We must go big, bold & migrant-led, says New Sanctuary Movement

27 January 2017

This is the second instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States. They’ll share how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

The City of Sanctuary movement in the US goes back to 1979, when Los Angeles introduced a policy banning police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the movement’s height it operated an underground railroad reminiscent of the one that operated during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations were secretly hosting refugees, moving them from Mexico to find sanctuary in cities across the US.

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities across the US; outposts of a principle treasured and upheld by a powerful, national movement. This week, we’re interviewing Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement on to the streets.

Marienna: It’s been a few days now since the inauguration, how are you guys feeling?

Peter: We had our People’s Inauguration on Friday and it felt really good to focus on something active. We had 20 different groups there: Catholics speaking alongside trans people and former sex workers and it felt really good to see everyone coming together like that. In a way, now Trump’s actually here, after all these months of anxiety and anticipation I feel like we can engage, which is good. But it’s a mixed reaction. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear about what he’s going to do and how that will impact our communities – but the flip side is that we’re seeing more people coming out than ever, ready to fight.

Click here and scroll down to see what the People’s Inauguration looked like

Marienna: How did the NSM get started and how has it evolved?

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Peter: Here in Philly we started in 2007: clergy, immigrant members and folks from other migrant rights organisations. It was all volunteers. No one was organising the faith community even though many congregations were being hit by the fallout of immigration policies. We started with education and accompaniment – walking through the process with families facing deportation, making sure they had trustworthy lawyers and going with them to court, or visiting them in detention. That was all about building relationships. We work with 21 congregations at the moment, half are migrants. And the same with our staff, we make sure at least half the board is migrant and becoming more migrant-led has been really important.

It’s one of our key values: that those affected are the experts in what they need. Ultimately we’re working towards a shift in the balance of power in favour of those most marginalised, and if that’s what we want to see we need to do it in our own organisations.

It’s a solidarity structure we’re continually working on – being a mixed organisation of migrants and allies – but how it’s worked developing strategy is that we start with listening campaigns, interviewing migrant members about what issues affect them. And then for each campaign we do strategy retreats with migrant working groups and they set the direction. Then we found we were creating a lot of segregation, with our migrant members and white allies really working in quite separate spaces and we were like ‘well this isn’t really working, we need to figure out how to bring them together.’ So we did shift a little.

Marienna: NSM was central to ending collaboration between local officials and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). How was that victory won and what did it mean for the community?

Peter: This is something that really started after 9/11. The collaboration between immigration agencies and police started under Bush but really escalated under Obama. At first it was opt-in but they kept changing the rules. In Philly our mayor kept stalling, sympathetic in meetings but never taking action. He wanted piecemeal changes, tied very much into this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ narrative, but we wanted everyone to be protected from the impacts of collaboration, whether people were pulled over for having a broken tail light or had been arrested for violent crime.

Marienna: Here you have some quarters wanting to protect refugees only or ‘good immigrants’ only, so it’s contentious to come out and say: ‘no, this shouldn’t be happening to anyone and we want protection for everyone.’

Peter: It was and it still is. Some of our members still aren’t 100% on board, though being in a faith organisation really encourages us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption. I remember, we were working a lot with the Cambodian community, whose kids were getting beaten up in school and formed gangs to protect themselves, and later got involved in drugs and some violence. That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant,’and highlighted how many people get left behind by that.

Marienna: Talk about Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: Sanctuary in the Streets started under Obama when he announced an escalation of raids against central American communities. The sanctuary offered by a congregation is no good if ICE come and raid your house, you can’t get there. So the idea was to bring the congregation to them, holding an interfaith service outside the house. We have a raids hotline open 24/7, the idea being we get a call and mass-text everyone who’s signed up to show up at the address and show solidarity and shine a light on what’s happening. We had 64 sign up, then Trump won and suddenly hundreds of people were signing up in hours. There’s over 1000 people on the list now. So now we’re running trainings, with people willing to risk arrest also signing up for civil disobedience: to encircle the house or the vans and block their path.

Marienna: what do you think has raised the courage or the determination for so many people to be signing up to risk arrest?

Peter: It was really a response to something much bigger, with Trump coming in and the programme being a concrete way of getting involved in standing up to everything he represents. I think it’s been successful, again because it’s so bold.

