The New Sanctuary Movement says we must go big, bold and migrant-led


By Marienna Pope-Weidemann, communications coordinator, Right to Remain @MariennaPW

This is the second instalment of the Still We Dream series, where we’ll hear from grassroots migrant rights and racial justice organisers across the United States talk about how they’re building their movements in Trump’s America and tackling racial privilege not just beyond the movement – but to transform it within. 

Cities of Sanctuary offering asylum date back thousands of years and have been associated with the moral core of Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and other religious traditions. The City of Sanctuary movement in the United States goes back to 1979, when Los Angeles introduced a policy banning police officers from asking arrestees about their immigration status. Throughout the 1980s this was replicated in many states and hundreds of religious congregations hid and transported refugees fleeing conflict and US-backed death squads in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At the movement’s height it operated an underground railroad reminiscent of the one which operated during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to smuggle Africans to Canada. In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations were secretly hosting refugees, moving them from Mexico to find sanctuary in cities across the United States.

Today, there are over 200 sanctuary cities spanning the United States; the last outposts of a principle treasured and upheld by a powerful, national movement. They’re already under siege from Trump’s administration and later in the series we’ll be looking at how students are defending sanctuary campuses. This week though, we’re interviewing Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia (NSM). This migrant-led, inter-faith organisation is developing a rapid response systems to raids, taking the sanctuary movement out into the streets.

This interview will be available in audio later in the week.

Marienna: It’s been a few days now since the inauguration, how are you guys feeling over there?

Peter: Well, we had our People’s Inauguration on Friday and it felt really good to focus on something active. We had 20 different groups there, Catholics speaking alongside trans people and former sex workers and it felt really good to see everyone coming together like that. In a way, now Trump’s actually here, after all these months of anxiety and anticipation I feel like we can engage, which is good. But it’s a mixed reaction. There’s a lot of anxiety and fear about what he’s going to do and how that will impact our communities – but the flip side is that we’re seeing more people coming out than ever, ready to fight.


Marienna: How did you become involved in this struggle to begin with, what was your journey towards taking it up?

Peter: I moved to Phili to join a Catholic worker organisation – it’s not really part of the Catholic church, they’re the radical Catholics – and first got involved with this work from there. But deeper than that, I think it was my family story. My father came over from Italy as a teenager after the war, he met my mum in Italy and moved back over here to raise me but what she went through, being so far away from her people, that shaped me early on… And then as an adult, seeing the increasingly hostile environment towards immigrants and particularly the differences that class and race make to that experience… The opportunities my parents had as white immigrants that were denied to others made a really big impact. And it seemed to be a huge gap in my faith not to be organising around it.

Marienna: How did the NSM get started and how has it evolved?

Peter: Here in Phili we started in 2007: clergy, immigrant members and folks from other migrant rights organisations. It was all volunteers. No one was organising the faith community even though many congregations were being hit by the fallout of our immigration policies. We started with education and accompaniment – walking through the process with families facing deportation, making sure they had trustworthy lawyers and going with them to court, or visiting them in detention. That was all about building relationships.

It started being mostly allies and over time that’s shifted. We work with 21 congregations at the moment, half are migrants. And the same with our staff, we make sure at least half the board is migrant and becoming more migrant-led has been really important.

Marienna: You mentioned collaboration between local officials and ICE. NSM was central in bringing that to an end. How was that victory won and what did it mean for the community?

Peter: That was a long fight. This is something that really started after 9/11. The collaboration between immigration agencies and police started under Bush but really escalated under Obama. At first it was opt-in but they kept changing the rules. In Phili our mayor kept stalling, sympathetic in meetings but never taking action so we shifted to a more public campaign and built a broad coalition around it. He wanted piecemeal changes, tied very much into this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ narrative, but we wanted everyone to be protected from the impacts of collaboration, whether people were pulled over for having a broken tail light or had been arrested for violent crime. That really pushed the conversations we were having…

Marienna: Of course, it’s a really bold message, similar to a lot of the debates over here around immigration detention where you know, we have centres incarcerating, for example, well educated asylum seekers who’ve never broken any laws alongside people who’ve committed crimes, but already served their time in prison and are being doubly punished; and you have some quarters wanting to protect refugees only, or ‘good immigrants’ only, so it’s contentious to come out and say: ‘no, this shouldn’t be happening to anyone and we want protection for everyone.’ It must have been contentious.

Peter: It was and it still is. Some of our members still aren’t 100% on board, though being in a faith organisation really encourages us to reflect on the ideas of forgiveness and redemption, you know? I remember, we were working a lot with the Cambodian community, whose kids were getting beaten up in school and formed gangs to protect themselves, and later got involved in drugs and some violence… That also pushed us to challenge this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ thing and highlighted how many people get left behind by that.

