Immigration has been a fixture of debate in the 2016 presidential campaign. The presidential candidates have expressed, shall we say, divergent plans to address it.
With that in mind, The Fix reached out to Father John Olenick, pastor of Visitation Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) Roman Catholic Parish. Visitation BVM, a multi-ethnic church in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood, is a place where each Sunday, multiple Masses are held. There are three in Spanish, one in English and one in Vietnamese. The church is also one of 19 member congregations in the New Sanctuaries Movement. (More information below.) When Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced in January plans for mass immigration raids, New Sanctuary members and staff set up the emergency hotline and "Know Your Rights" training sessions for undocumented immigrants.
That's anathema to some. But, when people living in the United States are detained and the most common result is deportation, a number of matters often require attention. A share of undocumented immigrants live in mixed-status households. So contact needs to be made with legal immigrant and U.S. citizen spouses and children; any plans to reconnect in another country organized; property or businesses sold, medications obtained and child-custody matters sorted. And, while the U.S. Constitution guarantees individuals arrested on various crimes access to a lawyer, there are no such requirements for undocumented immigrants in the nation's backlogged immigration courts, where deportation orders can be issued.
Olenick, who is from North Carolina, has been an ordained minister since 2003 and pastor at Visitation BVM since 2003. He previously served in the Bronx. And while some will dismiss him as a bleeding heart liberal, in some ways, Olenick makes a very faith-based case for direct political involvement in immigration.
THE FIX: What can you tell me about Philadelphia’s undocumented immigrant population?
OLENICK: My parish consists of many undocumented people from places like Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, [the] Dominican Republic, and other countries. In the broader Philadelphia community, there are undocumented people from all over the world, including Africa, Asia, South America and Eastern Europe. Philadelphia is a very diverse city that is experiencing a boom in our economy and population in large part due to hardworking immigrant businesses.
THE FIX: What is the New Sanctuary Movement and its connection to the deportation hotline?
OLENICK: [The] New Sanctuary Movement is an interfaith, multicultural immigrant-justice organization fighting to win more just and humane laws for immigrants and to keep immigrant families together. We are united in our shared faith values of justice, dignity, and hospitality for all, regardless of immigration status. We’ve worked for the past nine years to keep immigrant families together through the successful campaign to end the practice of the Philadelphia police collaborating with deportations. [We] accompany families facing deportation, and are now working on a campaign to win driver’s licenses for undocumented Pennsylvanians.
THE FIX: Where did the idea for the hotline come from?
OLENICK: The idea of the hotline came from our immigrant members’ very real feeling of being terrorized by constant violence in their home countries and now in the United States. The [Christian] mandate to welcome the stranger and love your neighbor are not just about feelings; they are a call to action. We cannot sit idly by while our community members are dragged away from their families at 4 in the morning. The hotline and emergency rapid response of “Sanctuary in the Streets” aims to bear prophetic witness to this injustice while we organize against the deportations. People across the country are responding to the raids in a manner that best suits their own communities. We believe that “Sanctuary in the Streets” [the hotline] is what Philadelphia needs to be safer from the terror of deportation.
THE FIX: What's the work been like so far?
OLENIK: We have received calls about individual deportation cases, but luckily there have not been mass raids targeting Central American families in Philadelphia yet. When the raids were first announced in January, we organized to gather letters from over 275 Pennsylvania clergy and religious heads in opposition to the raids, held actions at ICE, and won a Philadelphia City Council resolution condemning the raids. We believe that these organized actions send a direct message to ICE that deportations are not welcome in our city and state, and hopefully can continue to play a preventative role to avoid future mass raids.
THE FIX: Have scattered ICE raids begun to happen again in the Philadelphia area?
OLENICK: There have been 2.5 million people deported under President Obama, equaling about 1,100 people per day. These record deportation rates occur because of constant ICE raids throughout the country, including Philadelphia. In terms of this specific announcement of raids targeting Central American families, it’s hard to know what is a new sweep and what is the regular day-to-day work of ICE, who exists solely to deport as many people as possible, separating families across the country. [Editor's note: Click here to read ICE's own mission statement.] Sanctuary in the Streets responds to all who see or experience an ICE raid.