It’s disruptive, but in a way that fits with and communicates the peaceful values we hold.

It’s not the whole answer, though. Stuff like Sanctuary in the Streets, which is very defensive, is also very draining and hard to sustain. Moving forwards we need to make sure that while we’re fighting back against Trump we’re doing something positive locally. We learned under Bush that even when things are terrible at the federal level, we can have a real local impact. For example, we have another campaign to stop migrants’ cars being towed because they’re not allowed to have a driver’s license. We had people being left on the side of the road with their kids at 2am. Plus it costs like $1000 to get the car back, which for many of our members is a month’s wages. And we were able to get the city to reinterpret the law in a softer way, to at least give them 30 minutes to call someone to come and get the car. Again, that’s solid, concrete results for people in the here and now and that balance is important: between fighting back but always pushing for something positive.

Marienna: You’re organising across not just boundaries of race and class but also faith, and one of your next priorities is incorporating more mosques into Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: We have not been successful in organising mosques. It’s something we’ve been trying for a couple of years, and I think I’ve learned some big lessons about the importance of who you have in the room when you start, because that does form the culture immediately, whether you want it to or not, and many of the things facing the Muslim community are quite unique. To form something and then invite other people and groups into it is much harder.

We are building relationships with mosques but it’s very challenging also because of the level of government spying and intimidation of the Muslim community. There was this one mosque I was working with and I’d swing by for Friday prayers and then suddenly this big story broke about the New York Police department infiltrating mosques in New York and Philadelphia and there I am, this random white dude walking around probably looking like a cop, which wasn’t very helpful. There are very high levels of mistrust, and for very good reason. I think we’d really need to start with that tried and tested method of a listening campaign within the Muslim community to identify what they want to work on, and work on that rather than bringing them into what we’re already doing. We haven’t had capacity for that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to figure out.

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Marienna: What’s going on in American hearts and minds? How did we go from Obama to almost-Bernie to probably-Clinton to Donald Trump?

Peter: When Trump came on the scene 18 months ago, we dismissed him as a clown who’d have his moment and then go away.

Marienna: – that’s what a lot of people here said about Brexit.

Peter: Exactly. I remember reading about UKIP and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany and right wing nationalist groups popping up in Europe, and here we just have Republicans and Democrats, but watching that enabled us to put a name to it, to see: ‘oh, Trump, he’s a nationalist if not a fascist,’ and after that we started taking him a lot more seriously. It’s been a challenge for us to name what he is, but listening to Europe has really helped us to see what’s happening here in the US with a clearer lens.

To answer your question, there’s these census reports showing that in 20 years white folks will lose majority in the States and that has a lot of people very scared. They’re scared of losing their power, and there’s been this trend recently in poor white communities getting that life spans are getting shorter, there’s a lot of drug addiction and for the first time the next generation’s quality of life is worse, not better. People see themselves as victims, somehow.

Marienna: Looking forwards, where do you think the movement needs to be a year from now and what are the key principles that are likely to get us to that critical mass moment?

Peter: Wow, that question makes me realise that with managing crises like we are right now we’re maybe a little too stuck in the moment, putting out fires – Trump, the election – and we do need to keep looking forwards, too.

We’ve been talking about the importance of going beyond defence, beyond ‘Trump’s terrible’, to put forward an alternative vision.

Marienna: Trump’s terrible, but here’s something beautiful.

Peter: Yeah, I like that! And nobody’s really moving on this because it’s really difficult and really contentious, but there are a lot of poor, white people that voted for Trump, and who’s going to start organising them? The trade policies that allowed all the factories in the US to go abroad, they left a lot of people here unemployed and are also devastating the global south, so they migrate to the global north and come up against a really hostile environment. So someone needs to reach out to them and start effecting change there. And nationally, I think we need to do some soul searching, especially with so many people coming out onto the streets for the first time, we need to know: what are we really fighting for? And how do we channel all this energy in a way that’s sustainable?

Marienna: What’s your message for migrant communities over here, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there?

Peter: I feel what’s been most important for us is to be deeply grounded in our values and take risks based on those, whether it’s Sanctuary in the Streets direct action or hiring people who are undocumented. Looking back at the things I’ve been most proud of in our past, we’ve been at our best when we’re really bold. Bold things that connect with people’s values and give people the space to play that out.

