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Communities of faith welcome migrants caught in polarized immigration debate

Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sac ACT) is providing English workbooks so the migrants can learn the language. The group also gives out quarters so they can do laundry.
Jason DeRose
/
NPR
Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sac ACT) is providing English workbooks so the migrants can learn the language. The group also gives out quarters so they can do laundry.

Rabbi Mona Alfi was busy preparing for evening Shabbat services at Congregation B'nai Israel in Sacramento, Calif., when her phone rang.

"It's not the ideal time to call a rabbi on a Friday afternoon," she remembers the caller saying. "But we have a situation and we could use your help."

The situation was that some Latin American migrants had been left outside an office building in downtown Sacramento.

"Help looked like making sure every person had a safe place to stay, making sure they had food to eat and had clean clothing," says Alfi. "These people had been put on a plane without anything. Not even a change of clothing, a toothbrush — not even knowing where they were going."

In the following days, the story became clearer: Someone in El Paso had promised jobs and legal help to the group of 20- and 30-somethings if they boarded a plane. But after the migrants arrived in Sacramento, the person who made those promises disappeared. The migrants spoke no English. They were confused. They'd survived long, harrowing journeys and they were scared.

Alfi says the religious imperative for her congregation was clear.

"Our most important holiday is Passover," she says, "and from that holiday — and over and over in the Bible — we're taught that because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, we have a special obligation to help the stranger."

Alfi says that 36 times in the Torah, Jews are commanded to love the stranger, help the stranger, and care for the stranger.

"There should be one law for the stranger and the home-born," she says.

Ironic perhaps, that it was exactly 36 immigrants from Latin America who arrived in Sacramento over the course of a few days in early June. It wasn't their chosen destination. They had claimed asylum after crossing the border in Texas. But authorities in Texas aren't the ones who flew the migrants to California. Rather, it was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who chartered the planes to send them from El Paso to Sacramento to make a political point about immigration policy.

Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says cities such as Sacramento that call themselves sanctuaries are one of the reasons migrants enter the U.S.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
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AP
Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis says cities such as Sacramento that call themselves sanctuaries are one of the reasons migrants enter the U.S.

Presidential candidate DeSantis defended his actions during a campaign event shortly after the migrants' arrival, saying that more liberal cities and states should bear the burden of dealing with the influx of people crossing the U.S. southern border.

"These sanctuary jurisdictions are part of the reason we have this problem," he said, "because they have endorsed and agitated for these types of open border policies."

Starting last year, DeSantis has repeatedly sent migrants to New York, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and California.

California's Attorney General Rob Bonta says individuals from Latin America who were dropped off in Sacramento had documents purporting to be from the Florida state government.
Rich Pedroncelli / AP
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AP
California's Attorney General Rob Bonta says individuals from Latin America who were dropped off in Sacramento had documents purporting to be from the Florida state government.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta met with migrants shortly after their arrival in Sacramento in June and found that they had documents "purporting to be from the government of the State of Florida and its 'Voluntary Migrant Transport Program,'" according to a press releaseissued by his office.

Bonta has since opened an investigation into the circumstances of the migrants' arrival to determine what, if any, laws DeSantis or others may have violated.

A community comes together around unexpected guests

Since the arrival of the 36 new Sacramento residents, a coalition of congregations — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — has come together to help them settle in. It has meant shouldering unplanned costs of time, energy and money for the coalition — all the result of the country's polarization over immigration.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, the migrants gathered at Parkside Community Church in Sacramento to pick up English language workbooks.

Among them was a 21-year-old Venezuelan named Opher, who asked to only use his first name because he fears for his family's safety given the political instability in his home country. Speaking in Spanish, he described a harrowing journey of more than two months walking, jumping on buses, hitching rides, and crossing border after border:

"Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador," he says, as he lists the countries he passed through on the way here. "Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico."

Opher says he hopes to work to make money so he can help his mother survive the economic and political chaos of Venezuela.

One of the people determined to ease Opher's way in the U.S. is Gabby Trejo, who rallied some 30 congregations to help the migrants.

"Whatever the intention was of why they were sent here to our community," she says, "the community has responded overwhelmingly with love and support."

Trejo is executive director of the faith-based community organizing group Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sac ACT), a local partner of the statewide religious organizing network PICO California. She was the person on the other end of the line when Rabbi Alfi picked up her phone that Friday afternoon while preparing for Shabbat services.

Latin American migrants flown from Texas to California were dropped off at an office building that houses the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento without anyone telling the diocese they were coming.
Tran Nguyen / AP
/
AP
Latin American migrants flown from Texas to California were dropped off at an office building that houses the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento without anyone telling the diocese they were coming.

The office building where the migrants were originally dropped is home to the administrative offices of the Catholic Diocese of Sacramento. Trejo says someone there familiar with Sac ACT's work called to ask if she could help figure out what was going on. For her and the scores of people who've since volunteered to help, it's a deeply meaningful experience.

"The work with the migrants has allowed us to create a vessel for people in the community who are tired of seeing the humanity of immigrants being stripped away," she says.

Trejo says all the congregations caring for the migrants are doing so out of a desire for "a world where people are seen with dignity and respect." And she says that as a Catholic woman, service like this is the best way she can demonstrate her love of neighbors.

