NEW YORK CITY — Thousands of people have marched in various American cities to protest president-elect Donald Trump with slogans like “Not my president.” But a small group of interfaith leaders will gather quietly in New York City on Tuesday afternoon and hold a prayer vigil to defend immigrant rights.
For these religious protestors, the 2016 election does not reveal a sudden change in politics, but is part of a much larger movement that has been in the making for years.
“The train tracks for what has happened in the election were already laid decades ago,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a priest and co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, an immigrant coalition based in New York. “It is evidence of what is already present, not a future that is about to happen. We already have the machinery for mass deportations in place.”
Interfaith leaders from the New Sanctuary coalition have been dressing up in white and brown robes over the last four years to march around the immigration center at 26 Federal Plaza. This ongoing campaign is a symbolic gesture that evokes how the people of Israel walked around the fortified city of Jericho until its walls collapsed with the blow of a horn.
The New Sanctuary Coalition has its roots in the 1980s as a religious and political movement that offered undocumented Central American refugees protection from U.S. deportation. These interfaith leaders have been protesting the “criminalization” of immigrants long before Donald Trump promised deportations and the building of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The criminalization of immigrants has been used in the past to change immigration policy,” said Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary coalition. “We ended up in a situation where the grounds for deportation were broadened to include people who were picked up on traffic stops or jumping the subway turnstile. And this was written into law before Donald Trump was elected president.”
Similarly, human rights advocates say that some U.S. policies on free trade and immigration have already created high walls that are dividing America into a two-tier society. And in this sense, both undocumented immigrants and working class Trump supporters find themselves excluded, economically displaced by the collateral consequences of these policies.
“There has always been a tension between permitting the free flow of capital through trade agreements like NAFTA on one hand, and not permitting the free flow of labor on the other,” said Camilo Pérez-Bustillo, director of the Human Rights Center at the University of Dayton. “This tension means that in effect policies have militarized the border, and criminalized undocumented workers, while intensifying trafficking and promoting the most inhumane collateral consequences.”
But both secular human rights advocates and religious immigration rights supporters believe that no matter which political party is in power, people have inherent rights and all political systems should be held accountable. And they hope Trump’s administration will understand that putting humanity first means putting America first.
“We need to shift our focus from a dominant culture, a culture of self-entitlement, to a culture where no one gets left behind so that we can reconnect with the values that bring everyone together as a community,” Ruiz told NBC Latino.
Other immigration advocates hope that important Trump strategists or influencers like Rudolph Giuliani will remember their previous commitments to immigrants and help them build a more inclusive society.
“When Giuliani was Mayor of New York City, he said a lot of positive things about immigrants, and even took the federal government to court in the 1990s to protect their confidentiality,” said Steven Choi, executive director of of the New York Immigration Coalition.
Giuliani sued the federal government in 1996 to prevent city and state employees from reporting on a person’s immigration status. And with current laws allowing for many people to be deported, Choi asks politicians like the former New York Mayor to push back against false narratives that depict immigrants as criminals.
In either case, protesters are now looking back to historic social movements like the Protestant abolitionists, Irish Catholic immigration advocates and the civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—which planted deep roots in local churches—to develop a long-term perspective that is needed to reconnect families and communities with important causes.
“If there is an organization that speaks to you, donate, get involved. A lot of work has to be done locally to protect constitutional and human rights. And we cannot do that without actively supporting each other in our families and communities,” said Julissa Arce, a Mexican immigrant who uses her extraordinary life story—from undocumented to Goldman Sachs Exec—to defend immigration rights.