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Three immigrant women organizers fired from New Sanctuary Movement, say they sought ouster of white male director

The dismissals halve New Sanctuary Movement's staff and call into question the viability of a front-line, interfaith agency that has built an esteemed reputation over the past decade, working to mount street protests and provide legal assistance to immigrants.

A Feb. 13 confrontation between sanctuary leaders and ICE agents helped lead three New Sanctuary Movement organizers to demand the dismissal of their boss, executive director Peter Pedemonti.
A Feb. 13 confrontation between sanctuary leaders and ICE agents helped lead three New Sanctuary Movement organizers to demand the dismissal of their boss, executive director Peter Pedemonti.Read moreTRACIE VAN AUKEN

The New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, a builder of robust resistance to Trump administration immigration policies, has erupted in conflict after three immigrant organizers said they were fired last week after demanding the ouster of the agency director, whom they called "incompetent."

The three described executive director Peter Pedemonti, the group's co-founder, as disconnected and unaccountable — and said he exposed one of them to personal risk at a February protest, when he summoned her to speak to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents despite knowing her immigration status was unsettled.

"If he was careless enough to put one of us — whom he had regular contact with — in direct and ongoing danger," wrote Sheila Quintana, Jazmin Delgado, and Cynthia Oka in a public letter, "then what would stop him from being careless with immigrants that he does not know personally?"

Their letter described Pedemonti as a white male citizen of the United States, while the dismissed workers are "immigrant women, gender nonconforming and queer organizers."

Pedemonti referred questions to the agency board when contacted Monday.

The dismissals halve New Sanctuary Movement's staff, calling into question the viability of a front-line, interfaith agency that has built an esteemed reputation over the last decade. Since President Trump's election, NSM, as it is known, has worked on overdrive, mounting street protests, engaging new partners, and providing legal assistance to immigrants.

The firings also create uncertainty around a contentious church sanctuary case in North Philadelphia, where an undocumented Mexican family of five has sought to avoid deportation by taking refuge inside the Church of the Advocate. Two of the dismissed workers, Quintana and Delgado, have been especially close to Carmela Apolonio Hernandez and her four children, serving as their key links to the outside world.

Oka, the third worker, led NSM's effort to organize the region's growing Indonesian population. Oka brought clergy and cultural leaders together with NSM to assert immigrant rights.

The workers' letter — and its call for donors to judge NSM anew — roiled the world of immigrant-justice-and-assistance agencies, especially at a time when the administration is pushing hard against legal and illegal immigration to the United States.

"New Sanctuary does great work, and I have real concerns for their clients," said a leader at one major support organization, who did not want to be named discussing another agency. "This is not the time for us to be splitting apart. … We are under siege at all levels."

The NSM board on Monday assigned assistant director Blanca Pacheco to speak for the agency. She declined to comment on whether Pedemonti might step down.

"He has been an effective leader, who has actually used his privilege to bring [forward] the voices of immigrant leadership," she said. "He made an unfortunate mistake once in his 10 years. … We acknowledge the need to take serious measures to make sure we prevent that in the future."

The facts of the matter are complicated, multifaceted, and painful for all involved, she said. Much of the blame, she said, lies with the Trump administration's relentless pressure on immigrant communities, which has left NSM staffers weary, overworked, and traumatized.

It was the board, the three workers wrote, that fired them Thursday. That was slightly more than two weeks after a Feb. 27 meeting at which the staffers say they went to the board and were promised confidentially, nonretaliation, and a response to their complaints about Pedemonti.

They wanted assurance that any legal fees resulting from ICE enforcement action against a coworker would be paid by NSM. The three did not identify which of them carried uncertain immigration status. They asked the board to fire Pedemonti within three months, to allow for a reasonable transition.

That didn't happen. Instead, they wrote, they were informed by the board that the conflict "is beyond resolution. and your termination is the best thing for the organization."

The three said "it felt like we were being essentially 'deported' on the spot [by] an organization whose stated mission is to 'end injustices against immigrants regardless of immigration status, express radical welcome for all, and ensure that values of dignity, justice and hospitality are lived out in practice and upheld in policy.'"

Quintana declined to comment on Monday. Efforts to reach Delgado and Oka were unsuccessful.

Pedemonti co-founded NSM a decade ago to oppose immigration raids and deportations that were happening then. A first-generation U.S. citizen, son of English and Italian immigrants, he has been active in social justice movements since 2001.

From its offices in Kensington, NSM serves mostly Latino and Indonesian communities. Less than a year after Trump's inauguration, NSM's caseload had doubled to about 100 people, and it had signed on nine new member congregations, raising the total to 28.

Quintana, Delgado and Oka were key to that work.

Among other duties, Delgado worked as "accompaniment coordinator," helping with translations and serving as support and witness for immigrant families called to court.

Oka, an immigrant from Indonesia and Canada with experience in justice campaigns, held the title of community organizer, as did Quintana, a Mexican immigrant who grew up in Chester County and worked with groups including the Migrant Power Movement.

In their letter, they called on NSM's board members to step down.

They described the breaking point with Pedemonti as occurring during a Feb. 13 demonstration outside the Center City offices of ICE, an immigration enforcement arm of the Homeland Security Department.

About 40 singing, sign-waving demonstrators massed on the sidewalk, demanding that Hernandez and her children be allowed to leave the church and live freely while pursuing their legal case for asylum. Church leaders and elected representatives were to help present ICE officials with 3,220 signatures on petitions supporting the family.

The plan, the three former workers said, was for Pedemonti to take the lead, because he was safe as a U.S. citizen. But just before the protest began, they said, he called out a staffer's name and beckoned her to come into the ICE offices.

There he introduced her to an ICE executive and explained her relationship to the sanctuary campaign, the workers said. The ICE official wrote down her name.

"We believe the executive director's failure to minimize exposure of immigrant staff to the agency perpetrating harm against our communities is unconscionable," the three wrote.

They said the board told them Pedemonti's sharing of the name was an unintentional mistake.

"That is not the point," they wrote. "We were never interested in punishment, but in removing a leader who put one of his own team members in danger. … Intention does not mitigate impact."