Religious Leaders Help Undocumented Immigrants Find ‘Safe Havens’ In America

Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, center, with his wife Karla and his son Carlos, holds his stay from a March deportation order he received Monday from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. (Paul M. Ingram/
Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, center, with his wife Karla and his son Carlos, holds his stay from a March deportation order he received Monday from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. (Paul M. Ingram/

Daniel Neyoy Ruiz spends his days and nights living behind a steel-barred door. Meals are brought to him; his young son comes to visit.

This 12 by 15 foot room isn’t jail; it’s what it takes for Neyoy to be free in America. Facing deportation after a driving infraction, Neyoy found safe haven in a place he’s called home his whole life: the church.

“I never thought that this would happen,” Neyoy said. “I say this is better than being locked in (prison). Because there you are really locked. Here people can come visit you, they bring you food, we have all the comforts that you need.”

Every day that Congress stalls on immigration reform, thousands of undocumented immigrants are put under threat of deportation. Desperate to keep families together and to protect their flock, a growing number of religious leaders are putting themselves between individuals at risk and the authorities that want them removed.

There is evidence that it is working. Immigration officials are holding back from seizing individuals under church protection.

“It’s up to the religious leaders to step into that gap and to bring a moral voice to what’s going on, and try to remind our politicians that while you’re playing politics in D.C., real families are being affected,” said Rev. Alison Harrington, standing outside Neyoy’s converted bedroom.

The space, just big enough for a bunk bed, a mini-fridge and a few chairs, is slightly larger than the average American prison cell. It used to be Harrington’s office.

Defining ‘More Humane’ Deportations
Like many undocumented immigrants caught in deportation proceedings, Daniel Neyoy wasn’t a target for law enforcement.

He and his wife Karla were newlyweds when they left Mexico 14 years ago. Their son Carlos, born in Tucson a year later, just finished the 7th grade and plans to try out for his school’s football team in the fall.

The family home, along the outskirts of Tucson, is a stone’s throw away from where Karla’s sister, mom and grandmother live. Daniel has had a steady job, and paid taxes.

But in 2011, he was pulled over by a highway patrolman because the car was emitting too much exhaust. The local law enforcement flagged Neyoy to Border Patrol after he was unable to present government-issued identification. He was thrown into a holding cell for several nights and later spent 30 days in a detention center.

Once released, Neyoy exhausted all of his legal options for reprieve. When the time came for his final order of removal, Neyoy took safe haven at Southside Presbyterian Church.

“Mr. President, I don’t mean any disrespect with this but I’m just telling you to please don’t turn your back on us and not only help my family stay united but all families that are being separated by immigration laws,” Neyoy’s son Carlos wrote in a letter he mailed to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Carlos wants to go to Disneyland with his dad. He wants him there for graduations and for when he accepts a hoped-for law degree one day.

“The values of a family are universal,” Karla said, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Obama has vowed to take a “more humane” approach to deportations. Under new policy priorities, federal agents were to focus on individuals with criminal records and not families. The president had ordered a review of the administration’s deportation policies, but put it on hold to give congressional Republicans a final opening on reform.

But Republican Rep. Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat this week could spell the end for reform this year.

Of the nearly 370,000 undocumented immigrants who were deported last year, the vast majority were caught at the border. Roughly 134,000 were removed after already being settled in the U.S. That number is down from 238,000 deportations under similar circumstances four years ago. Of those who were deported from the interior of the U.S. in 2013, 82% had criminal records.

According to a report out by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), 47,249 of the total deportations last year were triggered by traffic violations, not violent crime. A separate New York Times review of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportation statistics, found that two-thirds of the nearly 2 million deportations under the Obama administration targeted people who committed minor offenses. Some had no criminal record at all.

A number of traffic-related arrests stem from a 2012 program called Secure Communities. Under the program, local law enforcement shares any information on undocumented immigrants in their communities, including fingerprints, with federal officials. That places anyone slapped with a speeding ticket or fine on ICE’s radar.

The effort was supposed to pinpoint undocumented criminals in the system, but when congregants started disappearing from their church communities, faith leaders began to take notice. The backlash to Secure Communities spawned a new wave of what is known as the Sanctuary Movement – a collection of interfaith organizations fighting for the rights of immigrant communities.

“Folks came together in their faith spaces because when undocumented people began being deported by police, the first thing they did was turn to the church,” said Nicole Kligerman, a community organizer for the New Sanctuary Movement based out of Philadelphia.

Mirroring success stories from New Orleans, Newark and Miami, the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia worked to cut off a local law enforcement pipeline to ICE agents. After organizers lobbied city officials for more than five years, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter issued an executive order in April mandating that city police would no longer detain immigrants for ICE officials to take them into custody. Federal agents must now present a warrant.

“Now more than ever, we need to respond to the higher values and higher laws that we adhere to in honoring basic human dignity,” Kligerman said. “Though state and federal governments refuse to acknowledge that dignity, people of faith can lead the way.”

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Amanda Sakuma

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