Amid the Trump administration's crackdown on immigration, one of Philadelphia's most dynamic resistance groups says it is "pausing" some of its work after the controversial firing of three immigrant organizers who had sought to oust the agency director.
The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia will temporarily halt certain elements of its activism, taking time to reflect, develop new policies, and consult with immigrant communities. NSM, as it is known, expects it will be July before it fully resumes the justice campaigns and street demonstrations that made it a leader of local opposition to President Trump's policies.
"We will grow stronger out of this," said assistant director Blanca Pacheco, designated to speak for the organization. "Right now it's painful. It feels hard, it feels messy. But a lot of us are people who have crossed borders, who have gone through a lot. We know how to get back up."
Three weeks after the NSM board terminated the three organizers — half the staff — the aftershocks rumble:
▪ NSM has been dropped as the sponsor of an undocumented family engaged in a high-stakes church sanctuary struggle in North Philadelphia. Carmela Apolonio Hernandez, who with her four children took refuge in the Episcopal Church of the Advocate to avoid deportation to Mexico, has turned to a new group, the Sanctuary Advocate Coalition, for support and protection.
▪ An internet fund-raiser for the fired workers, Sheila Quintana, Jazmin Delgado, and Cynthia Oka, collected $10,000 in 10 days and continues to draw donations.
▪ The future of NSM cofounder and director Peter Pedemonti remains unclear. He has declined to comment since the Inquirer and Daily News reported the firings March 19.
Despite its diminished staff, Pacheco said NSM will continue to operate its accompaniment program, which sends advocates to court with immigrant clients to serve as witnesses and translators, as well as its leadership-development initiative and its campaign against what it calls discriminatory police towing of cars.
The agency expects to hire new workers, but how many, when, and for what jobs is yet to be determined, Pacheco said.
The dismissals have provoked wide concern in the city's close-knit immigrant-rights community, where Trump administration polices have left many feeling under attack, and generated an online outpouring of questions, support, and condemnation. Some wonder what NSM has done to itself.
"Imploded is not too strong a word," said one veteran activist, who asked not to be named because she has worked with NSM in the past.
Quintana, Delgado, and Oka were dismissed March 15, roughly two weeks after a Feb. 27 meeting at which they say the agency board promised them confidentiality, non-retaliation, and a response to their complaints about Pedemonti.
In a public letter, they called the director disconnected and incompetent, and said he exposed one of them to personal risk at a Feb. 13 protest outside the Center City offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the loud, sign-waving demonstration, Pedemonti summoned one of the workers and introduced her to federal agents, despite knowing her citizenship status was unsettled.
"If he was careless enough to put one of us — whom he had regular contact with — in direct and ongoing danger," the three wrote, "then what would stop him from being careless with immigrants that he does not know personally?"
They described Pedemonti as a white male U.S. citizen, while they are "immigrant women, gender nonconforming and queer organizers."
In a written response, the NSM board criticized the three for refusing to accept any resolution other than the director's dismissal. While Pedemonti did call upon an organizer to speak to ICE agents at the February rally, the board wrote, he provided no information beyond what was already on the NSM website.
"This was a mistake, and it is the only time it has happened," the board wrote, promising it would "make sure it never happens again."
The board said it fired the three workers when it became clear during the complaint process that they "had begun to undermine the values and mission of the organization."
The statement said the three have been offered severance packages and legal representation if ICE should act against any of them. Quintana, Delgado, and Oka have called on the nine-member board to resign.
Pedemonti cofounded NSM a decade ago. Today, from offices in Kensington, it serves mostly Latino and Indonesian communities. Its financial backing has grown, with total revenue increasing 25 percent in one year, to $253,663 in 2016, according to the agency's most recent public tax filing. Almost all the money came from grants and contributions.
Pedemonti is paid $35,000 a year as director.
Since Trump's inauguration, the agency caseload has doubled to about 100 clients, and nine new congregations have joined its cause, bringing the total to 28.
NSM's public profile shone brightly in mid-December, when it undertook the demanding job of supporting Hernandez and her children as they claimed church sanctuary. The mother says deportation to Mexico could get them killed by the same gangsters who murdered her brother and two nephews.
Hernandez has challenged immigration authorities, asserting her children's right to an education by sending them out of the church each day to attend public school. None of the children has been detained. ICE guidelines dissuade agents from making arrests inside hospitals, schools, and churches, but immigrants have been detained just outside those places.
Two of the dismissed NSM organizers, Quintana and Delgado, remain close to the Hernandez family. After the three were fired, Hernandez dropped NSM and accepted support from the new Sanctuary Advocate Coalition, which includes Juntos, the Media Mobilizing Project, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and other groups. In nine days, the coalition raised $3,200 of the $4,500 it says is required for the family's immediate needs.
"Carmela and her family are doing well," said the Rev. Renee McKenzie, vicar of the Church of the Advocate. "The disruption of the relationship with NSM, it's hard, it was hard for everyone. … At the Advocate, we're here to support Carmela."