Protests across state highlight fear caused by deportations

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immigrant funeral
Oscar Zuniga, an assistant pastor at New Hope United Methodist Church, talks about the climate of fear caused by President Trump's immigration policy. (photo by Jordan Green)

Mock funerals held in several North Carolina cities draw attention to immigration policy and three people in sanctuary.

“We are here because of the fear of our community, and we need to do something,” Oscar Zuniga, assistant pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church, told about 50 people gathered at Merschel Plaza in Winston-Salem. “And being here, you are doing something. But we need to go further. We need to teach our children in our houses, in our families, to respect others, to be tolerant, to love everybody, to love their neighbors as themselves.”

Zuniga was one of the speakers at a mock “memorial service” and “funeral procession” in Winston-Salem on Sept. 28, part of a multi-city event also taking place in Greensboro and Durham to raise awareness about undocumented people taking sanctuary in North Carolina churches in defiance of deportation orders.

After Zuniga and others spoke, participants stepped to the microphone one by one to read the names of 15 individuals who were murdered or took their own lives after being deported, according to organizers. The event in Greensboro, which organizers said drew about 65 people, featured the same litany of casualties.

In Winston-Salem, black-clad participants picked up a wooden box painted black and ornamented with a cross to suggest a coffin and led a circuitous march through downtown. Carrying a banner reading, “Who will be next? Ni uno mas! (Not one more),” participants marched silently to the Forsyth County jail, accompanied only by the sound of a simple martial beat produced by two percussionists.

The events, which included a mock memorial service outside of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, office in Greensboro, highlighted the recent decision by President Trump to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and a growing roster of undocumented people in sanctuary in North Carolina. They include Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, a seamstress from Asheboro staying at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro; and José Chicas, a Raleigh pastor in sanctuary at the School of Conversion in Durham. Tobar Ortega was the first to take sanctuary in late May; Chicas followed in in early July.

Protesters also highlighted the case of Minerva Garcia, an undocumented woman from Mexico who took refuge in Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro in late June. Subsequent to the protest, Garcia walked out of the church on Monday after a federal judge in Texas vacated her deportation order.

“If this can happen to a grandmother who has lived in the same house for 20 years and worked at the same job for 10 or an ordained minister, which one of our neighbors will be next?” asked Lillian Pudlog, one of the organizers in Winston-Salem. “Who will protect our communities from ICE? How dare the United States raid and terrorize communities in our name? How dare they use xenophobia to justify their actions? How dare they break families apart, send families back into danger and send deportees to their death?”

North Carolina is considered noteworthy for the three individuals in sanctuary, but the Denver Post reported on Aug. 19 that five people have claimed sanctuary in that state in the past three years. In May, ICE granted a stay of removal to a Mexican woman who had taken sanctuary in Colorado. Advocates in North Carolina hope that an intervention by members of the state’s congressional delegation will achieve a similar result for Tobar Ortega, Garcia and Chicas.

“Our congressional representatives need to take immediate action to protect our neighbors, and to keep Minerva Garcia, Juana Luz Tobar Ortega, José Chicas and their families safe, together and here,” Pudlog said. “If they get sent back, who is next?”

US Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican lawmaker who has received concerted appeals from Tobar Ortega’s supporters in recent months, introduced a bill on Sept. 25 to create a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers — undocumented young people who were brought to the United States at a young age by their parents. Introduced with Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Tillis’ SUCCEED Act would allow people who came to the United States before the age of 16 and have been here since 2012 to apply for conditional permanent status and eventually citizenship through a merit-based process, including maintaining gainful employment, earning a post-secondary degree, enlisting in the military or some combination of the three.

Organizers of the memorial service and funeral procession in Winston-Salem were not familiar with the SUCCEED Act, but Will Cox with the Sanctuary City Coalition of Winston-Salem said he feels pessimistic about reform efforts. He said he expects resistance to escalate as the Trump administration pursues ever harsher rhetoric and policies against immigrants.

“These are all stop-gap measures right now,” Cox said. “My general feeling is that this battle is not even close to being over. We know how things work with the Trump administration and the super-right wing. If he gets kudos for attacking vulnerable people, he’s going to do it. And we need to expect that. In fact, we know that it’s going to happen. Just because there’s tens of thousands of people that are vulnerable and these are people that had some agreement before and an executive order, everything is out the window now.

“As many of the immigration lawyers are saying — and certainly our immigrant brothers, sisters, neighbors — I feel like right now we are up against a fight — and unfortunately this is a fight for literally people’s lives, depending on who you are,” he continued. “And I think they’ll take it to the next level. Right now, it’s these DACA folks, but we can expect much worse.”

When the marchers reached the jail in Winston-Salem, they deposited the fake coffin, and then headed back to Merschel Plaza, chanting, “Juana, Minerva and Jose — they are here to stay.”