Local churches open doors and hearts to undocumented immigrants

HAPPY PLACE: Ponkho Bermejo sits in the artist studio at BeLoved Asheville. Bermejo is undocumented and, although not formally in sanctuary, he lives with the Rev. Amy Cantrell and her family. Photo by Leslie Boyd

Ponkho Bermejo knows a thing or two about privilege.

Growing up in Mexico, he told a gathering of friends at BeLoved Community in Asheville last month, “My mother would have us gather up things we didn’t wear anymore and we would give them to people who needed them, because even though we were poor, we had more than some people. That’s privilege. Here in the United States I can at least speak English, and I have what I need. That’s privilege.”

After arriving in the U.S. as an adult without the requisite papers, Bermejo traveled around the country before coming to Asheville three years ago. He lives at BeLoved and offers his talents as artist, musician and teacher free of charge, getting by on whatever folks donate.

The Rev. Amy Cantrell, co-founder of BeLoved, says her church was the first in the region to offer sanctuary, beginning about four years ago.

Today, at least 17 faith communities in Buncombe County and Mars Hill are offering shelter and assistance to immigrants living here without legal papers, according to Melody Pajak of the nonprofit Faith Communities Organizing for Sanctuary.

Churches have been serving as safe spaces since the Middle Ages, though this isn’t formally recognized under federal law. Immigration attorney and activist Marty Rosenbluth, who’s practiced with Amnesty International and in North Carolina and Georgia, says that while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents still respect this sanctuary function, they’re not required to do so.

Currently, about a half-dozen people are in sanctuary across North Carolina, according to advocacy groups. And last month, a woman who was being sheltered at the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Asheville was able to return to her home in WNC after immigration officials told her there was no warrant out for her arrest, says the Rev. Mark Ward.

During her stay here, he notes, the congregation “developed a relationship with her that was very sweet, very close. It has given us new ties with the immigrant community, and I think they’re going to deepen.”

Living in fear

Last April, when ICE agents came into Buncombe County and began arresting people, many immigrants were afraid to leave home, fearing they would be stopped and taken into custody. Volunteers from BeLoved and other community members mobilized to obtain and pack groceries for delivery to people who were afraid to go out, to check on them, ferry children to and from school and otherwise provide support.

“I never felt more like church than I did that week,” Bermejo recalls, “because that’s what church is supposed to do.”

ICE agents don’t enter churches, schools or hospitals to arrest immigrants who lack the required legal papers, says the Rev. Sara Wilcox, pastor of Land of the Sky United Church of Christ in Asheville. Her church, which Pajak attends, has set up a room for sanctuary, plus one next to it for the volunteers who are there around the clock. Providing sanctuary isn’t easy, notes Ward, and his congregation had help from all 17 institutions in the group. Besides staying at the church in shifts, volunteers assist with food, clothing, paperwork and other tasks.

Not all such stories have happy endings, however. Samuel Oliver-Bruno, 47, lived in the basement of CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham for 11 months while he petitioned to have his deportation to Mexico delayed. But on Nov. 23, he was told he needed to go to the local field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a federal agency. As soon as he entered the building, he was taken into custody by plainclothes ICE agents and forced into a waiting car.

His friends gathered around the vehicle and began to pray and sing; 27 people were arrested, and Oliver-Bruno was taken away and deported. His wife, who is ill, and his grown son remain in the United States.

People in the sanctuary movement rarely use the word “arrested.” Instead, they speak of immigrants being “taken” or “kidnapped,” since ICE agents accost people at home or while they’re on their way to work or running errands.

“I know people who won’t drive their cars into downtown because they’re afraid of getting stopped or arrested,” says Bermejo. “They feel safer parking outside of downtown and walking in.”

Broader efforts

In North Carolina, four counties (Henderson, Nash, Gaston and Cabarrus) participate in ICE’s 287(g) program, which empowers them to arrest and hold people suspected of violating federal immigration laws until ICE agents can come and get them. In Mecklenburg and Wake counties, newly elected sheriffs have canceled their contracts with the federal agency.

But Bruno Hinojosa, co-director of Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Acción, an Asheville-based immigrant advocacy group, says that other local governments also informally cooperate with ICE in various ways. Hinojosa’s group works to connect, strengthen and organize communities to push for immigrants’ rights in Western North Carolina, and the WNC Sanctuary Movement is really an extension of CIMA’s mission. Sanctuary, says co-director Solange (who goes by one name only), means to serve as a refuge for anyone who’s targeted, including people of color, the LGBTQ and Latino communities as well as immigrants. Efforts include “weaving an intersectionality of protection, active resistance, education, resilience, resources, healing, critical thinking, contemplative action and transformation,” according to the group’s website.

The work goes beyond supporting people currently in sanctuary, in part because no one knows how long ICE will continue to let people stay in churches. “People really are only as safe in sanctuary as ICE will allow them to be,” Wilcox points out. “They know there are consequences if they break down a church door, but that safety is just paper-thin.”

