New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia members at a rally for immigration reform in Washington, D.C. on April 10, 2013. (Photo credit Aidan Un)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Tamara Jimenez, 25, a volunteer at the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an interfaith, multicultural immigrants’ rights coalition, hopes Congress will take action on immigration reform. Jimenez, who has been living in the Philadelphia for 10 years, said her mother, who is from Nicaragua brought her to the United States when she was 15 years old.

“My mother decided I would have a future here,” said Jimenez, who will graduate from Community College of Philadelphia on May 4 after attending college part-time for seven years, “That’s why we left everything behind – family and friends.”

Because Jimenez came to the United States as a minor, she qualifies for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“Children who were brought here when they were kids are entitled to have a Social Security number and work permit, which I have now,” Jimenez said. “I think my status has changed from undocumented to lawfully present. But, for my family there hasn’t been anything.”

About 1.7 million people are expected to benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, according to the PEW Hispanic Center. The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics estimates that there are 11.5 million “undocumented” immigrants living in the United States.

“When we talk about immigration, we talk about the contributions that undocumented immigrants make to this country, and my mother and stepdad are one of them,” Jimenez said.

Jimemez’s mother and stepdad are small business owners.

“Unfortunately, many people don’t see the contributions that the immigrant community makes to the economy,” Jimenez said.

But she remains hopeful that organizations such as New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia will raise awareness and give people a new perspective on immigration reform. The NSC is made up of six religious congregations: St. Vincent de Paul Church in Germantown, Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in Roxborough, the Philadelphia Praise Center in South Philadelphia, Visitation BVM Church in Kensington, and Central Baptist Church in Wayne.

“New Sanctuary Movement is planting a seed of seeing immigration reform with another face,” Jimenez said. “I am just hoping it [the bill] will pass so my mother and stepdad can begin the process – so everyday they don’t have to be afraid that this may be the day they get deported.”

Jimenez said she has seen first-hand how the current system is broken and its effect on immigrant families.

“My cousin is undocumented, but her husband is a citizen,” Jimenez said. “She has two young children. She fears one day she will be separated from her children. They are her everything.”

Jimenez said that, in some cases, children whose parents have been deported don’t even know where their mom or dad were sent.

“Families will often tell the children that their mother or father is away someplace working when they are actually sitting in jail,” Jimenez said. “It’s depressing. Parents try to protect their kids by hiding the truth, but they do know, and it does affect them.

Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, said programs like Philadelphia’s Secure Communities Program creates a lot of fear and vulnerability within the immigrant community. He said the SCP allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Philadelphia Police Department to share databases.

“So anytime, anyone is arrested for any reason – even a traffic violation – that information is shared with ICE, and ICE can put a hold or detainer on them in criminal prison and bring them into immigration custody, where they can begin deportation proceedings,” said Pedemonti, who is a first- generation U.S. citizen and the child of English and Italian immigrants. “One of the problems this causes is it erodes the trust between the immigrant community and the police, which really jeopardizes everyone’s public safety. When people see something happen or they become victims of a crime, they won’t call the police because they see them connected with immigration.”

He added that it also can encourage racial profiling.

“If an officer is biased towards immigrants, he can make a very minor arrest knowing that information will be shared with immigration,” Pedemonti said. “It has really increased the amount of families affected by this because programs like that have really skyrocketed the number of deportations.”

He said people often ask why people don’t come here legally.

“I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that the laws have changed,” Pedemonti said, “and if you’re an unskilled laborer or poor there is no line to get into. It’s one of the reasons we have 11 million undocumented people living in this country.”

He said people often overlook the economic contributions of the immigrant community, especially during a recession. Pedemonti said studies have shown that comprehensive immigration reform would yield at least $1.5 trillion in added U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over the next 10 years.

“I think at its core it’s [immigration reform] really about trying to keep families together and also living up to the values that this country professes and holds up – freedom, justice and the pursuit of happiness, and deporting 1100 people everyday violates that.”

Rabbi Linda Holtzman, of Mishkan Shalom Synagogue, said she couldn’t imagine being Jewish and not working for immigrant rights.

“The Jewish history is a history of immigration,” Holtzman said. “We are all here because our families made it here from some place where they were being tormented and if they had stayed might not have survived.”

Holtzman said if her grandparents had not decided to leave Poland and come to the United States, they would have been killed in the Holocaust with other members of her family.

Holtzman said she is hopeful that it [immigration reform] will at least begin to change the status quo.

“I have no idea whether this will pass or what it will look like when it does pass,” she added, “but I am hopeful because our country is in such a sad shape with the current immigration system and desperately needs to change.”

Paul Witte, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Germantown, said the church has a long history of being active in peace and social justice matters. Witte said while he hasn’t read the entire 844-page bill, he has read summaries of the proposed immigration reform bill.

“For the most part it seems like a pretty sincere effort to do comprehensive immigration reform,” said Witte, who has worked with immigrants for 14 years.

He said the United States has benefited a lot from immigrant work and undocumented workers, noting that while the legislation proposed “does provide a path to legalization, it’s a very long path.”

“Many of these programs fail to recognize that these workers are human beings who should have opportunities to grow,” Witte said. “They have families that are often left in the lurch. Is this the way this country wants to treat immigrants? It’s a tough situation, and I understand we want to do everything in this country according to law, and it’s a wonderful thing to say – but you have to have just laws.”

For further information about the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia call 215-279-7060 or visit sanctuaryphiladelphia.org.