We are five immigrant women living in sanctuary, sheltered in houses of worship across the U.S. that value the sanctity of our lives and the lives of our children. Although we come from different countries, speak different languages and have never met each other in person, we have one thing in common. We are members of the National Sanctuary Collective/Colectivo Santuario, a group of immigrants in sanctuary and their supporters across the U.S. Each one of us has taken sanctuary as a last resort; we know that if we leave our houses of worship even for a moment, we will face immediate deportation. We are united by both fear and hope: the fear that drove us to take sanctuary, and the hope that President-elect Joe Biden will unlock the doors to our freedom through executive action.
When Donald Trump was elected into office, then-Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Thomas Homan told undocumented immigrants to look over their shoulders. We have spent our entire lives looking over our shoulders. First in the countries of our birth, where we fled state-sanctioned violence, intimate partner violence, anti-Indigenous discrimination and threats of torture. And now in the U.S., where ICE seeks to deport us back to our persecutors and threatens us with arrests on church grounds, detention, and egregious civil fines when we speak up about injustice.
Under the Trump administration, U.S. immigration policy became more punitive and violent, leaving us and countless other immigrants in a precarious position. The Biden administration has committed to helping the U.S. “build back better” and undoing Trump’s punitive policies. For immigrants living in sanctuary across the country, building back better means welcoming us back into our communities and protecting our right to raise our families without fear. We do not know yet what Biden’s transition team plans for us, and until then, we must remain in sanctuary.
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We are deeply grateful for the faith communities that have sustained us in this time of struggle. But each day we spend inside, we miss out on so many opportunities to be with our loved ones, from holiday gatherings to milestones like weddings and graduations. When our family members get sick, we cannot leave to be with them in the hospital or support them as they recover. Some of our children have spent most of their lives in sanctuary, and we can’t do many of the things that parents recognize as commonplace, like take them to the park or attend meetings at their schools. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have grown lonelier because our supporters can no longer visit us safely. Some in our group even suffered through COVID-19 illness without proper medical attention. We often feel like birds whose wings have been clipped to keep them from flying. This is why we are fighting for our freedom and calling on President-elect Biden to make a commitment to make this his fight too.
The U.S. is facing a moral crossroads as a people, but we now have an opportunity to change for the better. If we choose to reject a politics of fear and xenophobia, and instead take a lesson from people of faith to welcome the stranger, we can chart a more humane path forward. A new administration will be in the position to ensure that no one need look over their shoulder simply because they weren’t born here. A new administration could bring us back to our homes and families outside of sanctuary. The reality is, without decisive action from the Biden administration, the precarity and isolation we’ve endured will continue unabated. We are asking Joe Biden to side with us and every other person living in sanctuary to help make this a reality.
We are in sanctuary because the U.S. immigration system is broken. The Biden administration will face an uphill battle to achieve the far-reaching, structural immigration reform that our communities so badly need. Still, executive actions like prosecutorial discretion fall squarely under the president’s powers and can happen immediately after Biden takes office. The road ahead toward affirming the inherent dignity and worth of all immigrants is long, but executive action to free and protect sanctuary leaders would be a key first step on this path.
Some of us have been in sanctuary for years, but we still dream of what our lives will be like when we leave. We have lives worth fighting for in this country; we want to finish school, watch our children grow up, remain active members of our faith communities, and encourage other people to fight against oppression. Mr. Biden, we are calling on you to commit now to set us free by granting immediate legal protection to each person in sanctuary on your first day in office, lifting the deportation orders against those in sanctuary within your first 100 days as president and signing into law any bills granting relief to specific people in sanctuary. Supporting sanctuary leaders is a vital first step, but we will continue to raise our voice until all of our immigrant communities can live in safety and freedom.