Gerardo and Teresa Flores offer me and Blanca Pacheco big glasses of horchata in their West Kensington kitchen. A crucifix and a collection of family photos decorate the walls. When Blanca, Gerardo, and Teresa meet they instantly embrace each other. It’s the kind of love shared only between people who have overcome great obstacles together.
Blanca is the Assistant Director of the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), an interfaith multicultural justice movement that works to foster community and radical hospitality for all immigrants regardless of faith, ethnicity, or class. Gerardo and Teresa moved to Philadelphia after leaving New York City in 2001 and are two of NSM’s foundational members. With Gerardo and Teresa by her side, Blanca has been fighting for immigrant justice in Philadelphia since 2007. Their most recent accomplishment is breaking the ties between Philadelphia Police and ICE agents, who have separated thousands of families through mass deportation.
NSM’s work, however, is not just about immigrant justice. It is about educating and empowering immigrant communities, promoting economic opportunity, and, most importantly, humanizing your neighbor. Thank you to Gerardo, Teresa, and Blanca for conducting this interview with APIARY Magazine. Thank you to NSM’s Director, Peter Pedemonti, for bringing us all together.
APIARY: What has the NSM taught you about connecting with the immigrant community on the local level?
Gerardo: Because NSM is a faith-based organization, we always talk with people based on faith. We learned that that was how most people communicate with us. The people do this work and are engaged willingly; they're not forced or pushed to it. It's a calling for them.
Teresa: One of the things it has taught us and that we have learned is to value ourselves as human beings. It has taught us to not be afraid and learn how to serve and connect with the community.
APIARY: What do you think has been your greatest achievements working with NSM? Was it working with a specific person, a piece of legislation, or something else?
Teresa: The biggest accomplishment we had, working together, was ending the collaboration between Philadelphia’s Police and ICE. It was a long, hard campaign. We learned that no matter what was happening we had to fight with strength, no matter what was happening.
APIARY: What was that process like, disbanding that relationship?
Gerardo: It was sharing a lot of testimonies. When we told our stories to politicians who created the legislation we showed how it was wrong and would affect people. It was also a way to say that for politicians to understand us, they need to place themselves in our shoes. We did a lot of work building leadership in our congregations and that helped us strengthen our push and convince the mayor to understand the level of support and that the people we were engaging were people who are able to vote. The politicians have their ambitions. They need to think about that, the next position they want to be in, and how our vote effects that.
APIARY: What is a Sanctuary City to you? Is Philadelphia a successful model for what a Sanctuary City should be?
Teresa: There are different leaders and organizations who are doing the work to push politicians. Some politicians like our mayor have been helping and showing support. I don't think it's a perfect model, but the work has begun between the combination of people organizing leaders, congregations and politicians. One thing the government doesn't see is all the immigrants in the country; cities should become sanctuaries, all of them. The government doesn't see that they need to serve the communities that are in need. The vision of NSM as an organization is also bigger.
How do we humanize everyone? How do we share resources with everyone and not stay in this world of capitalism and work towards a vision where everyone in the city has their needs fulfilled?
Blanca: We are organizing, educating, and engaging as many people as possible. Our vision is that people who live in the city who are not only immigrants but people of color and people who are poor see their needs fulfilled. What are those needs? It could be immigration status, it could be housing, it could be economic, it could be growth and opportunity for work. People are not only seen as someone who produces money, but someone who can contribute and work together to create change. How do we humanize everyone? How do we share resources with everyone and not stay in this world of capitalism and work towards a vision where everyone in the city has their needs fulfilled? There is potential if organizations come together and build a message of, "What can we gain for everyone?" There is enough space, there is enough resources. We need to come from a place of abundance instead of a place of scarcity and working together to fulfill that. The city has so many abandoned properties, so many people struggling to make ends meet. How can those homes be abandoned when someone is sleeping on the street? That's not coming from a place of abundance. That's coming from a place of production and capitalism and self-interest.
APIARY: When Trump says, "America first," who is he leaving behind when he says that? How do you convince supporters of him, or that idea, that Sanctuary Cities are something that should exist? That immigration is not a threat to the American way or lifestyle?
Blanca (summarizing Gerardo): Whenever someone asks a person who was born in the US, "Where are you from?" they say, "I am American." Gerardo might say, "I am Mexican, but I am American too and I might be more American than you. I am part of America because America is a continent. Politicians who should be educated about this, are not.
Gerardo: We need to really think about the numbers. We have to think about production. We have to think about how much someone in agriculture produces; how much people in hotels contribute. That's part of building the country. The politicians are not thinking about that. They're only thinking about money and how much they can put in their pockets. They're not thinking about people.
APIARY: Could you talk about your experience with NSM and how you got involved?
