A Time for Sanctuary: New Haven Churches Open Their Doors to Endangered Immigrants.

Author:Tuhus, Melinda
Position:New Haven, Connecticut

On August 8, Marco Antonio Reyes Alvarez moved into First & Summerfield Methodist Church in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. At the time, the historic building had no shower. So, as the church's first resident in sanctuary, Reyes built one. It's been a welcome addition, and a gesture of his gratitude.

A local group, Unidad Latina en Accion (ULA), did all the prep work to get him in. "I didn't know anything about the church. But now," he says, "I think all the church members are angels. They are always thinking about me and what I need as if I were their son, as if this were my house."

Reyes now lives in a cozy combined bedroom-living room-study created for his use. He also has access to the entire building, including an institutional kitchen and dining area in the basement, where his wife, Fanny, and their three children visit and come to share meals, and where community events are held. During rallies outside the church, he can step onto the front portico, behind a wrought iron fence, and speak to his supporters.

Still, Reyes's world has shrunk since he took refuge here, just before federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities ordered him to return to his native Ecuador, which he hasn't seen in twenty years. Reyes is seeking asylum in the United States, citing a well-founded fear of persecution if he returns.

An immigration judge denied three emergency stays of removal. The case to reopen his asylum claim is now before the Board of Immigration Appeals, which usually takes six to nine months to make a ruling. If it's not favorable, he will appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which could issue an emergency stay.

Reyes is one of two residents from different countries given sanctuary this summer in New Haven churches. This small city (population 130,000) is home to a confluence of players--grassroots organizations, city and state officials, legal assistance groups, and communities of faith--that have created a welcoming place for the undocumented, both those seeking to live normal lives and those threatened with immediate deportation.

A resident of Meriden, Connecticut, about a half-hour drive away, Reyes came to New Haven due to the efforts of ULA, which advocates and organizes for immigrant rights. He marvels at the reception he's received: "Since I am not from New Haven, to have so much support, the people of New Haven have been very generous and kind."

New Haven claimed national leadership of the movement in July 2007, when it became the first city in the country to issue resident ID cards without regard to citizenship.

Thousands of residents--native born and not, documented and not--snaked around the block outside City Hall to get their IDs. That roll-out was preceded by a general order from the chief of police that, with some exceptions, residents were not to be interrogated about their immigration status when interacting with police. It was the first of its kind in the state. Before that, the undocumented were known as "walking ATMs" because they were unable to open bank accounts and so carried their pay in cash and were often robbed. At least...

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