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Big, bold and migrant led: an interview with the New Sanctuary Movement

In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia

January 28, 2017
13 min read


Marienna Pope-WeidemannMarienna Pope-Weidemann communications coordinator at Right to Remain. @MariennaPW


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Photography courtesy of NSM Philadelphia

This is the first instalment of the Still we dream series, where grassroots voices from across the migrants’ rights and racial justice movements in the US talk about responding to Donald Trump’s election and how they’re building their movements. They’ll talk about everything from winning the public debate to building rapid-response systems to immigration raids. And we’ll be thinking about what might help us meet the challenges ahead for UK movements against racism and for migration justice.

Cities of Sanctuary

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. They’re already under siege from Trump’s administration and later in the series we’ll be looking at how students are defending sanctuary campuses. This week though, 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.

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

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.

‘That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant,’ and highlighted how many people get left behind by that’

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.

‘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’

 

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.

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.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann is communications coordinator at Right to Remain – @MariennaPW

For a longer version of this interview visit Right to Remain.

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Marienna Pope-WeidemannMarienna Pope-Weidemann communications coordinator at Right to Remain. @MariennaPW


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