Blanca: Personally, one of the experiences I have gotten from working in NSM and working with many allies and different people from different countries with different beliefs and supporting different politicians, I think it's really hard to convince Trump supporters that we are here, that we are human beings. As we were saying, we come from a place of abundance and immigration is part of humanity. This is a personal transformation; people need to make that choice, instead of us trying to convince those people who hate us. We need to work with the people who already understand and already like us. I don't know if a person is willing to be transformed and can support other human beings if they don't have feelings of love for immigrants. I feel like it's a waste of time trying to convince them. For us, we've been building on the people who support us and building the movement long-term because this is not something that we're going to win in one year or two years. We need to be doing the work, setting the example, with really rooted values. We need to show what we're working towards. We need to show, step by step, what community we envision.
I've been engaged with NSM since the beginning, since 2007. I engaged as a volunteer first and for a couple years I was doing Know Your Rights with different congregations because the collaboration between police and immigration was happening. People were afraid. I was doing workshops. Afterwards, I was on the board and five years ago I joined the staff.
APIARY: What is your official role right now?
Blanca: I am the Assistant Director and my role is to work together with the Director in doing some fundraising, but also helping to shape the vision and carrying that vision and making sure that lives in every step of the work we are doing. I also make sure we aim that vision and make sure the voices of immigrants and affected people are involved. We have to make sure we're responding to the needs of the immigrant community.
APIARY: How many members does the NSM have?
Blanca: We have congregations of different sizes. We have 25 congregations and their visitation has 3,000 people; the other congregations vary from 300 to 500. I don't have a total number. We have congregations who are Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Jewish.
APIARY: Where are most immigrants from?
Blanca: Most are Latin American. We have a big population from Indonesia. We also have, in the last year or two, a lot of people from the Middle East. Also Haitian and African communities.
[W]e come from a place of abundance and immigration is part of humanity. This is a personal transformation; people need to make that choice, instead of us trying to convince those people who hate us.
APIARY: What do you think is the biggest challenge for NSM right now?
Gerardo: One of the challenges we have now is that people are being affected whenever they're driving, they can be stopped and have their cars taken away. What we're finding out is the companies who are towing cars make a lot of money off of other people's backs, off of poor people. It’s a program called Live Stop. That's a challenge for us and one we're trying to win as a campaign. What we're asking is for the Mayor to give us 30 minutes to call someone with a driver's license, so instead of towing the car to a city property someone can come pick up the car and take it to our homes. The city is making about $7,000,000 off of this program, a program that is affecting poor people. We are sure we are going to win because have had challenges before and we have faith.
Blanca: One of the challenges is also building capacity to respond to all the newly activated people. How do we build capacity to respond to that? For example, the DACA situation. There are a lot of allies who want to help. There are a lot of young people who are saying 'What do we do? How do we do the work?' The challenge for us is how do we build those spaces and how do we build those spaces effectively to be able to get more work done? We have to make sure we're carrying our mission and vision and keeping focused on the long term. It's a challenge that requires time and resources and focus. Our vision isn't necessarily, "We're going to get immigration reform" and be done or "We're going to get a work permit" and we're done. It's actually changing what the community looks like and how people treat each other, how we're building a different culture, and finding a new way of life.
APIARY: How does the NSM work within the legal process?
Blanca: We have an accompaniment program. There's a lot of people who have different needs. It could be immigration related, it could housing related, it could be salary related. We have a big network of lawyers that we connect with. We don't hire lawyers. We don't have resources to have our own lawyers. That's not who we are. We have connections with different lawyers around the city. We know they're credible; sometimes they take cases pro-bono or sometimes they will provide monthly payments when it's difficult to pay. We meet with the family, assess their needs, connect them with a lawyer and guide them in that process. They have a court hearing; we mobilize about 200 people to go to court with them. The process of going to court with them is not to protest, it's not to scream at the court or scream at the judge, it's more to stay there and witness what's happening and show support and show the court that we're watching. It has done different things. Many cases where we go and the judge is watching, when one person leaves the courtroom twenty more people are standing up with them. It's really, really powerful. It makes people feel supported. That is also for lawyers to be accountable to their clients. We see fraud happen. In a space that is violent, in a space that is destroying families, we show that we're watching and support the family. At the end of the day we do what the family needs. Outside of the court, we're guiding the next steps, what they need support with, and empowering them to move forward and learn by themselves and perhaps support others. With other cases, we have relationships with many organizations in the city that we refer them to or facilitate the communication if that person speaks Spanish or another language.
APIARY (to Blanca): How did Gerardo and Teresa discover NSM?
Teresa: They discovered us.
Learn more about New Sanctuary Movement and how to get involved at sanctuaryphiladelphia.org.