Philly group training hundreds to block immigration raids

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In the cavernous basement of St. Thomas Aquinas Community Center in South Philly, a mock immigration raid is underway.

From one end of the room, a group of pretend protesters advance towards a line “officers,” standing shoulder to shoulder.

As one woman yells for help, pretending to be taken by federal immigration officers, volunteers training to disrupt a raid sing, “This is the light of God,” and sit down as one, blocking the officers’ path.

President Donald Trump’s immigration enforcement plans are still evolving, but the ominous feeling they’ve created in communities of unauthorized immigrants has spurred trainings such as this one around the country.

The “raid” ends when several of the mock disruptors are dragged into folding chairs at the edge of the staging area.

This scene part of a training by a non-profit advocacy group called New Sanctuary Movement – which hopes to leverage a longstanding policy that federal agents avoid making arrests in houses of worship. Through prayers and hymns, the idea is to extend that protection to wherever a raid is happening, creating a kind of mobile symbolic “sanctuary.”

To make that happen requires putting a lot of people in motion very quickly. In Philadelphia, here’s what that response will look like: when ICE approaches a home, people inside are instructed to call a hotline. That initiates a text alert to all of the trained volunteers.

For this exercise, about 150 volunteers are going through the motions of responding to that alert.

“You are not allowed to pass,” yells a volunteer pretending to be an immigration officer, his voice self-conscious. “Please stand back.”

The training is intense – many volunteers say they feel anxious after the run-through ends. So far, 1300 people in Philadelphia have signed up and 500 have taken this training.

In attempting to hamper enforcement, the New Sanctuary Movement has three goals.

“[It] is to be in solidarity and show up for families. Two, it is to shine a light, and then for some people who are going to risk arrest it is to peacefully and prayerfully disrupt,” said NSM executive director Peter Pedemonti.

That could mean circling an immigration vehicle or a home to try to stop removals. If arrested, disruptors could face criminal charges for impeding officers.

Despite those risks, stories of deportations have drawn people to the training who want to take action.

“The targeting communities is something that makes me really angry,” said language tutor Emily Grablutz. “It’s like they purposely want to break up any sense of safety or stability in people’s lives.” At the training, the room is about a third immigrants and refugees, and two-thirds a mix of other Philadelphians who want to get more involved.

Over the last three weeks, the New Sanctuary Movement has confirmed six instances of ICE enforcement in the city.

Activists and immigration attorneys say while this is a small spike, it is not the same kind of coordinated removal activity seen in other cities in the last couple of weeks.

Even without big numbers, uncertainty about what future enforcement will look like under President Trump has been breeding fear.

Honduran immigrant Hector Portillo said he’s at the training to support his neighbors in South Philadelphia’s Indonesian community, many of whom are undocumented – but said he’s not sure he’ll show up for a raid.

“I like help people,” he said. “I scare[d] I get arrested, I lose whatever I got,” explaining he means his green card.

As grassroots organizations ramp up their response to changing immigration policies, it’s not clear these tactics will stop deportations on the spot.

Under the Trump administration, even the old policy of avoiding arrests in churches is in question, according to former director of the American Immigration Lawyer’s Association, David Leopold. But as protests, he said the disruptions could have an impact.

“In the past, ICE has been very sensitive to public outcry. Mainly because they don’t want to be embarrassed,” he said, citing Deferred Action for Child Arrivals, or DACA, as one policy shaped by public pressure.

For now, New Sanctuary Movement is still working out the kinds of its operation. People are calling the hotline to report any police activity, or if they have miscellaneous immigration questions, tying up the line. Only one call to report immigration enforcement happened during the event itself — and the line went dead before the caller gave a location.

Without an address, the group ended up protesting outside of ICE headquarters in Philadelphia.

In order to work, the response team will need people who are willing both to call in raids and respond to them. But there’s at least one high profile champion: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney recently plugged the hotline at a press conference.

Other cities are also following Philadelphia’s lead.

Groups from London, England, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, have reached out to the New Sanctuary Movement for advice on starting their own response networks. A group in Austin, Texas, already has its own rapid response program up and running.

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