Repeated calls to ICE seeking comment went unanswered; guidance on the agency’s website at press time indicated that the site was not being monitored due to the federal government shutdown.

Deportations were proceeding at a rapid pace even before President Donald Trump took office, both Hinojosa and Solange report. Under President Barack Obama, thousands of people were deported, including parents of small children, a practice that continues under Trump. The N.C. Council of Churches also works on sanctuary, offering help in organizing, forging connections with others in the movement and tips for success. According to the organization’s website (drawing on a recent report from the Pew Research Center), there are some 8 million undocumented workers in the U.S., including 25 percent of those in agricultural jobs and 15 percent of people in construction trades, and two-thirds of them have lived in this country for more than 10 years.

Coming together

Faith Communities Organizing for Sanctuary was formed in 2016  before the election to help local families affected by deportations.

“Nothing that’s happening now is new,” says Solange. “Racism is more overt, yes, but the oppression is old, as is the resistance. “

What is new is the networking within the movement. “It’s people coming together, getting to know each other on a human level,” Solange explains.

“The more exposed we are to people who are not like us, the more we can embrace our differences,” adds Hinojosa.

Ward, meanwhile, says having someone in sanctuary fundamentally changed his congregation’s attitude. “We developed a special relationship with her and learned a lot about her culture. We have friends’ safety at stake now: It’s not just intellectual, it’s personal.”

Wilcox said her church decided to begin offering sanctuary after a committee was formed to investigate what it would entail. Although the church isn’t currently sheltering anyone, the room is ready, and in the meantime parishioners have stepped up to help in other ways.

“During the previous administration and this one, the lack of a humane immigration policy necessitated some measures to protect people,” she explains. “The hope is that we can nurture a wider sanctuary movement, cultivating a commitment to love and respect everyone.”


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22 thoughts on “Local churches open doors and hearts to undocumented immigrants

  1. Lulz

    LOL if only they treated Americans the same. But then again, that would get them no applaud from fellow communists.

    You do nothing but act against the citizens. How about taking in a homeless vet? Giving sanctuary to people from a country that refuses to provide social safety nets just allows them to continue. Merely because they have you people to make up for it. But this isn’t about welfare or poverty. It’s actually about votes and power. And the selling out of the nation while hoping to legalize illegals and have a ready made base of voters.

  2. James Johnson

    This is direct violation of 8 U.S. Code § 1324 – Bringing in and harboring certain aliens and they should have their tax exempt status revoked.

      • Lulz

        LOL why yes, the people that are all about murdering the unborn and ensuring the 10 Commandments go unseen in public are now suddenly all about Jesus. I guess we use Christ when it’s politically expedient and toss him away when we don’t agree with his words. So phony and so fake.

        • heytrud

          Isn’t that the bold faced truth! I’m so mad at illegal aliens getting any benefits that only AMERICANS SHOULD REAP. Americans have paid in taxes all of their lives and many seniors live on very little Social Security & little medical opportunities. Treatments of doctors and medications are limited because of Illegal Aliens. It cost America 150 BILLION dollars a year for illegal aliens. Now, churches are hiding them? Why? What gives any church the right to hide law breakers? NO illegal alien should be hidden anywhere. They do NOT belong in America at all. They are LAW breakers. Churches are hiding criminals. That is the cold truth.

          • ramrodd

            Jesus believed in laws and borders… what does the Left know about God!

        • Jason W

          Dude, Jesus didn’t obey the law. Why do you think he was in trouble with the Roman authorities?

          • Carl

            He never taught against Rome. Rember the coin with the emperior’s likeness. Render unto Creasor’s what is Ceasor’s, Unto GOD’S what is GOD’S. I know there is a lot more to that scripture to understand. Simply put, if you are GOD’S, obey Him. We just might the ceasors of the world fade away.

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    Ditto. This is becoming disgusting. They need a permanent underclass to ‘progress’ …

    • Lulz

      LOL no. They need replacement population. Turned the women into the wives of the government via laws that promote and incentivize them then wonder why no one is having children. Cause you stomped a good portion of men in their balls with your globalism and open borders. Got rid of their jobs or sold them out to cheaper labor. Shame on a country that literally is in the throes of starving out its population for consumerism on one end and cheap labor on the other. And on top of it you got these pseudo religious dimwits that think they’re doing God’s work. Selling out the poor in your own nation so you can feel better about yourself and gloat about it isn’t holy. It’s evil.

  4. JB Mann

    You write, “there are some 8 million undocumented workers in the U.S., including 25 percent of those in agricultural jobs and 15 percent of people in construction trades…” That is wrong, so wrong. Pew Research actually says that 25 percent of people doing agricultural work are illegally in the country. That’s much different. A very small percent (less than 5 percent) of illegal immigrants are in the agricultural industry. Also, Pew Research says there are 10.7 million illegal immigrants in the country, not 8 million. If you’re going to write a PR Puff Piece in favor of illegal aliens, you should at least understand the facts. I look forward to your investigation into the negatives of unfettered illegal immigration.