In the coalition we’d spent a lot of time building relationships and having these conversations as a coalition, so when the mayor proposed protecting only those who’d committed no or low-level crimes, the whole coalition came back and said ‘no.’ There were some really intense meetings where the Mexican consulate would be like: “Are you guys willing to lose everything to hold onto this demand?”

The administration started calling individual groups to get them to support the partial protection but no one budged. And when we won, we won one of the best policies in the country.

Marienna: Tell us about Sanctuary in the Streets.

Peter: Sanctuary in the Streets started under Obama when he announced an escalation of raids against central American communities. The sanctuary offered by a congregation is no good if ICE come and raid your house, you can’t get there. So the idea was to bring the congregation to them, holding an interfaith service outside the house. We have a raids hotline open 24/7, the idea being we get a call and mass-text everyone who’s signed up to show up at the address and show solidarity and shine a light on what’s happening. We had 64 people signed up… then Trump won and suddenly hundreds of people were signing up in hours. There’s over 1000 people on the list now. So now we’re running trainings, with people willing to risk arrest also signing up for civil disobedience: to encircle the house or the vans and block their path.

Marienna: what do you think has raised the courage or the determintion for so many people to be signing up to risk arrest?

Peter: That’s a good question. It was really a response to something much bigger, with Trump coming in and the programme being a concrete way of getting involved in standing up to everything he represents. I think it’s been successful, again because it’s so bold.

It’s disruptive, but disruptive in a way that fits with and communicates the peaceful values we hold.

It’s not the whole answer, though. Stuff like Sanctuary in the Streets, which is very defensive, is also very draining and hard to sustain. Moving forwards we need to make sure that while we’re fighting back against Trump we’re doing something positive locally. We learned under Bush that even when things are terrible at federal level, we can have a real local impact. For example, we have another campaign to stop migrants’ cars being towed because they’re not allowed to have a driver’s license. We had people being left on the side of the road with their kids at 2am. Plus it costs like $1000 to get the car back, which for many of our members is a month’s wages. And we were able to get the city to reinterpret the law in a softer way, to at least give them 30 minutes to call someone to come and get the car. Again, that’s solid, concrete results for people in the here and now and that balance is important: between fighting back but always pushing for something positive.

Marienna: That’s something that really strikes me about your work, how it combines practical solidarity and support with a very principled campaign for deep political change. It’s difficult to build and maintain the capacity to do both at once, but it’s obviously a central part of your approach. What’s the significance of that?

Peter: We’ve gone back and forth on this over the years. We do see them as feeding into each other. Accompaniment does a couple of things: it provides migrant members with a supportive community and the importance of those relationships comes up again and again whenever we get feedback from migrant communities. It extends as well to eating together, attending each others’ services, and even, now we’re working with more unaccompanied minors lately and they wanna go to monster truck rallies! So we’ve got these 70 year old white guys going to monster truck rallies… [laughs]

In court I think it makes a real difference for the judges to see that people are watching them, and for the allies it’s really the best means of education. It’s about meeting people where they’re at, and many start at a place of just wanting to help rather than protest.

It’s a transformational moment when you form a real relationship with someone who’s affected by this and so you see the immigration system through their eyes.

It helps allies shift over to engaging with the deeper issues, with the organising and campaigning, because they’ve seen for themselves how the system treats fellow human beings.

Marienna: What about the role your migrant members play, being half your board of directors and really leading your strategy development?

Peter: It’s one of our key values: that those affected are the experts in what they need. Ultimately we’re working towards a shift in the balance of power in favour of those most marginalised, and if that’s what we want to see we need to do it in our own organisations. It’s a solidarity structure we’re continually working on – being a mixed organisation of migrants and allies – but how it’s worked developing strategy is that we start with listening campaigns, interviewing migrant members about what issues affect them. And then for each campaign we do strategy retreats with migrant working groups and they set the direction.

Then we found we were creating a lot of segregation, with our migrant members and white allies really working in quite seperate spaces and we were like “well this isn’t really working, we need to figure out how to bring them together.” So we did shift a little. The car towing campaign is totally migrant-led but Sanctuary in the Streets is mixed. We’ve been trying that out, and every month in our general assemblies now everyone’s inputting into all the projects together. I don’t think that would work as well as it we didn’t have a majority migrant staff, though. That’s really important because as much as we try to involve the membership in decisionmaking, full-time staff will always hold a lot of power, especially when campaigns are moving really fast and staff just have to make decisions, fast. There’s always that tension between maximising democracy and maximising efficiency, and being aware of that is healthy I think.

