DC’s faith communities rally to protect trapped immigrants

(RNS) – The day in April that the first busload of migrants arrived in Washington, DC happened to be Maundy Thursday, the festival in the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus washing the feet of his disciples the night before he died.

The gospel story is one of service and caring, explained Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea. Stanley-Rea, a Disciples of Christ minister and then director of the denomination’s refugee and immigration division, showed up at a press conference after the arrival of the first bus with a bowl of water and a towel — symbols, she said, of the Spirit of welcoming , she felt that the faith community in the country’s capital was called upon to emulate her.

And not just Christians, she reminded herself. Maundy Thursday fell in Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, and Passover, a major Jewish holiday, began a day later. “Fortunately, from the moment the first bus arrived,” Stanley-Rea said, “I think we have to hold on to the power of that timing as we continue to see that spiritual power, that commitment to service.”

Since then, thousands of migrants have been ferried into the city on buses, many without being told where they were going, while others were told before boarding that after a stopover in Washington they could travel on to other destinations where they could visit family members or families Loved ones got A’s. Not long after, New York, Chicago, and most recently Philadelphia, began accepting migrants.


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The migrants had been sent north from Texas and Arizona, whose Republican governors, Greg Abbott and Doug Ducey, hoped the mayors of Washington, Philadelphia, New York and other cities would fulfill their promise to be a welcoming city for immigrants, so “overrun and overwhelmed border towns can find relief,” Abbott said in a statement at the time.

The Congregation Action Network, a coalition of more than 70 religious organizations formed in 2017 in response to the Trump administration’s “Muslim ban,” had begun providing social services and food during the COVID-19 pandemic. When migrants began arriving in Washington this spring, the coalition immediately began meeting the urgent material needs of the newcomers.

“You have many faith communities and groups that have already provided services to people with insufficient nutrition or shelter that are well positioned to pass some of that support on to these newly arrived migrants,” said Elias Johnson, director of CAN.

Stanley-Rea said she has seen “incredibly creative partnerships” develop to welcome and support migrants.

FILE - Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, left, and Eli McCarthy, right, hold a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe during a march with others through Capitol Hill in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Tuesday, April 12. December 2017, Washington.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, left, and Eli McCarthy, right, hold a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe during a march with others through Capitol Hill in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Dec. 12, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A rotation schedule was set up, with local churches, synagogues, mosques or other places of worship being open to migrants on different days of the week. She estimated that Washington-area faith communities have invested more than half a million dollars in migrant care in recent months.

The first face many migrants saw as they got off the bus was that of Claudia Tristán, director of immigration policy at MomsRising Together, a 16-year-old grass-roots organization working on behalf of women and children. Tristán greeted migrants at the designated drop-off points and explained the resources available to them. She then transported them to one of the recovery centers where the displaced migrants could get a meal and a change of clothes.

Tristán said volunteers continue to support immigrants who choose to settle in Washington. Volunteer teams organized by the Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network introduced the newcomers to the Washington Metro subway system and helped them enroll their children in schools and enroll themselves in English classes.

“There’s a lot of all this background stuff happening that people don’t normally see or hear about, but it’s a lot of work. And there are many volunteers who do this work just to make sure these children and their parents feel welcome in their new homes,” she said.

Claudia Tristan.  courtesy photo

Claudia Tristan. courtesy photo

Tristán says the organizing effort in Washington has become a blueprint for other cities. “Chicago and New York, fortunately they were better prepared because they were able to communicate with the organizers in DC about what to expect and what resources they need to make sure they are on hand,” she said.

St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hyattsville, Maryland, on Washington’s northeast border, began housing immigrants when the buses arrived and continues to serve as a shelter for immigrants arriving by bus or other transportation.

The church, which has an 80% Latino membership, provides immigrants with housing, food, and clothing for as long as they need. Once a person has found a job and a place to live, the Church pays the first month’s rent whenever possible so that the person can feel supported.

Rev. Vidal Rivas, director of St. Matthew’s, said that although most Venezuelan and Nicaraguan immigrants come primarily from Pentecostal churches back home, many have stayed in touch with St. Matthew’s and have told Rivas they intend to move out of it reason to settle near the care and community they found there.

“A church will be a church when it welcomes the poor and marginalized,” said Rivas. “The only thing that needs to motivate us … is love. Because they deserve love.”

CAN and other faith-based organizations and advocacy groups have recently campaigned against legislation being considered by the DC City Council that they say is creating a divide and tension between the city’s unhoused nonimmigrant population and newly arrived immigrants There is also a need for housing and basic resources.

The Migrant Services and Supports Act of 2022 aims to codify support for migrants, specifying that anyone awaiting immigration procedures at an office outside of DC is not entitled to city resources otherwise available to unaccommodated residents of DC are available – but the ICE field office serving DC residents is actually in Northern Virginia, and many immigrants who are bused into the city have their offices in that office, in Baltimore, or in some other field office outside of the city itself Immigration hearings planned.

Although the city council has already passed emergency legislation to create an office for migrant services, a public hearing on permanent legislation and CAN, Sanctuary DMV and other groups was held on October 20 outspoken resistance to the draft law in its current form.

“I think faith communities are really well placed to try to fight that and say, ‘Look, these are both populations that we care about, that we serve, that we value, and that we want in our communities . And that’s why you need to expand services overall and not lock these illegal migrants out of services,” Johnson said.

“I think we’re going to continue to see faith communities being able to really speak out from this place and fill in some of the gaps that sometimes exist in this organization and advocacy otherwise,” he added.

The faith communities and other volunteer groups are more nimble than the city government, which only created an office for migrant services in September.

Giovana Oaxaca, program director for migration policy at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said the human stories of migrants are all too often missing from the political conversation.

Although her work is on the political side of migrant issues, Oaxaca hosted a family who arrived by bus from Texas and called it a powerful reminder of why she is committed to the immigration issue.


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“My apartment was filled with laughter and music. I cooked arepas with my guests. They also told me about their experiences and told me about the hardships they had endured, their determination and of course the disorientation they felt when they arrived in Washington, DC, essentially with the bags to take with them”, she remembered.

“Just meeting this family in person felt like a validation of what politics is trying to get right. If the experience had been so dehumanizing for them…connecting with them on that individual personal level felt like a return to the values ​​we speak of when we talk about a fairer, more humane immigration system,” she said.

Stanley-Rea, noting that “our Scripture calls us to welcome the vulnerable, to be the balm in Gilead, to offer healing to the traumatized,” said that healing could not come only through the giving of boons. “It has to come through relationships too, it comes through prayers, it comes through sharing hearts and the warmth of friendship,” she said. “And these are all special strengths and gifts that I believe faith communities have to offer.”

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