Also we recently went to a racial reconciliation workshop, evaluating organisations on a spectrum from ‘no people of colour’ through tokenising through to being led by people of colour and having authentic engagement. Now in our history we definitely moved across that spectrum, and prioritising that and being ready to slow down to protect and strengthen those principles, in the long run we’ve built a stronger organisation because of it. What’s helped more than anything is listening and being ready to change. I mean really make big changes to our organisation according to what migrant members and communities are saying.

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Originally published by Red Pepperand produced for Right to Remain

The extended interview transcript is available on the Right to Remain website

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Bringing Solidarity Home – Comment Is Free

Until she saw her baby, the mother would not eat, drink or move. She sat soaked and trembling, looking out across the Aegean for a rescue boat we knew wouldn’t come. Three hundred people had been on her boat when it sank. All night, we volunteers had been seeing in the rescue boats, providing urgent care and gathering names of the missing. We’d had reports that two newborns were flown to hospital in critical condition. Chances were that one of them was hers, but the police wouldn’t let us drive her to the hospital. Rescued at sea by the authorities, she was formally “in detention” until she registered. “No papers, no hospital,” they said.

Hours before, I’d performed CPR for the first time in my life, on a little boy who hadn’t survived. I was in shock too and haunted by the notion that this mother’s presence might somehow make the difference between life and death for her child. At the very least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. We sat shoulder to shoulder, in silence, with her relatives around her. “Where do you hope to go?” one of the other volunteers asked in a weak attempt to dent the silence.

“To Britain,” a relative replied. “To live free.”

The refugee camps have always been there, swelling quietly with the very human consequences of the political system that governs our lives. But with the age of televised warfare, the lights came on. War is becoming real for us, for the first time in a long time. Here are its orphans, its exiled freedom fighters and grieving mothers, camping out right on our doorstep. Conflict, climate change, globalisation: it can’t be some grisly reality TV show after all; here are its refugees, real human families throwing themselves on the southern steps of Fortress Europe.

What happened next was extraordinary. There’s the side of the story we know: politicians scapegoating, talk of swarms and cockroaches in the press; a thundering Brexit vote followed by a spike in hate crime so sharp it gave the nation whiplash. But then there’s the other story, less often told: that well below the radar of the mainstream media, tens of thousands of people from all nations, of all ages, cultures and political persuasions, started giving up jobs, studies, relationships and reliable wifi and heading for the borderlands to do their part. They flooded in to do what politicians and aid agencies wouldn’t: from illegal ocean rescues and calling out police brutality to running art therapy classes, feeding thousands and sorting sky-high piles of donated clothes across the continent from Norway to Calais.

I feel enormously proud to have been part of that movement. I learned a lot as a solidarity volunteer in Greece. Some of those lessons were traumatic – I still have nightmares a year later – but I think I learned as much about politics in weeks in Camp Moria as I did in years at university. The most personally challenging and painful lesson was a simple one: it will never be enough. However many volunteers we have pulling 15-hour shifts, politicians in halls of power far away are doing more damage in a week than we could undo in a lifetime. For all their summits, resolutions and deals, in 2015 one in 269 people crossing to Europe died; this year it’s one in 88.

With deprivation and incarceration systematically inflicted on people in the name of border control, when we say “refugees welcome” that is a commitment to campaign for radical change here at home – or it’s meaningless.

In December 2015 I was taken out of action by a serious spinal injury. Being forced home was infuriating. I started providing online support, fundraising, anything to fight the creeping sense of powerlessness, to stay connected. I started following the news again, watching in horror as governments closed the Balkan route and levelled camps at Calais and Dunkirk. Autonomous humanitarian aid was being criminalised, camps sealed off from independent observers and mass deportations introduced. Meanwhile, the EU-Turkey deal started edging “the refugee crisis” off our front pages; it was someone else’s problem now. Europe had paid a handsome price to make it so.

Coming home, it’s strange trying to figure out where you used to fit in. Media headlines about immigration stop being abstract and become about people we know. Apathy and discrimination start to hurt instead of just irritate because we’ve seen their casualties starving and cold and the empty orange lifejackets floating in the sea. We know what it costs. We’re not supposed to just fit back in when we come home. We’re supposed to be opening eyes. The fight for refugee and migrant rights out there can’t be won without a radical political shift here, in the heart of Fortress Europe.

