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In West Philly, activists train to "disrupt" deportations

A few dozen people marched across the warehouse floor, holding cardboard signs and singing in Spanish. "Stop the raids," the signs read.

They were stopped halfway across the room. "You can watch," said a man in the middle of the room, "but you can't come any closer." The group locked arms and sat on the floor. The man pulled at their arms and tried to drag them apart. The room echoed with shouts and singing.

Peter Pedemonti clapped his hands. "OK, let's take a breath," he said. The signs lowered, the line broke apart, and the 50 or so people who had gathered in the warehouse Saturday afternoon turned expectantly toward him.

They were here to learn how to disrupt a deportation. It was something that Pedemonti's interfaith immigrant rights group, the New Sanctuary Movement, had been planning for months, ever since President Barack Obama's administration announced a round of deportation raids, mainly targeting undocumented Central American adults and children. At the time, officials had said they would try not to conduct raids at schools, hospitals, or places of worship.

"But if Immigrations and Customs Enforcement comes to your house, you can't leave to find sanctuary in a church or a congregation," Pedemonti said. "So we thought: We'll bring the congregation to you."

The idea was to set up a hotline that immigrants could call if ICE agents showed up at their door – and to show up at deportations themselves, with a few dozen activists and a ready-made prayer service. Some would sing and pray and read Scripture; others would form a line and block the sidewalk, risking arrest. About 60 people signed up for the program, called "Sanctuary on the Streets." But they were never called to a deportation, and considered scrapping the program.

Then President Trump was elected, with his promises to crack down on illegal immigration and on sanctuary cities like Philadelphia, which does not cooperate with federal officials' detainer requests for undocumented immigrants charged with nonviolent crimes. New Sanctuary Movement sent an email to its mailing list, asking again for volunteers for Sanctuary on the Streets. This time, 1,000 people responded.

Pedemonti has been holding training sessions for the program twice a month since. The executive orders Trump signed last week -- which aim to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, hire 10,000 new ICE agents, build a border wall, and suspend the U.S.'s refugee program for four months -- have lent the program a new urgency, attendees said.

"I just want to help," said Daoud Steele, a carpenter from West Philadelphia who was raised Muslim and said he knew Syrian refugees affected by one of the orders. "[Immigrants today] are no less American than my great-great-grandparents, who came from the Netherlands. Everyone here is an immigrant."

So he and several dozen others came to a cavernous room in the warehouse in West Philadelphia on Saturday. Maria Turcios, a New Sanctuary member originally from Honduras, told the group about how immigration officials had come to her house in 2004, searching for the father of one of her grandchildren, who was not at home. The agents left with three of her family members, she said. Four years later, her daughter was served a deportation order. The family considered asking her to leave, she said, but ultimately decided to fight the case in court. They won.

"The more than 1,000 people who signed up for Sanctuary in the Streets will make history together," she said through an interpreter. "Showing up today is an act of love."

Attendees split into groups and spent the afternoon acting out a Sanctuary in the Streets protest, with different groups playing deportees, ICE agents, and protesters.

Pedemonti told them how to approach a house that was being raided (slowly and deliberately), how to identify themselves to ICE agents outside (politely but firmly), and how to begin a prayer service on the sidewalk (loudly but reverently). Afterward, he said, staff members from New Sanctuary would remain to comfort family members left behind.

"This is a nonviolent action – we show up with love and compassion," he told the group. "If an ICE agent tells you to stop, you're going to stop. If they tell you to move back, you're going to move back."

Others in a protest group can choose to risk arrest – sitting down on the sidewalk to block ICE agents, or surrounding the agents' vehicles, he said. Those volunteers will receive special civil-disobedience training.

"Is the goal to actually stop the raid – for real?" Steele asked.

"If ICE is going to take the family, we're not going to stop them," Pedemonti said. The aim is not to try to break a line of agents, or to resist arrest, he said. "But we want to put public pressure on them. To tell them, every time they show up at a house or a workplace, we're going to be there."

Pedemonti said he wanted ICE and the authorities to know of the New Sanctuary Movement's plan. In turn, he wants the group to try to work to understand immigration authorities – "to see their humanity." Those who criticize the notion of protesting a deportation, he encourages to read Scripture – specifically, Matthew 25:35: "For I was a stranger, and you welcomed me."

The organization wants to continue to publicize the hotline and train new volunteers, Pedemonti said. "In this moment, it's important for people who are affected [by the executive orders] and people who aren't to stand up, and people who aren't affected have to start taking risks," he said.

Afterward, Crystal Gonzalez, an arts administrator from West Philadelphia, said she was ready take those risks. She said she had signed up for the program before the election, alarmed by the record-setting number of deportations under the Obama administration. Her parents immigrated from Cuba before she was born, she said, and benefited from programs that helped immigrants fleeing communist countries.

"My family's status here was never questioned," she said. "So it's about solidarity, and really, truly feeling the concept of 'Your problem is my problem.' I can utilize the privilege and support my family received."