Marienna: So with Sanctuary in the Streets you’re trying to bring your migrant-led groups and white allies into the same organising spaces again, which is a complex process I know, because you’re trying not to replicate the dynamics of power and privilege in wider society, around race, gender, class and so on, which we all carry with us to some degree, consciously or unconsciously… There’s a growing conversation around that here in the UK, which you know, better late than never, and I think a lot of people coming to realise that yes, this is one of our greatest challenges and needs to be an urgent priority for the movement, that it can’t wait. But at the same time we’ve got people not really knowing how to move beyond tokenistic gestures and create that deep change we need to see. How are you trying to deal with that as you break down these barriers between migrants and allies?

Peter: That is a really big question and we’re struggling with it too, especially some of our white middle-class members whose privilege you know was sort of popping up. So we did some workshops on race and class, as staff and with the membership, which has helped make privilege more visible I think. And these tensions play out a lot in discussions about the pace of work too: the value of ‘winning’ our campaigns versus maybe sometimes slowing it down and making sure that migrant members are participating more. Recently we’ve been shifting more towards a slow down and deepen our democracy sort of standpoint – like staff don’t facilitate our gatherings anymore, it’s members, with staff giving them the support they need and helping them prepare. And that shift in terms of where staff energies are focused has been really important, and it’s happened because we’ve had migrant staff there to really push it.

Middle class white culture does prioritise external achievement and goals, and including me you know, I gravitate towards that because that’s part of my culture and upbringing and it’s good to be made aware of that and get serious about listening when migrant members of staff are saying: we need to slow down and engage more people…

We have these three criteria now, for any action or project that we’re working on: is it moving policy ahead, is it broadening leadership and is it bringing in more people in?

Marienna: I like those. Of course, you’re organising across not just boundaries of race and class but also faith, and one of your next priorities is incorporating more mosques into Sanctuary in the Streets. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Peter: We have not been successful in organising mosques. It’s something we’ve been trying for a couple of years, and I think I’ve learned some big lessons about the importance of who you have in the room when you start, because that does form the culture immediately, whether you want it to or not, and many of the things facing the Muslim community are quite unique. To form something and then invite other people and groups into it is much harder.

We are building relationships with mosques but it’s very challenging also because of the level of government spying and intimidation of the Muslim community. There was this one mosque I was working with and I’d swing by for Friday prayers and then suddenly this big story broke about the New York Police department infiltrating mosques in New York and Philadelphia and there I am, this random white dude walking around probably looking like a cop, which wasn’t very helpful. There are very high levels of mistrust, and for very good reason…

I think we’d really need to start with that tried and tested method of a listening campaign within the Muslim community to identify what they want to work on and work on that rather than bringing them into what we’re already doing. We haven’t had capacity for that yet, but it’s something we’re trying to figure out.

Marienna: Zooming back out to the big picture, you’ve spoken before about the resurgence of white nationalism and white supremacy in the States. How do you interpret this thing that’s going on in American hearts and minds, and to some degree European hearts and minds as well I think. You know, how did we go from Obama to almost-Bernie to probably-Clinton – to Donald Trump?

Peter: I was also really excited to connect with you because I’ve learned a lot from watching you guys. When Trump came on the scene 18 months ago, we dismissed him as a clown who’d have his moment and then go away –

Marienna: – what a lot of people here said about Brexit.

Peter: yeah, exactly. And I remember reading news about UKIP and the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany and right wing nationalist groups popping up in Europe… and here we just have Republicans and Democrats, but watching that enabled us to put a name to it, to see: oh, Trump, he’s a nationalist if not a fascist, and after that we started taking him a lot more seriously. It’s been a challenge for us to name what he is, but listening to Europe has really helped us to see what’s happening here in the US with a clearer lens.

To answer your question, there’s these census reports showing that in 20 years white folks will lose majority in the States and that has a lot of people very scared. They’re scared of losing their power, and there’s been this trend recently in poor white communities getting that life spans are getting shorter, there’s a lot of drug addiction and for the first time the next generation’s quality of life is worse, not better. People see themselves as victims…

Marienna: that makes it very difficult to talk about white privilege and be heard, doesn’t it, because in a historical moment where the working class – in their minds, the ‘white working class’ – is being robbed of very basic rights and assets they never thought they’d lose and experiencing a completely new degree of marginalisation… they’re somehow able to draw strength from that identity of being pushed to the bottom, collectively rise up to assert their needs, only to encounter you saying: “well yeah, that experience is real but it’s also interacting with another system of racial privilege, from which believe it or not you benefit, however much you’re going through, you’d be going through far worse, all else being equal, if you weren’t a white citizen, and you need to take responsibility and engage with that instead of blaming all the wrong people.” And it feels like you’re taking away the last bit of power they’ve got and forcing them to see it for what it is: perpetrating oppression even as you’re suffering it.

