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.”
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.
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.”