Sheltering Those at Risk—Rabbi Linda Holtzman and a Jewish Sanctuary Movement

Angela Navarro, a 27-year-old Honduran immigrant who came to the U.S. in 2003, is the first person on the East Coast to go into sanctuary and she, her two U.S.-born children and citizen husband have lived in two small rooms at the West Kensington Ministry, a 147-year-old Presbyterian church in one of the country’s poorest Congressional districts, since November 18. [Although her children go to school and her husband to work, Navarro herself has not left the Ministry since entering the building.]

Rabbi Holtzman and the Tikkun Olam Chavura that she heads are actively supporting Navarro, emotionally as well as materially.

“We Jews are the ultimate immigrants,” Holtzman continues. “We found our way to freedom because of allies and the support of others. The message of Jewish survival is that we need to treat everyone, regardless of where they come from, with dignity and help them get to a place where they can have a good life.”

Holtzman’s thinking – her politics as well as her ethics – she tells me, is deeply influenced by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan [1881-1983], the co-founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. “We’ve been taught that we’re all made in the image of God. The important word here is all. Not just Jews, not just white people, not just Americans. Kaplan talked about God as the power that makes for salvation. What I believe he meant is that we can’t just wait for some outside force to do things. We need to create the change, make the difference. I believe we can act in Godly ways and create a world where everyone is saved. If we see God as a power within us that moves us, we can create salvation in the here and now.”

For Navarro, however, salvation lies in sanctuary, a dramatic effort to push Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] to lift the deportation order that has hung over her head for more than a decade.

“I left Honduras in 2003, two months before I turned 17,” Navarro explains. “There was a lot of crime in Honduras at the time, the economy was bad, and most of my family had already moved to Philadelphia. Immigration stopped me when I was crossing the border but because I was pregnant, they allowed me to come in to be with my mom. I then had to go to court three months later. I went back and forth to court several times but finally they told me I had to leave the country.” That was in 2004.

A Voluntary Order of Deportation was subsequently issued and Navarro was given several months to return to Honduras. In an instant the entire family found itself at a crossroads. After serious debate and innumerable conversations with her loved one, Navarro decided that she would defy the order. It was not a determination entered lightly.

“It meant living in the shadows,” Navarro says. “I had to hide myself and keep moving from house to house. I had to be really careful about where I signed my name. The only times I wrote my name was in the health clinic and when I had to enroll my children in school. I couldn’t have bills in my name, buy a cell phone for myself, nothing. I was even afraid to visit my mom’s house because I knew that immigration had gone there several times.”

Well-paying jobs were also few and far between, and although Navarro found work as a house cleaner and in restaurants, she wanted more for herself and her family.

That’s where the New Sanctuary Movement comes in.

The original Sanctuary movement began in Tucson in the early 1980s but for the most part subsided after several of its leaders were convicted of “shielding, harboring, and transporting aliens” in 1986. Then, an eight-state workplace raid that led to the arrest and deportation of more than 1200 people in 2006 prompted a wide array of religious leaders to think about ways to help the so-called “strangers in our midst.” When the Philadelphia movement launched, the Navarro family got involved.

Needless to say, the decision to enter sanctuary is full of risk, but Navarro and the NSM are resolute that visibility is essential in changing both public policy and public perceptions of the undocumented.

Nicole Kligerman, one of the Philadelphia NSM’s community organizers, notes that several people who’ve taken sanctuary in other regions have been victorious – their deportation orders have been waived — and she is hopeful that Navarro’s case will have a similar disposition. That said, they are taking no chances and are mobilizing on numerous fronts. In addition to press conferences and briefings, the Philadelphia NSM has collected more than 200 letters of support from prominent clergy and government officials, all of them urging that the deportation order be vacated. These letters were delivered to ICE on the first day of Chanukah, December 17th, in a not-so-subtle effort to shed light on Navarro’s case.

“Pennsylvania, like other states, benefits from undocumented immigrant labor,” Kligerman says. “For example, the rural area of Kennett Square produces 70 percent of the mushrooms consumed in the U.S. The NSM believes that the agricultural workers who plant and pick them, many of them out of status, should have the right to support themselves and their families. We also think they should have the right to take their children to school without having to be afraid that they’ll be picked up and deported. We think this is a basic civil right.”

Rabbi Holtzman wholeheartedly agrees. “There’s so much judgment out there. ‘Oh, they are illegal. They’re without papers.’ Papers are an administrative issue. People wouldn’t risk their lives and their children’s lives to cross a border if they felt safe at home. The New Sanctuary Movement works to remind our elected leaders and our friends and neighbors of this sometimes-forgotten fact.”