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One human family

Leaders at New Sanctuary Network Tulsa aim to protect undocumented immigrants from wholesale deportation

Linda Allegro, New Sanctuary Network Tulsa project director, and protestors outside David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center last fall.

Joseph Rushmore

Each Thursday, outside downtown’s David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center, 15–20 people gather to read the names of those inside detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These protests are part of New Sanctuary Network Tulsa’s four-part resistance to the deportation of persons without documents regardless of offense.

“It is always a call-and-response for the names of those who have been recently incarcerated and—as far as we can tell—have been snared for small, relatively insignificant offenses,” said Rabbi Marc Boone Fitzerman. Fitzerman leads most protests on behalf of New Sanctuary Network Tulsa (NSNT) and is one of three local leaders of faith who head the organization. The others are Reverend Barbara Prose of All Souls Unitarian Church and Reverend Alvaro Nova of Comunidad de Esperanza at Fellowship Lutheran Church. Linda Allegro serves as project director.

NSNT formally began last May, after the political climate became more hostile towards immigrants without documents. The nonprofit’s four areas of focus include the weekly peaceful protests (which will move to Mondays at noon beginning Jan. 22), a hotline for undocumented persons seeking help (539-664-9972), accompaniment to immigration court or check-ins, and physical sanctuary for those facing deportation.

“My religious values teach me to love my neighbor as myself,” Prose said. “We are one human family. Immigration, for me, is a religious and moral issue, one that religious leaders across faiths need to be engaged with, because those teachings are universal.”

Currently, Prose, Fitzerman, and Nova are educating their congregations about the history of churches or houses of worship offering physical sanctuary and are discussing the creation of an interfaith network in Tulsa that would provide support in these efforts. NSNT’s name comes from the Sanctuary movement of the ‘80s, which sought to provide refuge for people fleeing wars in Central America.

For a congregation to decide to provide sanctuary is no small thing. There are physical considerations—like whether the church has a shower or a place for people to eat and to live—as well as financial and logistical needs. But it also means taking a political stance, which can be a risk.

“Under the Obama administration, there was an agreement that ICE would only go after hard criminals for deportation, and they would respect sensitive locations—hospitals, schools, churches, and courthouses,” Allegro said. “The new head of ICE and Homeland Security has a different philosophy. People have been apprehended at all of those locations except churches. We don’t know what will happen with churches in the future.”

“Sanctuary is the opposite of staying underground and hoping not to run into law enforcement,” Prose said. “It is nonviolent civil disobedience. It’s a highly visible act—asking for the broken immigration system to be fixed, asking for a path to citizenship or for protection, because these people are contributing as citizens.”

“New Sanctuary Network would not oppose the deportation of serious threats to American society, people with serious criminal convictions,” said Fitzerman. “What we are most worried about is that someone with a broken taillight or driving without a license might be swept up into the system—and end up in a dangerous country of origin and separated from their family in the U.S.”

Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office is a collaborative partner with ICE through a program called 287(g), which means David L. Moss doubles as an ICE detainment center.

Originally, NSNT was hoping to appear at ICE raids or removals, but because immigrants are being detained and deported in a more systematic way (i.e. in a traffic stop), this has proved difficult. Because TSCO officers are hired to protect the people of Tulsa, NSNT believes the 287(g) agreement is not moral.

“We are saying ‘Can you stop this deportation engine?’ It’s breaking up families; it’s creating unnecessary grief and despair; it’s fueling scapegoating and racial profiling of a community, and it’s not really solving anything,” Allegro said. “I think we can come up with some other solutions. Stymying the flow of immigrants to the U.S. is a different question. ‘Deport them all’ is just an easy soundbite. That’s our little slice, our mission. We’re here to raise awareness.”

“I want to be respectful of people who say one person’s insignificant offense might be another’s very significant offense,” Fitzerman said. “No one would support the public protest of the incarceration of people who have committed crimes of violence. The main story here is people who simply lack documents. Who were at one point or another welcomed here by employers, welcomed by neighbors, and for whom the politics of the moment have taken a violent turn.”

Those politics have caused the accompaniment arm of NSNT to become more active.

“To accompany means we drive and go with them to immigration court,” Nova said. “Many immigrants do not have a license and they have to drive from here to Dallas, sometimes to Houston—because that is where the court is. So, we make sure they have a safe way to get there. And we emotionally and spiritually support them, because they are scared.”

Thus far, no Tulsa congregation has committed itself to be a place of sanctuary, though Prose said NSNT is ready to present to any congregation that wants to learn more. According to the Church World Service, more than 500 congregations around the country have “pledged to provide safety and solidarity to immigrants … targeted by [recent] negative policy changes.”

“What I would say to religious leaders in Tulsa,” Prose began, “If we don’t consider providing sanctuary, who are we? What is guiding us? Please consider what your tradition and conscience tells you about being there for our neighbors.”

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