Old Sanctuary, New Sanctuary

A Priest Defending the Rights of Migrants Living in the Shadows

Mexamérica / dossier / Mayo de 2018

Raúl Vilchis

Traducción de: Quentin Pope


The Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson have a force that can pull anything along into the water’s flow. At least this have in common, Mexican priest and activist Juan Carlos Ruiz and US poet William Carlos Williams when describing the powerful torrents converging on this small industrial city in New Jersey. Paterson, a city portrayed by the American author in an epic poem that he began to write right there in 1946 and finished 12 years later, is where the Mexican clergyman settled in the United States in 1986. “I came on holiday to visit my parents and brothers who’d already migrated, and I knew I wasn’t going to return to Mexico. I left the seminary in San Luis Potosí. I saw a great need to help our people living here,” says Father Ruiz at the St. Francis Xavier church in New York, where an assembly of the New Sanctuary Coalition is held every Thursday; Ruiz is a spokesperson for this organization that helps migrants who are living illegally in the US. It’s the fourth time I have met Juan Carlos during the month of March, and the first we have been able to talk for more than ten minutes. On the previous occasions we exchanged barely a few words, as he asked me to first observe and listen to how the organization worked in practice. “I saw the need for bilingual, multicultural priests. I never thought about doing this. The idea of coming to live in ‘Gringolandia’ had never crossed my mind. You know how the Mexican both idealizes and loathes everything this country represents in equal measure,” he says. Juan Carlos is both clear-thinking and hard-working. Every day he receives almost a hundred calls on his cell phone from people seeking his help, those who have found out about the coalition’s work and need legal advice on their immigration situation, or who simply want to say hello to a man who speaks with irrepressible charisma and conviction. In this same voice he recounts how the Sanctuary Movement arose in the early 1980s in Tucson, Arizona, within John Fife’s Presbyterian parish, when it welcomed migrants, mostly escaping the civil wars being waged in Central American countries. The 1980s were a bloody period in Central America. At the start of the decade, El Salvador’s government decreed a state of emergency, allowing the army to take arbitrary measures against its own citizens, leading to a spate of mass murders and the forced displacement of 192,000 people during a civil war that lasted until 1992. Almost at the same time, the people of Guatemala suffered the same horror and many of them set off on an exodus to the United States, via Mexico. In July 1980, a news report shook the world. More than two dozen Salvadorans who were crossing the fiercely hot desert of Sonora were abandoned by their coyotes in that desolate landscape. Thirteen of them died along the way. When the survivors were eventually brought to Tucson and Phoenix, the churches that wanted to help them discovered that the Immigration and Naturalization Service was planning to repatriate them without allowing any of them to request asylum. This was when Reverend John Fife’s Presbyterian church and other congregations opened their doors, on the basis that these refugees could be protected by the Refugee Act of 1980 and other laws that made it possible for anyone who could prove a “credible fear of persecution” to be granted asylum. Religious communities in Tucson and Phoenix set up a working group to help these and other refugees. The movement gathered strength and it soon spread to 500 Protestant, Catholic and Jewish congregations in 17 cities across the United States.

Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the “New Sactuary Movement”, 2017. Stock photo.

