By MARIANNE NOVY
With the increased threats of deportation beginning in 2006, the Sanctuary Movement, active in the 1980s, has mobilized again as the New Sanctuary Movement.
The director of New Sanctuary Pittsburgh recently updated information about activities in Pittsburgh. She emphasized that the people the New Sanctuary Movement supports largely have no legal path to citizenship at present. Even if they have been persecuted in their home country, when they cross the US border, they may be classified as asylumseekers but not as refugees. (“Refugee” is a designation given to specific people from specific countries at specific times; it must be granted through a long and complicated legal process before people come to the US.)
Asylum seekers may live here for years. During this time they cannot legally hold a job or drive a car until they receive a work permit. This “asylum gap” was usually as short as 90 days but now is increasingly at least a year. These people may be granted work permits while their case proceeds through the court system, and if they are granted asylum, they have a path to citizenship, which begins with Lawful Permanent Resident (green card) status.
Undocumented immigrants are more and more targets for deportation, and if their deportation has been deferred, what used to be a routine check-in with ICE now puts people at risk of being suddenly removed from their homes and families.
There are now over 1100 sanctuary congregations in the US. They began in large cities like Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, but are now found also in states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia, even in rural and suburban spaces. To be a sanctuary congregation does not mean that undocumented immigrants are actually living in the church; the sanctuary movement includes many other ways to help.
New Sanctuary Pittsburgh has formed teams and collectives to provide childcare, translation, conversational English classes, access to medical help, transportation (to jobs, school, shopping, doctor), work on legislative action, legal accompaniment and help, and, their main work, housing (expensive if the family needs to go to a hotel or Airbnb). Undocumented immigrants cannot access health insurance, and there is only one known place that will treat them without cost. They could use donations such as bus passes and Aldi gift cards or get help with outright cash or through Paypal. Sixth Presbyterian, East Liberty Presbyterian, Pittsburgh Mennonite Church, St. Andrew’s Lutheran, and Allegheny Unitarian Universalist are the Pittsburgh churches where the most people have been involved so far. Pittsburgh Theological Seminary is holding a program called Allies in Faith to help other congregations prepare to aid immigrants; it began November 28th.
If people gain the legal status of asylee, a long path still remains toward getting a green card and then citizenship, and perhaps a longer one towards actually making friends with American citizens and feeling confident about everyday life in the US. Many local organizations provide various kinds of help towards people in this transitional period. Among others, these organizations include Community Assistance and Refugee Resettlement at the Northern Area Multiservice Center; Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh; Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach; Immigrant Services and Connections; Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services; and the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh.
One new Pittsburgh organization has received national publicity for its different approach: Hello Neighbor, started and led by Sloane Davidson. Hello Neighbor matches immigrant families who have been in the US between six months to five years and have at least one child under 18 with partner families who will invite them for meals and get to know them and their needs. Sometimes they can find families with similar age children or similar job interests. Needs may include help with paperwork, acquisition of skills in English conversation, advice about shopping for food, and involvement in less focused activities that give a sense of community support and friendship. Hello Neighbor usually introduces two groups of 20 families to each other at the same time so that a parish or neighborhood can be invested in this effort as a community and hold large potlucks and other events, which will also involve people who have not received specific matches.
Marianne Novy is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer and the chair of the Social Justice and Outreach Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.