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Groups urge immigrant sanctuary movement to avert deportations

Long Island community advocates and religious leaders gathered to call for the building of an immigrant sanctuary movement on Long Island on Wednesday Feb. 8, 2017. More than 150 people joined a five-hour conference at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent in Brentwood to discuss steps to help immigrants at risk of deportation under President Donald Trump. Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger

Community advocates, religious leaders and concerned citizens responded Wednesday to a call to assist immigrants in the region, ahead of expected enforcement that could put many in deportation danger under President Donald Trump.

What they are seeking, advocates said, is nothing short of building a sanctuary movement on Long Island — meaning they want to identify “safe spaces” and people who can assist those fearing detention and removal over immigration violations.

Their concerns stem largely from Trump’s issuance of executive orders that target illegal immigration and curtail immigration overall. In his first days in office, he’s authorized work on a border wall, expanded the definition of criminal immigrants who are sought and placed entry restrictions on immigrants, refugees and visitors from a list of Muslim-majority countries.

“We need to be prepared. We need to be able to mobilize and we need to be able to help those targeted by these executive orders,” said Anita Halasz, executive director of Long Island Jobs With Justice, a workers’ rights group in Hauppauge.

More than 150 people joined the five-hour conference, held at the Sisters of St. Joseph, a convent in Brentwood, to discuss steps to assist unauthorized immigrants.

One initiative seeks to enroll citizens as volunteers for an “accompaniment project” to pair them with immigrants due in local courts as they navigate the process. Volunteers would document what happens and offer moral support, advocates said.

“We want to make sure that we are witnesses” and “are there to make sure that due process exists,” Halasz said.

Lucian Chalfen, spokesman with the New York State Unified Court System, said in a statement that the courts “would be happy to review any specific suggestions regarding easing concerns that recent immigrants may have in their interactions with the court system.” A similar program is in place in some New York City courts, he said.

Advocates floated an open invitation for churches and institutions to become “sanctuaries” before pastors from various denominations. It would involve designating places of worship as refuges for immigrants fearing deportation.

Speakers acknowledged that was “a tough ask” in the current political climate.

“The times we’re living in are critical and the people that are jumping into our arms really, really need our care,” said the Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, of St. Peter’s Church in Midtown Manhattan. “At stake is our humanity and our salvation.”

No Long Island churches have signed up as sanctuaries, but a handful of advocacy groups offered their facilities and more than 200 people registered for the volunteers network. The group has an internal hotline to report deportation raids and coordinate response, organizers said.

Their efforts come as the Trump administration fights in federal courts an injunction against the travel restrictions and as he reaffirmed his commitment to fight illegal immigration.

“One of the reasons I was elected was because of law and order and security,” Trump told a group of law enforcement officials he met Wednesday at a conference in Washington, D.C. He asked them “to turn in the bad ones.”

“A lot of people say, ‘oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall.’ I wasn’t kidding. I don’t kid. I don’t kid,” Trump said. “No, we will have a wall. It will be a great wall, and it will do a lot of — will be a big help.”

Rev. Erik Rasmussen, pastor of Woodbury United Methodist Church, said his congregation is not in a position to become a sanctuary, but he sees the need to embrace immigrants who are an essential part of their communities.

“We need the means of protecting ‘the least of these,’” Rasmussen said, referencing a Bible verse from Matthew. “It is in our self-interest on Long Island” as the population of Long Island declines. “The opportunity to have young families come in is going to be from immigrants, including those that are here without documents now but who want to be documented.”

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