    • Lulz

      LOL illegals don’t get into propaganda jobs hence these cronies don’t understand how their wages could go down. if ti was suddenly flooded with cheap labor. Never mind the bubble they live in that keeps them away from reality.

    • Virginia Daffron

      We agree that the Pew Research study says there are 10.7 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country. But as the passage you quote in your comment shows, the claim in our story is that the Pew Research study says there are about 8 million undocumented workers (not unauthorized immigrants in total).

      I am adding a link to the Pew study into the body of the story and here: http://www.pewhispanic.org/2018/11/27/u-s-unauthorized-immigrant-total-dips-to-lowest-level-in-a-decade/

  5. ramrodd

    Illegal alien numbers – Youve been lied to for decades!
    ALL media sources repeat the same old media/political lie of only 11-12 illegal aliens in the USA!! Whenever these politicians and their media regurgitate these numbers you will know them for their cover up!!
    2008 – Univision(Spanish) boasted 50 million
    2010 – Retired INS M. Cutler writes of 40-50 million would receive amnesty if granted..
    2012 – Debbie Schlussel writes of 40 million..
    CAPS Study 2007 reports of up to 38 million..
    2016 – Coulter writes of 60 million invaders already here

  6. ramrodd

    Before an illegal alien receives his/her first paycheck or cash payment, they have committed some 26 Federal, State and Local laws.

    1. They conspire to cross the border illegally. (1 count)
    2. They hire a coyote or are provided passage by a Drug Cartel in exchange for guided passage into the USA. (1 count)
    3. They cross the Border with a coyote and in many cases smuggle drugs. (1 count)
    4. They travel, illegally, to their destination or to a destination determined by their “smuggler.” (1 count)
    5. They obtain fraudulent documents via identity theft, or via manufactured documents….
    driver license, green card, social security card, birth certificate (each count a felony). (4 counts)
    6. They look for work using these documents. (1 count)
    7. They fill out work documents falsely, i.e., Federal and State IRS forms, SSN forms,
    Immigration forms, Workers comp. forms (each a separate felony. (6 counts)
    8. They drive on our roads without a legal license, registration, insurance. (3 counts)
    9. They get paid via check or under the table, thus conspiring with the employer to defraud the government(s) via the use of false documents. (2 counts)
    10. They open bank accounts via the use of false documents in violation of Federal Law and the Patriot Act. (2 counts)
    11. They obtain housing via the use of false documents. (1 count)
    12. They obtain a car or truck via the use of false documents. (1 count)
    13. They obtain healthcare via the use of false documents. (1 count)
    14. They secure public service benefits via the use of false documents – food, housing, healthcare, etc. (3 + counts)

    At a minimum this list shows that they commit at least 28 crimes of identity theft, conspiracy, obtaining false documents making false statements, fraud, violation of Federal and State and Local laws, etc.


    The above list correctly demonstrates that they are not simply in violation of our laws just for crossing the Border, they are in violation for multiple misdemeanor and criminal acts in just a very short period of time and they continue to compound their violations via the passage of time, via falsification of documents, false statements, perjury and the list goes on.

  7. heytrud

    Why are churches hiding Criminal Illegal Aliens? Why are states and cities hiding and protecting illegal Aliens today? It’s the Democrats, they want and demand new voters. The hell with American citizens. You know, they ones that serve in the military and protect our country. You know, the Seniors that have paid taxes all of their lives only to get very little in Social Security. You know, the law Abiding Americans that worked, raised families and rightfully paid their taxes all of their hard working lives. Then have Democrats intentionally HIDE and PROTECT law breakers? People that have NO right to live in America. Why don’t these men fight for their own countries? Instead, they run away to live in a church and paint pretty pictures? Really? And, we are supposed to feel bad about this? I am LIVID with rage that churches are hiding cowardly men & females that break our laws. That man and many like him are just useless cowards. They do nothing at all to benefit America. The churches are doing a disservice to America by protecting the Illegal aliens who have broken the LAW. I have faith in GOD. But, we are allowing people to live here that have not intention to ever assimilate into being a true American. That man is a COWARD. He is not helping his own people by staying in his home country and Fighting for the same rights that we have in America, He is a coward, they ALL are. They are worthless oxygen suckers in America. Illegal Aliens are the worse. Many are sex offenders of young children. DUI drivers. Kill police officers. Rape our females and children. Illegal Aliens got away with coming here, so they are free to do whatever they want by continuing to break our laws. And, churches are helping them? Really? They steal our identities, Social Security numbers, & forge birth certificates. And, now we all find out that CHURCHES are protecting them so this man can paint? Really? Many Churches &religious leaders have lost their way. NO MORE. Deport every last one of them and build the DAM WALL!

  8. Enlightened Enigma

    THANKs ICE for doing your job when and where you can! Great bust in Charlotte this past week at the courthouse!

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