The “SanctuaryHood” campaign

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A network of religious groups, non-profits and individuals hopes to turn entire neighborhoods into safe spaces for immigrants. How it works on the UWS


  • Senior Pastor K Karpen (right) with Debora Barrios (center) and Associate Pastor Lea Matthews (left) inside of St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church. Photo: Stephan Russo

“The UWS is still a neighborhood where people feel connected. Where we can, we need to push back and hold our ground. Providing sanctuary is a concrete way of doing that.”

Lea Matthews, associate pastor, St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church

The New York metropolitan area is home to 1.2 million of the nation’s 11.1 million undocumented immigrants. NYC is one of 39 cities that has declared itself a sanctuary city, which prohibits the NYPD from working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in identifying undocumented immigrants unless they have committed serious crimes. Despite threats by the federal government to punish the city and withhold needed funding, New York has held steadfast.

Now there is a campaign afoot on the Upper West Side to develop a local “SanctuaryHood” (Barrio Santuario), educating residents and local businesses on how to create a safe space for immigrants who live, work and shop in our community.

The idea of turning entire neighborhoods into sanctuaries was an outgrowth of work by the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC — an interfaith network of religious groups, non-profit organizations and concerned individuals that have organized to resist the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants. The Coalition provides legal help including asylum applications, “know your rights” training, accompaniment for families who must attend ICE check-ins, as well as rapid response networks to mobilize volunteers to observe and bear witness if ICE appears in the neighborhood.

Ravi Ragbir, one of the leaders of the Coalition, has been spearheading this effort to organize neighborhoods. “By developing a network of SanctuaryHoods, ICE will get the message that communities are watching and ready to resist if they indiscriminately come into a neighborhood,” he said at a recent training for businesses.

Local activists Carolyn Eubanks, Dan Fleshler, Jory Plevel, and Kathy Wouk were searching for concrete ways to resist the anti-immigration sentiment so pervasive in the current administration’s rhetoric and actions. They were already involved in the Coalition which had begun organizing businesses in Brooklyn to inform them what they could do if ICE appeared at their doorstep.

“I felt that I had to get involved and take action and could do on the West Side what was being done in other neighborhoods,” Fleshler said. “We wanted to make the neighborhood feel safe for everyone in our community. But we didn’t know if the idea of organizing businesses would take hold here. Many are afraid to be public about their views on immigration.”

They organized a cadre of close to 50 volunteers and went to work. Since last spring, the volunteers have canvassed over 500 businesses between 72nd and 125th Streets, Columbus Avenue to Broadway. The volunteers have distributed thousands of fliers and “Beyond Your Rights” pamphlets which provide information such as not having to let in an ICE agent unless there is a warrant signed by a judge, or how to provide a private space for anyone inside their business who is threatened by ICE.

My wife, Susan, and I were two of the volunteers. We canvassed more than 20 shops and stores in the Manhattan Valley area. We spoke with business owners who were concerned about their employees as well as the shoppers who frequent their stores and restaurants. Many of the owners expressed alarm with how immigrant communities were currently being treated and stressed the importance of protecting their neighbors.

Senior Pastor K Karpen and Associate Pastor Lea Matthews at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church on West 86th Street have been strong supporters of the SanctuaryHood effort. The group uses the church for its meetings and trainings. The church has also become a physical sanctuary for Debora Barrios, a native of Guatemala, who lives there with her two children.

Barrios, who has been in this country since 2005 and had been complying with her regular ICE check-ins, was told by ICE in May of this year to purchase her own plane ticket since she was being forced to self-deport. Barrios had been stopped by the police for an unsubstantiated traffic violation in 2011 and had been on ICE’s radar since then. She contacted the Coalition, which put her in touch with Karpen and Matthews. They agreed to provide temporary shelter. Barrios has now been there since May and cannot leave the building. She occupies her time volunteering at the food pantry in the church’s basement but is saddened by the fact that she cannot leave.

“The church has done everything for me,” she said. “I don’t know where I would be if not for how they have taken me in and given me a safe place to be. The volunteers who come visit me have been like my new family. This is what gives me strength and hope that one day I can leave, be in my home and return to work.”

There are now over 150 volunteers who support Barrios — cooking meals, doing laundry, shopping or just stopping by to lend any support they can. Matthews was proud that the congregation decided not turn its back on someone like Barrios and became a sanctuary site.

“The UWS is still a neighborhood where people feel connected,” Matthews said. “Where we can, we need to push back and hold our ground. Providing sanctuary is a concrete way of doing that.”

Meantime, Karpen believes the concept of SanctuaryHood will take hold and grow. “This is a good example of basic, grassroots organizing,” he said. “The more we get the word out about ICE, the less likely ICE will pay attention here. ICE can’t operate in the dark. The community is looking over their shoulder.”

If interested in helping Debora Barrios, contact Lea Matthews at You can also sign a petition in support of Barrios on the Groundswell Action website.

For more information on SanctuaryHood: The New Sanctuary Coalition, 239 Thompson Street, NY, NY 10012 646-450-2770

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