“I always say that the movement began as a civil disobedience movement. The largest one at that time. Why civil disobedience? Because it was taking a firm stance against that unjust law that criminalized migrants. So there was this law that had to be remade, taken apart to be reassembled, broken and then mended.” Places of religious worship, schools and hospitals, were officially considered by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency as sensitive locations and arrests could not be made there, according to a 2011 memorandum. This used to be an unwritten rule among immigration officers. It was only enshrined as official policy in the Barack Obama’s second term of office with the so-called “Morton Memos,” signed by ICE director, John Morton, who also established the practice of exercising discretion in the apprehension, detention and expulsion of foreigners; among other things, this prevented the detention of pregnant women, those who arrived in the US as children, and people with mentally ill dependents. All of those relief measures, which used to give a certain protection to migrants who had not committed serious felonies, were annulled when Donald Trump moved into the White House: on January 25, 2017, the new President signed an executive order that ushered into a new period of persecution targeting migrants living in the country illegally. Juan Carlos says that he met Reverend Fife in the 1990s, when walking down the long corridors of the Catholic Church in the United States. At that time, Juan Carlos had already gained first-hand experience of living as an undocumented migrant, because he had already overstayed the 90-day US tourist visa and enrolled in the seminary under a false identity. “I did it on purpose. I wanted to see if the Church would see me as just another faceless statistic, like the government does,” Ruiz recalls. He moved to Florida to resume his calling to the priesthood in 1987 at a seminary, and four years later he went to Chicago, Illinois, to study a postgraduate degree in Theology. After graduating, he returned to the Passaic River. “I came back with a very different theology to the one practiced and lived in this diocese, because, ecclesiastically speaking, Chicago is progressive and supportive of the Latin American people’s struggles. When I came to Paterson, I found the prelate and the church controlled by German and Italian immigrants, who had a leaning toward white Europe.” This situation, combined with his other liberal actions, eventually led to frictions between Ruiz and the high-ranking members of the New Jersey ecclesiastical hierarchy. Juan Carlos explains that he was excommunicated several times by the Catholic Church: firstly for giving his blessing to a homosexual couple in a parish in the north-west of New Jersey; then for organizing Hispanic Catholic workers in the Bronx, New York; and finally when, “not long ago,” he married a Mexican woman from Tlaxcala. While listing the excommunications, Juan Carlos smiles, but then he looks serious and clarifies that, despite everything, he views the Catholic Church’s gospel as a call to awaken social awareness: “God and justice are synonymous to me. And what I’ve always seen in my religious life is not so much what separates different creeds, but whether or not they are just. We’re social but also political beings, and for me joining the priesthood is a political act,” he says before taking a gulp from his bottle of water and then pausing for breath.

New Sanctuary

In the 1990s the Sanctuary Movement became less visible, or – in the words of Juan Carlos Ruiz – it was silenced because of the persecution of Fife and other leaders who had been accused of people-smuggling and conspiracy in 1986. Juan Carlos refers to 2006 as a turning point for the emergence of the New Sanctuary Coalition, and it was thanks to the case of the Mexican Elvira Arellano, who sought sanctuary for twelve months in a Chicago church to avoid deportation: “that relit the fuse.” In 2006, according to Juan Carlos, there were 11 million undocumented migrants living in the United States, many of whom had already been living there for twenty or thirty years and had missed out on the 1986 amnesty signed by President Ronald Reagan, which paved the way to the legalization of 2.7 million immigrants. Juan Carlos focuses on the year 2006 in particular, when various leaders of the religious community were summoned to a three-day conclave in San Antonio, Texas, to design a pastoral care program to support Catholic migrants in the United States. “We had this problem and could not see any political answer, any kind of traditional solution, either through pastoral care or anything like that.” At this point Juan Carlos’s narrative takes on a biblical undertone when he tells of how he left the conclave for a walk with his colleague Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran Minister from Los Angeles, and they asked themselves the question: “And why don’t we just do what Elvira has done?” “Let’s open our churches, our temples, whatever we need to do so that these people have a voice. During our five-minute walk, we began to follow the light that Elvira Arellano had shone back in 2006.” Elvira was a link with a case of Mirna Lascano, recently taken on by Father Ruiz. After having lived in the United States for around 15 years, for Mirna the idea of returning to Mexico was an appealing one. She already had two daughters with her Mexican husband, whom she had met in New York and married in 2000. They had bought some small plots of land in her home town of Tepeaca in the state of Puebla, and thought about settling back there with their daughters, who had been born on US soil. Mirna wanted them to know her family and to have more living space. Her husband would send them remittances to help build the house while the children were still attending school. From the distance of New York, it sounded like a good plan: they would no longer have to endure cruel winters or live in a cramped Harlem apartment. However, on their arrival in Mexico, Mirna began to discover the reality of living in the country she had left in search of better opportunities. To start with, she and her husband had been swindled with a piece of land that did not actually exist, the first of a series of misfortunes over the following months of her life. Homeless, Mirna left for Xalapa in the state of Veracruz to work in a market. She was accompanied by her daughters, with the idea that they would go to school. But they had not taken into account the teachers’ protests against the Education Reform, which had been signed into law in February 2013. “There were marches every day. I couldn’t settle down, and I wasn’t able either to work or send my daughters to school,” Mirna recalls in an increasingly faltering voice.