The solidarity-based approach developed and demonstrated by the best of the independent volunteers has enormous potential to achieve this. It has the power, not just to save lives, but to change lives; to heal the divisions in our communities torn by politicians scapegoating the poor and the undocumented for a crisis they created.

It’s not about charity. It’s about recognising shared responsibility for the state of our shared world; understanding we have always been connected.

By refusing to provide safe passage, refusing its fair share of refugees and detaining over 30,000 undocumented people every year, the British government is reinforcing the precedent that black and brown lives don’t matter. If that passes unchallenged, we are all forced into a more dangerous, divided and desolate world. And with states cracking down on independent solidarity work, simply saving lives is becoming a political act.

Humanitarian aid without a political movement is like trying to extinguish a forest fire with water one teacup at a time. Every time they raze Calais to the ground I am reminded of that painful truth.

One of the most urgent battles for asylum and immigration justice in the UK is against detention. This pointless, brutal practice is the most harmful aspect of the system. It cripples the ability of detainees to fight their own legal cases or speak out for justice. With a growing protest movement at detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, ending detention is a fight we can win right here at home. That means everything from raising awareness to the direct action of the fearless grandmas who brought immigration raids to a halt in Glasgow. A movement that broad is ambitious; but ambition and vision are all that will stop our descent into barbarism.

Work that builds practical solidarity infrastructure and political resistance which work together, from the heartlands to the borderlands, outlines the way forward: projects such as These Walls Must Fall, which combines campaigning with a solidarity-based approach to migration and asylum support to empower those affected to fight back for their rights as part of our community. We’re taking on a multi-million-pound industry which profits from the system and has close ties to the government. But if we win, that victory would be felt well beyond our borders.

If walls can fall in Fortress Britain – they can fall anywhere.

Originally published by the Guardian online & in print, 29th December 2016

The Truth About Turkey: EU Deal Endangers Lives

The fatal shooting of 16 Syrian refugees at the Turkish border, including three children, have amplified fears over the EU-Turkey deal struck to outsource the refugee crisis from European territory. The legality of the £4.6 billion deal relies on Turkey being a safe country for refugees. But this latest in a string of scathing human rights reports paints a far darker picture.

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Under the deal, all migrants and refugees reaching Greece are immediately deported to Turkey without a review of their asylum application; a violation of international law, according to senior UN officials. This latest report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is considered conservative by sources on the border, who say many more have been killed.

There are also widespread reports that Ankara has been pushing hundreds of refugees back into Syria on a daily basis, including unaccompanied children. This would amount to a systematic violation of international human rights legislation, subsidised by the EU.

That is not a new development. Since the beginning of 2015, over 4,000 people have drowned trying to evade the Turkish coastguard on the crossing to Greece. The coastguard has long been accused of deliberately capsizing, firing upon and even electrocuting boatloads of men, women and children.

“My boat left with 67 people and twenty babies. Only nine of us made it,” said one refugee from Damascus, afraid to give his name in case he is deported back to Turkey. “They push people in the water and they drown… I don’t know why they do it.”

Turkey certainly has strong incentives to stop the boats at all costs; the deal depended on it. In exchange for becoming its border guard, the EU relaxed Turkey’s visa requirements and awarded Ankara £4.6 billion.

Those who avoid being pushed back into the warzone they fled from are ensnared by desperate poverty. Less than 0.1 percent of Syrians in Turkey are in line for work permits, few refugee children are in school and the camps are wracked with deprivation.

Many refugees describe deplorable conditions in the camps, although the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’. In reality, media access is so limited and controlled that in truth, much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos like this one, apparently showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’. Some of the newer camps are even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. At the time of writing at least 35,000 Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence to suggest the Turkish government is supplying and providing direct military assistance to Islamic State and other terrorist groups driving refugees out of neighbouring countries. To quote one Kurdish refugee from Iraq: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?”

Despite damning reports from Human Rights Watch amongst others, no investigation has been called into the deaths or human rights abuses. Instead, EU funds keep flowing and NATO warships have been deployed in the Aegean to help Turkey ‘seal the maritime border‘. And with 156 journalists arrested there in 2015 alone, Turkey may not be the place to keep refugees safe, but it’s a prime location to hide their persecution.

Originally published by the Huffington Post

And re-published by Hub Politic