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Latin America

US churches revive “sanctuary” plan for Central American refugees

Mass roundups ordered by Obama administration of undocumented migrants continue

With the rise in massive raids against Central American migrants in the United States, churches across the country have once again begun offering sanctuary to refugees who fear for their safety if they are sent back home.

“I faced a lot of family violence, abuse and discrimination in Guatemala because I am a [Mayan] Indian,” explained Hilda Ramírez, a 28-year-old Guatemalan refugee, who migrated with her now nine-year-old son, Iván. “I came to the United States to seek help and won’t go back without putting up a fight.”

This week, the mother and child sought refuge at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas.

Ramírez recalled the 11 months she was held at a family refugee center in nearby Karnes, Texas, beginning in August 2014. She was later allowed to leave but had to wear an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her movements.

I turned myself in because I wanted to seek help from immigration officials, but I didn’t expect this to happen

Hilda Ramírez

“I turned myself in because I wanted to seek help from immigration officials, but I didn’t expect this to happen. Staying at Karnes was very sad and very difficult, especially for children. The food was bad, we had no doctors or medicine. The sick children would cry because they had diarrhea. They would wake us up at night and treated us very badly,” Ramírez said.

After she left Karnes, Ramírez and her son stayed at Posada Esperanza, a shelter for homeless families. But her stay was short lived after a US immigration judge ordered her deportation.

Then she began hearing about the massive roundups ordered by the Obama administration, which began in January.

“I was in a panic,” she said. That’s when Ramírez decided to seek refuge at St. Andrew’s.

According to Church World Services, 11 of 13 refugees who have sought protection in churches since 2014 have been granted stays in their deportations. Ramírez said she hopes to become one of them.

Church World Services is an organization that has created a network of safe havens across the United States for Central Americans who are facing deportation. The network is comprised of Lutheran, Catholic and Methodist denominations, among others.

In the 1980s, churches across the United States took part in the national Sanctuary Movement by offering safe havens to Central Americans fleeing the civil wars and conflicts in their countries. As many as 500 congregations took part.

Eleven of 13 refugees who have sought protection in churches since 2014 have been granted stays in their deportations

Under the recent revival, congregations in Atlanta, Phoenix, Chicago, Portland and other cities have offered to help.

In 2011, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a memo prohibiting agents from arresting anyone at churches, schools, hospitals and public demonstrations.

But Ramírez is in Texas, a state where the majority of residents strongly oppose illegal immigration.

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan G. Patrick, one of the biggest proponents against churches who offer sanctuary, has pushed for tougher state laws for local law enforcement bodies to comply with federal immigration regulations.

But St Andrew’s Presbyterian, as well as the other congregations across the country, are ready for a major legal battle.

Temporary stays in deportations have been secured in Arizona and Colorado but only after migrants have had to live more than a year in closed quarters and be on 24-hour alert.

In the 1980s, US churches took part in the Sanctuary Movement by offering safe havens to Central American fleeing armed conflicts

“This is the first time we have offered sanctuary,” said Rev. Crystal Silva, a pastor at St. Andrew’s.

“The reason we are doing this is for justice. Our country wants to deport and that is not fair. There are millions of undocumented people who live in fear of deportation and suffer from poverty and violence. All our church wants is justice,” she said, adding that the congregation is prepared for a long legal battle.

At St. Andrew’s, Ramírez has her own furnished room and social workers at her disposal. Everything she needs, from English classes to getting her hair done, is provided by the church.

Ramírez is an evangelical Baptist so St. Andrew’s has also arranged for a visit by a pastor from her own church.

“We know she is going to feel lonely. We are asking immigration not to deport her,” said Silva.

Ramírez also realizes that she faces a tough battle.

“I want them to stop my deportation, to quit attacking me, and remove my ankle bracelet. I refuse to budge until they do that.”

English version by Martin Delfín.

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