As the Obama administration gears up for a priority crackdown on immigrants — mainly women and children from Central America — who have entered the U.S. illegally since 2014, the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia has set up a 24-hour hotline for tips about immigration enforcement raids, and "rapid response" teams to rally around those who are arrested.
Drawn from the 19 congregations and faith-based groups that make up NSM, the teams plan to show up at raids, hold prayer vigils, and film the arrests "so more people will understand what happens when [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] tears apart families," said Father John Olenick, pastor of Visitation BVM Church in North Philadelphia, where the initiative, "Sanctuary in the Streets," was announced this week.
Direct action to prevent arrests is not on the agenda, participants said.
"At this point, what we are doing is not civil disobedience. It's to bring awareness," said Rev. Katie Aikins, of Tabernacle United Church in West Philadelphia, who volunteered to head a response team.
"I think of it like a pastoral-care emergency, because these people in our neighborhoods are being terrorized."
In 2014, the federal government faced a crisis when tens of thousands of migrants, mostly women and children, arrived in waves and crossed the southern border illegally. Supporters said they were refugees seeking asylum from violence and political oppression in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where boys often are forced to join gangs, and gang leaders prey on young girls for sex. Some children fled unaccompanied to the United States. Others sought asylum in the company of a parent, usually a mother.
The administration's plan to apprehend them and step up the pace of their deportations came to light two weeks ago, when Reuters obtained an internal document of the Department of Homeland Security outlining raids planned for May and June. So far, none has been reported in the Philadelphia area.
Administration officials say the raids are focused on people who were caught or surrendered at the border, denied asylum, and ordered deported by immigration judges, but who have refused to leave.
The stated goal is to deter the seasonal spring and fall surges in illegal crossings of the southern border, by making examples of the families who are forced to return.
From October 2015 through last March, the U.S. border patrol apprehended 32,000 family units (defined as mothers and children crossing together), compared with 14,000 in the same period of 2014-2015, and 20,000 in 2013-2014. Government officials are bracing for another surge now.
Opponents of the strategy say the administration is misapplying a border-security solution to a humanitarian emergency.
While the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump has advocated the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, Democratic contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have expressed opposition to the crackdown.
"I'm against large-scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities," Clinton said in January after an earlier round of the raids in North Carolina, Texas, and Georgia netted 121 immigrants over one weekend.
Similarly, Sanders said, "I oppose the painful and inhumane business of locking up and deporting families who have fled horrendous violence in Central America and other countries."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials released a statement Thursday that did not respond directly to the New Sanctuary Movement initiative. It said only that the agency's "enforcement priorities" include the removal of "recent border crossers, [including] single adults, as well as adults who bring their children with them."
The NSM 24-hour hotline to report a raid in progress is 267-333-9530