Some believers are taking the religious commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” to heart and actively welcoming foreigners into their neighborhoods, even providing sanctuary against forced removals.
Hundreds of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans and other religious followers from across Western North Carolina took to the streets of Asheville on Thursday, March 16, in a peaceful march in support of undocumented immigrants anxious about roundups and deportations under the Trump administration.
“As Americans, we are dismayed. As people of faith, we are also committed to taking action,” says the Declaration of Solidarity by People of Faith in Western North Carolina unveiled in a news conference following the march.
“As Protestants, Catholics, Quakers, Jews, Buddhists, Unitarian Universalists, Muslims, Bahá’í, Pagans and others, we share at least two spiritual imperatives: to love our neighbors and to welcome those who come from far-off lands seeking shelter,” the petition states.
Some 1,775 people representing 133 congregations in 19 Western North Carolina counties had signed the online petition as of last week. Organizers said the petition at http://bit.ly/2mnoVRw is open for more signatures.
“Love of neighbor as one’s self is fundamental to all our faiths. Immigrants are our neighbors. They belong to God, and we will rise to protect them and their families from unjust policies that target the most vulnerable,” said the Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss of Land of Sky United Church of Christ. Her congregation is the first in the area committed to providing short-term sanctuary, including housing and support to any immigrant afraid of deportation.
Other congregations are discerning whether to take that step, said Bill Ramsey of the Circle of Mercy Congregation and a Sanctuary WNC organizer.
The march started at First Congregational United Church of Christ on Oak Street around noon and wound through the streets of North Asheville, with a stop for a blessing at Beth Ha-Tephila Synagogue on Liberty Street.
“May the doors of our houses of worship welcome parents and children whose lives are at risk of being torn apart, may they be shelters from fear and anxiety, havens of hope and hospitality,” said Rabbi Batsheva Meiri.
Meiri said immigrant neighbors who wish to live here “contribute immeasurably to the culture, economy and community we all cherish.”
Marge Marsh, a retired Presbyterian minister, echoed the concern that stepped-up deportations would hurt the local economy. “Without these workers, lots of our local businesses, our service sector and agriculture would be devastated,” she said.
Marsh also worried that local law enforcement agencies would be stretched thin if they took on the role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in rounding up longtime residents without proper documentation. “I don’t think that’s the job of the local police,” she said.
Marsh and her husband, Earl Thompson, also a retired minister, drove over from Givens Estate to join the peaceful procession on a brisk winter’s day under blue skies.
Thompson said he would like to see the city of Asheville take an official stand as a sanctuary city, even while Republican lawmakers in Raleigh introduced a bill last week that would ban municipalities from taking such actions.
“It’s a question of morality,” Thompson said.
The event encompassed more concerns than just Hispanic families. Marchers carried colorful posters depicting black and brown faces as well as a woman in a Muslim hijab. “We All Belong Here. We Will Defend Each Other,” the posters stated.
Basem Alkahlani carried his own hand-lettered placard: “My Family is not Evil, Mr. Trump!”
A Yemeni who has lived in Asheville the past two years, Alkahani, who has a green card, had been trying to get visas for his wife and daughter to join him, but they have been delayed by Trump’s executive orders that would temporarily ban travel from Yemen and other Muslim-majority countries.
Alkahlani had been invited by Christian friends to join the march in support of other immigrants.
The march culminated at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Asheville on Edwin Place, where more than 200 Sanctuary supporters filled the pews.
“President Trump’s executive order on enforcement rounds up immigrants, splits apart families, and deports contributing members of our community. As they step back into the shadows, we step up and speak out in solidarity,” Hendler-Voss told the crowd.
The declaration was read in Spanish and English by local clergy. Supporters said they will urge ICE agents to treat potential deportees with “dignity and respect, and not as criminals.”
They will also urge local cities and law enforcement agencies “to focus on keeping our communities safe, not on assisting ICE efforts to deport peaceable residents,” the declaration stated.
Miran Porrus of Nuestro Centro, a Hispanic community center in Hendersonville, accepted the sanctuary declaration with a fiery attack on U.S. government policies toward the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom came from Mexico and Central America, fleeing violence and seeking better lives for their families.
“The irony is that it is to the advantage of this country to have cheap labor of the immigrants, who under deceptive trade agreements like NAFTA, have had their own lands ravished,” Porrus said.
Such policies do nothing but “criminalize poverty,” she added.
North Carolina was home to some 350,000 undocumented immigrants in 2014, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
“Our declaration of solidarity means standing with black and brown bodies in the places where they suffer,” Hendler-Voss said. The sanctuary movement also means speaking out against policing that indiscriminately targets minorities, as well as pointing out disparities in housing, health and education that privilege white majorities, she said.
Clergy want to continue conversations with local officials and law enforcement on those issues.
Organizers said they did not know of any immigrants currently seeking local sanctuary, but “we want to be prepared,” said Aland Ramirez of CIMA, Companeros Immigrants de las Mountainas en Accion.
Sanctuary providers would receive a call from CIMA, saying, “We have a family who we are afraid will be split apart by deportation. Can they come and safely stay in your sanctuary?” said Hendler-Voss. “We would invite them in, provide around-the-clock companionship. We would take on responsibility taking their children to school. We would provide good food and warm fellowship.”
Land of Sky would provide two- to three-day sanctuary until other safe places could be found to provide indefinite stays.
Organizers expect their fight to continue beyond a petition drive and a peace march.
“Until our nation finds the political will to enact justice, a just comprehensive immigration reform, we are prepared to act,” Hendler-Voss said. “We will not be deterred from safeguarding the least of these in God’s house. We will love our neighbors as if they were our own families, our own children, our very selves.”