Faith unites sanctuary immigrant-rights fight

BY CHARMAINE LAM | A sea of signs calling for support for the sanctuary movement and for immigrant activist Ravi Ragbir’s fight against deportation flooded Foley Square this past Saturday.

Among them were “You can’t deport a movement,” “Liberty’s Torch Will Melt ICE,” “I Stand With Ravi” and “I’m With Her,” with an arrow pointing at the Statue of Liberty.

But what the placards did not reflect was the religious backbone of the New Sanctuary Coalition, the group behind the solidarity rally.

The New Sanctuary Coalition is a movement comprised of numerous houses of worship around the New York region. Photos by Tequila Minsky

The event opened with collective deep breaths before the crowd joined together in song to celebrate the present moment. Next followed the Hindu Gayatri Mantra, a Christian prayer and a verse from the Koran.

“It’s all about the principle of forgiveness: If you did your crime and haven’t committed any other crime 20 years later, you should not be branded a criminal,” Reverend Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church, said of Ragbir’s case, around which the rally was initially organized.

Ragbir is the co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant-rights organization based at Judson Church in Greenwich Village. He had been called to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation last month. His conviction of wire fraud was  20 years ago, and he did serve jail time for it.

Only a day before this past Saturday’s rally, the federal government agreed to delay his deportation. Although Ragbir’s ability to remain in the U.S. at this point remains uncertain, his fight against ICE and his success so far are providing a sense of hope and unity for the members of the sanctuary movement.

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Sadhana: the Coalition of Progressive Hindus, opened the rally in blessing.

“Sanctuary is love,” she told the crowd. “There is no faith which isn’t sanctuary. Sanctuary is just love.”

For Schaper, the moral values upon which religion is based unite the movement and give it its strength.

“This principle of forgiveness is Christian, Jewish, Hindu – it’s consistent across all religions,” she said. “Religion’s role is like any other free institution in society. We have a right to say what we say. We can’t be forced to obey unjust laws.”

Speakers from congressmembers to immigration lawyers denounced the Trump administration throughout the course of the rally. They called attention to the opposition between the government’s immigration policies, on the one hand, and religious values and morals, on the other.

“We are coming together to say to the administration, ‘We are not going to stand silently, and we will do what we need to do in order to protect every immigrant in this country,’ ” Congressmember Nydia Velázquez told the crowd. She then turned her focus toward President Trump, her words punctured by roars of approval from those at the rally.

“And shame on you, Mr. President, when you lied,” she scolded. “You lied, Mr. President, when you told Dreamers, ‘Don’t be afraid of me, I have a big heart.’ … You are heartless.”

Her expression softened as she then addressed the crowd, saying, “God bless all of you.”

Following Velázquez’s remarks, Public Advocate Letitia James called for tangible action to follow prayer, urging the crowd not to grow complacent in religious belief.

“After you get on your knees in prayer, you have to get up and fight!” she told the crowd, as their voices merged into one in a call to “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

Although evangelical leaders have backed Trump both in the presidential race and since his election, speakers at the rally and members of the New Sanctuary Coalition pushed back against the perception that religion and the values of the current administration go hand in hand.

Sadhana’s Viswanath said, “In this history of social-justice movements in this country, the vanguard is often faith leaders — from the abolitionist movement to the women’s rights movement.”

In her remarks to the crowd, Viswanath urged the participants to “help…stand against the Republican Hindus,” referring to the 200-strong rally organized by the Republican Hindu Council that gathered in front of the White House to support the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

“As a progressive Hindu, I refuse to cede Hinduism to people who are motivated by hatred,” she said. “Those who rallied in Foley Square – we’re saying that we refused to cede this country to those who are motivated by hate. That’s really the meaning of standing behind Ravi and against the current immigration policy.”

Saturday’s rally climaxed with a collective scream directed at the ICE offices at 26 Federal Plaza, across the street from Foley Square. Bill Talen a.k.a. Reverend Billy, the performance-artist / activist preacher, left, and his wife, Savitri D, right, were among those protesting the administration’s crackdown on immigrants.

The action culminated with Ragbir’s own address to the crowd. As the group enthusiastically chanted his name, he took the microphone. He thanked the rally’s organizers and everyone gathered for the love they had shown him since his detainment Jan. 11 following a routine check-in with ICE.

“This is an explosion of love that we have seen in the past 30 days,” the activist said. “We have created leadership everywhere and we are standing up to what is happening. We want to continue this leadership. We want to stand firm on these grounds of love.”

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