One by one, they came before the Zoom lens with their stories, each based on individual experiences but with common themes.
They spoke of living in fear and seeing families disrupted. They said they’d come to the United States to work and for freedoms not afforded them in their home countries.
The National Sanctuary Collective’s virtual press conference Tuesday called on Biden to include in his new immigration policies those now living in sanctuary in churches, including in Northampton and Amherst.
“People who have been in quarantine for nearly a year (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) may have a slight idea of what sanctuary life is like,” said Irida Kakhtiranova, a Russian immigrant facing deportation who has been living in the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence for 34 months.
To Kakhtiranova, sanctuary life is much worse that quarantine because every outside movement brings risk of legal action or even deportation.
“It means living in fear and uncertainty,” she said. “It means depending on others to feed your family. It means looking into your children’s eyes and holding back tears, even while your heart is breaking.”
Houses of worship have provided a home for immigrants living in the country illegally, but Kakhtiranova and other said they yearn to live more normal lives than being sheltered in a church for years.
It is estimated that 11 million immigrants live in the United States without legal permission. Sanctuary leaders say Trump’s policies and threats prompted many to seek safety in houses of worship.
Their leaders are asking, demanding and pleading with Biden to enact policies allowing them to circulate and work without fear of deportation or the breakup of families.
Rosa Sabido has lived and worked in the United States for 30 years, yet was forced to seek sanctuary at a Colorado Church in 2017. Sabido, who was part of a group that met with the Biden transition team Jan. 5, said she is optimistic the new administration will, as she put it, “free” families in churches, though she also said the word “sanctuary” has yet to be spoken in any Biden immigration policy speeches.
The president’s executive order — signed Jan. 20, the day he was inaugurated — pledged in part to protect national and border security while addressing “the humanitarian challenges at the southern border, and ensure public health and safety.”
“We must also adhere to due process of law as we safeguard the dignity and well-being of all families and communities,” the order read.
Biden promised to “reset the policies and practices for enforcing civil immigration laws to align enforcement with these values and priorities,” but did not specifically mention sanctuary families.
One speaker on Tuesday’s Zoom press conference said she was from Amherst, but preferred to withhold her name. She said undocumented immigrants and their families faced challenges before Trump became president, but that immigration officials had been allowed a level of discretion under the Obama administration before Trump “took that away.”
The woman described her daughter as a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) student and an essential worker. In her own years of experience, she said she’s held jobs, had a work permit and was allowed to remove her ankle monitor, but that Trump’s arrival changed everything.
“I checked in faithfully with ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) for 10 years. But after Trump came, even the demeanor of immigration officials changed,” she said.
“If sanctuaries didn’t exist, our family would have been destroyed or separated,” said Lucio Perez, who has been living in the First Congregational Church in Amherst since 2017. “Thank God they opened the churches, but I don’t wish this on anybody.”
The former Springfield resident faced deportation to his native Guatemala for entering the U.S. illegally.
“I’ve been in this country 20 years,” Perez said. “I’m a father of four and I came here to work. We don’t want just false words.”
“We are tired of living in fear and confinement. We are tired of being ignored, overlooked and left behind,” Sabido said.
“People value a dog or a cat so much. We’re human beings, yet we haven’t come close to (receiving) that level or love and value,” Alirio Gamez said.
Many speakers were from Guatemala, though other countries, including Honduras, were also represented. Maria Chavalan Sut, 47, says she fled Guatemala because of racism against indigenous people such as herself.
“We lived in the mountains like animals. That’s why I came to this beautiful country, the United States,” Sut said.
As they wait to see whether Biden’s immigration policies will embrace them, sanctuary leaders said they remain misunderstood. Many invoked Christian faith in their messages.
(BA)QNPIA”>“We are appealing to (Biden’s) heart to help get us out of the shadows,” said Maria Merida, who described herself as a sanctuary mother in Massachusetts.
“We came here to work,” she said. “We don’t have criminal records. I’ve been in the United States for 27 years and I have three children who are U.S. citizens. We are asking that please, get to know us and who we are, and give us our freedom.”