Avoiding politics doesn't mean ignoring those in need

None of those involved in housing and feeding the migrants wants to talk too much about the politics that led to their arrival in Sacramento. All they'll say about DeSantis' actions is that the circumstance of their new neighbors' coming here were undignified and disrespectful.

Trejo, as a community organizer, is deeply aware of the legal and policy realities that led to the situation, but she also says she knows there is a time and place for politics.

Sac ACT wasn't prepared to offer the direct aid the migrants needed the moment they arrived. But its network of congregations are well-practiced in delivering such help. These houses of worship serve a community with a high rate of homelessness and know just what it takes to run an overnight shelter, clothing drive and food pantry.

Those driving the migrants from doctor's appointments to thrift stores say their actions are more than simple charity. It's a deeply religious response to human need.

"This is exactly what Jesus would teach us to do," says Jocelyn Moore, who started attending Parkside Church in the third grade.

Now, the mother of six — who works in education — is spending her summer helping the migrants learn English.

"We're supposed to welcome refugees and strangers," she says. "It's all about hospitality and welcoming. And not about the whole narrative of building walls and keeping people out."

The congregations largely bear the costs of that hospitality rather than the city or state governments. Moore's pastor, Rajeev Rambob, says that kind of hospitality is central to ministry at Parkside Church.

"Congregational life, communal life gives you a vehicle to get good at this sort of thing," he says. "And it gives you a familiarity and trust with a team of people who are ready to spring into action when the need arises."

Rambob teaches his congregation that offering beds and meals and clothing and quarters for laundry lies at the heart of Christianity.

"We as people of faith just know our calling," he says. "One of the things we're mandated — is to love our neighbors."

Political polarization has a human cost

At Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Sacramento, that love takes the form of donated shoes and clothing. Volunteers lay out table after table of shirts and shorts, sneakers and sandals.

Thirty-four-year-old Andrena from Venezuela wears a new-to-her pink and white striped shirt. She also asked to use just her first name because she still fears for her safety.

Speaking in Spanish, Andrena says that fear was constant during her monthlong walk from Venezuela. She never knew if she was going to make it to the U.S. or be stranded somewhere along the way. And she says she faced police who demanded money she didn't have to allow her to pass.

Sacramento Area Congregations Together has arranged several clothing and shoe drives to help the Latin American migrants who arrived in early June.
Jason DeRose / NPR
/
NPR
Sacramento Area Congregations Together has arranged several clothing and shoe drives to help the Latin American migrants who arrived in early June.

As she tells her story, she repeatedly pauses to wipe away tears with the back of her hand.

Stories like that — fleeing home without cash, harassment by police, arriving in a foreign land confused and alone — spurred Trinity Cathedral member Shireen Miles to action. As a congregation member, she is a doer.

"Today, I took three young guys out to enroll in English as a second language classes," says Miles. "One of the other things I've been working on recently is rounding up bicycles" so the migrants can get around town.

She notes that when people have nothing, they need literally everything.

Many of the migrants arrived in Sacramento with just the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. Area congregations have been donating goods to help them settle in.
Jason DeRose / NPR
/
NPR
Many of the migrants arrived in Sacramento with just the clothes on their backs and the shoes on their feet. Area congregations have been donating goods to help them settle in.

But Miles is also thinking beyond the immediate needs of her three dozen new neighbors. She's indignant and exasperated by the human cost that comes with the polarization over immigration.

"Why don't the governors of the red states sit down with the governors of the blue states and the federal administration," she asks, "and try to figure out a better solution for what is a big challenge for all of us instead of just dropping off groups of human beings in someplace where they had no idea where they were going?"

Doing justice is political in a broken world

For nearly three decades, Miles has worshipped at Trinity Cathedral, where some new banners showed up recently in the sanctuary.

One of them reads, "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God."

It's a quote from the biblical book of Micah — Chapter 6, Verse 8.

Matthew Woodward, dean of the cathedral, wanted the banners in the worship space to remind his congregation each Sunday that they are called to do the work of justice and mercy.

He says that since the arrival of the migrants in early June, a story from the gospel of Matthew keeps echoing in his mind as he collects money in the congregation's discretionary fund to help pay for their food and shelter and clothing.

"Where Jesus says to the disciples, 'You know, you fed me. You gave me water. You clothed me. You visited me in prison. You sheltered me,'" says Woodward. "And everyone around him — 'cause he's talking in riddles — says 'What are you talking about? When did we do that? We never did that.' And he said, 'When you did it to the least of these, you did it to me."

It's a story that illustrates, Woodward says, the centrality to Christian teaching of caring for migrants, who in this case are the very least of these.

"I think some of the politics dehumanizes people and I think that I can confidently say that the faith partners that I work with really want to invest people with dignity."

The undignified way these strangers arrived in Sacramento saddens Woodward. But he says as a person of faith living in a polarized world, the Gospel transforms compassion into the courage and strength to care for neighbors in need.

"I know we're trying not to be drawn on the politics," Woodward says, "but if caring for your neighbor is a political act, then it's a political act. And it's still the right thing to do."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.
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