Peter: yes, absolutely… I mean, what are your thoughts about Brexit? Are there parallels there?

Marienna: yes, I think so. And this is what you’re hinting at when you talk about what you’ve learned from the European experience. There was, after all, a global financial crisis. The establishment are trying to rub it off the history books, but that happened, right?

Peter: yeah!

Marienna: trillions of dollars and pounds and euros were sucked up by self-descructive financial institutions and away from anything socially useful, from housing and public services and everything that makes life in this system remotely liveable, and we have now an international cost of living crisis. Working class communities everywhere are in real pain. And as Europe has seen before in the 1930s, it’s the most marginalised and invisible sections of our society that are dragged out as scapegoats to take the heat off the banks and the state. And suddenly all our problems are laid at the feet of ‘the outsiders’.

Peter: yeah, you’re right.

The historical patterns are really striking. The global financial crisis was caused by a handful of people on Wall Street and yet the immigrants get blamed.

There’s also been the law and order strain of the narrative with the Black Lives Matter movement building and the counter-narrative of ‘blue lives matter’, you know, the lives of police, and Trump is playing the classic white nationalist strong man ‘bringing back law and order’. And again, this really reflects the underlying fear of losing racial power along with economic power. On the one hand we have Black Lives Matter growing, on the other though, with a black man as president we saw a huge spike in the number of hate groups.

You know, in our membership, there were very different reactions to Trump. The white people were all totally devastated. The people of colour though were like no, this has been here the whole time, we live with this level of racism and hatred every day, it’s just that you can see it now, it’s exposed.

Marienna: there’s a similar thing here in the UK with Brexit, now we have millions of EU nationals suddenly completely unsure of their future, including affluent white EU nationals, and a huge spike in the numbers of EU nationals in immigration detention… Suddenly they’ve been thrown into this sphere of discrimination and fear and migrant communities of colour are just like: yeah, this is what we’ve been living with all this time. And from a movement building perspective the question has to be: what new alliances are opening up for us here? What new links might you be able to build, do you have links now with Black Lives Matter, for instance?

Peter: Not right now. That’s one of the big lessons we’re learning right now, with a lot of people talking about cross-movement work and finally coming together for real. It’s hard, but those conversations are hopeful. I think the potential is there, although what it would actually look like is a whole other question and right now we’re still at the stage of figuring out how to get everyone together in a room.

That is being much more widely realised now, that we all need to come together, because this is serious.

Marienna: Yeah. So looking forwards, where do you think the movement needs to be a year from now and what are the key principles that are likely to get us to that critical mass moment?

Peter: Wow, yeah, that question makes me realise that with managing crises like we are right now we’re maybe a little too stuck in the moment, putting out fires – Trump, the election – and we do need to keep looking forwards, too. We’ve been talking about the importance of going beyond defence, beyond ‘Trump’s terrible’, to put forward an alternative vision…

Marienna: Trump’s terrible, but here’s something beautiful.

Peter: Yeah, I like that! And nobody’s really moving on this because it’s really difficult and really contentious, but there are a lot of poor, white people that voted for Trump, and who’s going to start organising them? The trade policies that allowed all the factories in the US to go abroad, they left a lot of people here unemployed and are also devastating the global south, so they migrate to the global north and come up against a really hostile environment… So someone needs to reach out to them and start effecting change there. And nationally, I think we need to do some soul searching, especially with so many people coming out onto the streets for the first time, we need to know:

beyond what we’re against, what are we really fighting for? And how do we channel all this energy in a way that’s sustainable?

Marienna: Last question: what’s your message for migrant communities over here, and their allies, who might be looking at what you’ve achieved and wondering: how do we get there?

Peter: I feel what’s been most important for us is to be deeply grounded in our values and take risks based on those, whether it’s Sanctuary in the Streets direct action or hiring people who are undocumented. Looking back at the things I’ve been most proud of in our past, we’ve been at our best when we’re really bold. Bold things that connect with people’s values and give people the space to play that out.

Also as a staff we recently went to a racial reconciliation workshop, evaluating organisations on a spectrum from ‘no people of colour’ through tokenising through to being led by people of colour and having authentic engagement. Now in our history we definitely moved across that spectrum… Prioritising migrant leadership and being ready to slow down to protect and strenghten those principles, in the long run we’ve built a stronger organisation because of it.

What’s helped more than anything is listening and being ready to change. I mean really, make big changes to our organisation according to what migrant members and communities are saying.

Marienna: humility as a core value, really.

Peter: definitely, yes.

Marienna: so, it’s “build big, be bold but be humble.”

Peter: [laughs] Yes!

Photography courtesy of NSM Philadelphia


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