Photography by Félix Márquez, 2018

One day she found a message on the tablet she had given her eldest daughter, who was then 12 years old: a pimp wanted to take her to Monterrey. Mirna went to talk to the school, where she was told that she should leave Veracruz, “because there are more forced disappearances here than you can imagine.” Moving back to Puebla, Mirna stayed at her mother-in-law’s house, unaware that she was bringing the people traffickers with her, because her daughter had ended up falling in love with the man who had been harassing her. Mirna began to receive menacing phone calls and constant death threats. She realized that her return to Mexico had been doomed from the outset. She spoke to her husband and they decided to send their two daughters back to the US, thinking that this would be the answer to their problems. First, they sent their eldest and most vulnerable, and a week later her younger sister joined her. Mirna tried to get a visa to be rejoined with them as soon as possible. However, her application was denied. She tried to cross illegally but was stopped by the migra just as she was trying to jump over the wall. After this setback she returned to Puebla. She began looking for alternatives, but everywhere she found the doors closed. Her daughter in New York had spiraled into depression with suicidal tendencies, making their situation increasingly desperate. Mirna was running out of possibilities. She made appointments with Mexican government departments, NGOs, UNICEF . . . She did all she could in Mexico, but in the end, it was a Chicago congressman who gave her the telephone number of Elvira Arellano. Elvira, who had taken refuge in the Chicago church, passed on the telephone number of Father Ruiz of the New Sanctuary Coalition, the organization that would prove instrumental in reuniting Mirna with her daughters in the United States. In 2016, through Juan Carlos’s intervention, Mirna joined the Caravan for Peace and Justice – a coalition of various organizations that left from Central America for the United States to raise the profile of the social struggle being fought by those affected by the war on drugs and its impact on civil society. It was a similar march to those organized by other organizations aiming to allow Central Americans to travel in groups through Mexico and to provide them a degree of protection against some of the dangers plaguing migrants along the route (these caravans have caught the attention of President Trump, as seen on his Twitter account.) Mirna joined a caravan that had started in Honduras and then passed through El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. In Monterrey, Juan Carlos was waiting for Mirna together with her daughters and a lawyer. They continued to Ciudad Juárez, where the mother of the girls would try to cross the border once again. At the border checkpoint she was asked for the visa she did not have. She was then ordered to leave. Mirna responded with an asylum request, but she was told that there was no asylum for Mexicans. She told them that they were discriminating her. They replied by saying she was breaking the law, and threatened her with a prison sentence of between six months to two years if she insisted. She was separated from her daughters, and Mirna fights back the tears as she recounts the next dramatic episode. Eventually, the officials allowed her to enter the United States, and her deportation case was processed while she remained in the country. On leaving the checkpoint she was reunited with her daughters and Father Juan Carlos. The example of Mirna, says Juan Carlos, shows certain difference between the old Sanctuary Movement and the new one. The main goal of the New York’s New Sanctuary Coalition, officially unveiled in 2007, is not only to help people who are fleeing civil wars as in the case of migrants in the 1980s, but the millions of people, like Mirna, who are living without papers in the United States. The coalition is working in a number of areas: it runs workshops on abuses committed by immigration authorities, provides free legal advice, and is constantly involved in activism in support of all migrants. “Now we have our people here,” Juan Carlos concludes, “who have lived in the shadows without any kind of protection because, in truth, this anti-immigration policy is also racist; they choose immigrants of certain types, with a particular racial profile. Here they don’t want us: the Latin American, the indigenous, the poor.”

Cover Image: Photography by Félix Márquez, 2018