed ones, justice and injustice.

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