When a coalition of faith-based leaders in the Detroit metro area joined hands in March of 2017 to implement a statewide sanctuary movement for undocumented immigrants, cynics accused them of political grandstanding. But the recent increase in the number of those seeking protections and refuge in Canada offers proof that the threat to freedom and their futures is real and eerily reminiscent of the Underground Railroad, which ended at the Detroit-Canadian border during the height of American slavery.
Detroit is the busiest border crossing between the U.S. and Canada. Because of the city’s access to a neighboring country, immigration officials have greater and more intense policing authority compared to interior states. Both the Detroit-Windsor tunnel and the Ambassador Bridge are focal points for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to capture runaway immigrants and “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. with their parents.
“During the period of slavery, so many children were separated from their parents,” said Rev. Dr. Louis Forsythe II, pastor at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in the city’s east side, one of the congregations involved in the movement. “It’s what connects us today. How can we not get involved? We may worship differently but we have our humanity.”
Among the growing number of institutions and churches taking part in the Sanctuary Movement is the historic Central United Methodist Protestant church in downtown Detroit, which over the summer housed a family seeking political asylum from an unnamed African nation.
Rev. Charles Boayue, an immigrant from Liberia once a refugee who is today the district superintendent of the Detroit Renaissance District of the United Methodist Church, said opening church doors to immigrants is keeping in line with American values. “It is time for Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus … to stand up together for our common humanity,” he said. “This nation has been an example of binding people together.”
“We’re used to having people come in and out and making the space work,” said Rev. Jill Zundel, senior pastor at Central United Methodist in an earlier interview. Zundel sports a tattoo on her arm that reads: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.”
The family in refuge included four children under the age of seven, a husband whose father was killed and a wife who was severely injured when she was thrown out of a window before the family was granted refuge in the United States.
When the family arrived in the U.S., they tried to flee to Canada, but were stopped at the border and denied entry.
Only last week on the heels of the heartbreaking deportation of Jorge Garcia,39, who after 30 years of living in the U.S, was deported on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday from metro Detroit to Mexico, another immigrant family is facing deportation. Ded Rranxburgaj, declared sanctuary at Central United Methodist. Ded and his wife Flora, both of whom are originally from Albania, have been living in the United States for 17 years. During those years, Ded has worked diligently to support at a local Coney Island restaurant and in construction to support his family and touch the American Dream. His older son, Lawrence, attends the University of Michigan Dearborn, and his younger son, Erik, attends Southgate High School. Ded’s wife, Flora, has multiple sclerosis and is dependent on her husband for care and support.
“My family needs me. I take care of my wife, and I work to support my sons, every day. If they deport me after taking care of my wife for 11 years, I may never see her again. My sons would need to leave school to take care of her. It would be devastating for my family,” explains“I am scared that they will deport my husband,” said Flora Rranxburgaj, “He takes care of me every day. Every day he helps me shower, change clothes, he cooks my food. If they deport him …”
Michigan United a statewide coalition and one of the organizing agencies of the Sanctuary Movement estimates that the city’s undocumented immigrant community, which ranges from about 95,000 to more than 126,000 throughout Michigan are at risk for detention and deportation.
The organization along with throngs of supporters praised Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters for siding with immigrant youth in the recent federal budget battle and decided not to support a federal budget resolution that did not include protections for that vulnerable population. The vote standoff on the immigration policy issue caused the federal government shutdown recently. “I was glad to see our leaders take action and force the Republicans hand on the issue. I just hope they stick to their commitment and continue to fight this racist policy,” said ??, an African immigrant and gas station owner on Detroit’s westside.
Scores of black Americans agree that the need for protections against overly zealous proponents for implementing more rigid immigration laws and escalating the removal of undocumented immigrants is a dangerous and critical reminder of the inequitable treatment of minorities and people living in distressed conditions. But, the Trump administration’s rhetoric and characterizations of immigrants as villains is what many find most appalling. He has crafted a diabolical discourse which pits ethnic groups against each other in class race.
The Rev. Louis Forsythe, shown on the right, is concerned about the future of DACA and African immigrants who benefit from it. Imam Mohamed Al-masmari is on the left.—Serena Maria Daniels photo
“It makes me think of all of those people who were forced from their homes following Hurricane Katrina being called refugees instead of Americans,” said Trish Singleton, a survivor of one of the nation’s worst natural disasters. “There are differences sure, in that in New Orleans we were American citizens and were not facing deportation. But the reality is that we were for the most part black Americans being forced to leave our homes and our loved ones … and that is a universal tragedy and a profoundly disturbing circumstance for anybody.”