THE FIX: How does the hotline work?
OLENICK: The hotline is a 24/7 emergency phone number that is staffed by New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia employees [and only takes calls from the Philadelphia areas]. When an immigrant sees or experiences a raid, they can call the hotline, and we will immediately deploy teams of volunteers to go to the site of the raid to hold a prayer vigil, film the raid, bear witness, and be with the family. We have over 50 volunteers at the ready, all of whom are clergy or people of faith from our member congregations. We’re publicizing the number on social media, through the Spanish and English press, in our congregations, and handing out know-your-rights cards with the number throughout the city.
We created the emergency raid hotline in January in response to the first announcement of raids form the Obama administration targeting Central American refugee families. In January, we did many “know your rights” trainings for the immigrant community so they can better protect themselves and we gave out the phone number. The official launch of the emergency hotline and “Sanctuary in the Streets” actions came this week in response to the second wave of raids we are anticipating.
THE FIX: What are some of the most frequent questions? Why do most people call?
OLENICK: We receive calls when someone either sees ICE on their street or is actually experiencing a raid in that moment. These are moments of high panic, so we speak to the person to ascertain their location and then go to the site of the raid. We also receive calls from individuals seeking legal support after their loved ones are apprehended by ICE.
THE FIX: Tell me what you can about a call that you have handled or been made aware of?
OLENICK: We received a call from a woman whose cousin’s house was being raided. New Sanctuary Movement went to the site of the raid to support the family. The husband was detained when he left their apartment, and the ICE officers took his keys, re-entered the apartment and came looking for the wife. She was hiding under the bed with their baby, and ICE left. We were able to support the wife and child who were obviously terrified that ICE was going to deport them too, and were devastated at the loss of the husband/father.
THE FIX: As you know, Donald Trump plans to begin mass deportations if elected. From your perspective, what might it mean if more than 11 million people were deported over the course of 18 months as Trump has described?
OLENICK: My parishioners face the devastating separation from their loved ones due to deportation. In many cases, the breadwinner is deported, leaving mothers and children behind with no means to support themselves. They frequently live in fear, constantly looking over their shoulders, fearful that they are being followed. Many people I know have very specific routines in their daily lives and are very aware of their environment and the potential to get picked up by ICE. People don’t register in the church because they don’t want a written record or information about themselves. They don’t want to write their names down when going to school or a doctor’s visit for the same reason.
In terms of proposed deportation of all undocumented people, it’s obviously logistically and financially impossible. Economically, the agricultural and restaurant [industries] in our country would collapse. Here in Philadelphia, it would have a huge negative impact on restaurants and landscaping. However, even though it is not a realistic plan, it has produced fear in the immigrant community, so it’s more important than ever to have an organized response.
THE FIX: Have you all been on the receiving end of complaints or harassment?
OLENICK: We won an end to police-ICE collaboration in Philadelphia and are now a “Sanctuary City” because Philadelphia doesn’t cooperate with deportation. There were anti-immigrant activists who protested at that time. There were also anti-immigrant protesters against unaccompanied refugee children. There are always people who respond to articles – including those about our hotline against the raids -- with negative and un-Christian responses.
THE FIX: The entire concept of sanctuary is one some people abhor. Why did you all get involved?
OLENICK: We believe that we are all created in the image and likeness of God and immigrants are our brothers and sisters, members of our congregations, our spiritual family. We cannot just abandon or walk away from them. Immigrants and allies work together on campaigns to win just and humane immigration laws, walk with families in deportation, and build our interfaith community as we seek to put our faith values into practice.
THE FIX: What would you want people who disagree to know about the hotline?
OLENICK: Any time a person is in crisis, you want to know that there is someone there who will support you, who has your back. All of us have faced different crises in our lives, and having public support helps us get through that tough time. That is what we are trying to do – prayerfully support families through this tragedy. People are being deported into deplorable, dangerous situations, which is the reason they came here in the first place.
THE FIX: What do you say in response to those who argue you are aiding people who broke U.S. immigration laws?
OLENICK: Our laws need to be reformed because they are not just. We are called to follow God’s law and sometimes God’s law and the law of human beings come in conflict. We choose the higher authority.