New Sanctuary Coalition of Sanctuary Congregations

Olivia Heffernan

Last week’s press conference featured the first Harlem and East Harlem Houses of Worship to join the New Sanctuary Coalition of Sanctuary Congregations.


At 8:47 a.m. on July 13, 2019, two white Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) trucks arrived in East Harlem. The doors on which ICE knocked were not opened. Those whom they came for were not detained. But, the trauma of this experience and the fear it incited has led way to the creation of a new coalition in Harlem.

On Thursday, September 26, a group of about 30 walked from the iconic Harlem restaurant Melba’s on 114th and Frederick Douglass eight blocks north to a small intersection that is home to a statue of Harriet Tubman.

“We are creating our own underground railroad of sanctuary spaces for undocumented immigrants targeted by ICE,” State Senator Brian Benjamin said during the event’s press conference. “We have decided to organize in my district, to collaborate with faith leaders and the New Sanctuary Coalition to create a network, lists, and sanctuary. We are here today to state unequivocally that ICE is not welcome here.”

In an interview with City Limits, Benjamin said it wasn’t until the July ICE raids that he realized there was no network or system of communication set in place to alert residents and prepare to try stop raids.

At the press conference there were faith leaders who had never heard of sanctuary spaces but wanted to learn more, and others whose places of worship have been providing sanctuary for years.

Darnell Hopper, a minister at the New Covenant Temple in Harlem, believes that this is an issue in which churches should be involved.

“The protection of families and justice for families and the inhumane things happening, such as splitting up children and sending back people who are productive in this country—these people need a voice and since we are citizens we can be this voice,” Hopper said in an interview.

Imam Souleimane Konate, who identified as a representative of the Muslim community at large, leads over 1,500 members at the Masjid Aqsa Salam Mosque on 115th Street and 5th Avenue. His mosque has been providing sanctuary to undocumented citizens for over 10 years. Originally from the Ivory Coast, Konate attests to having lost many friends to ICE raids.

“This is our duty, we are here to help each other and those in need,” he said.

Director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, Ravi Ragbir, whose activism has attracted increasing attention these past years, also spoke. After living in the United States for 15 years and with proper documentation, Ragbir was detained and ordered deported without a proper hearing. Following this experience in 2006, Ragbir has become a national leader in the movement to defend immigrant rights.

“We are standing up to stop this inhumanity and destruction. This immigration policy wants to break our spirits. We are standing up and saying you are not alone. We are going to make this happen, we are going to be a light in this world, in New York City. Wherever we walk, we will create safety and dignity,” Ragbir said.

About 10 churches have joined the coalition thus far. Benjamin assured attendees that this was just the beginning.

Other coalitions have formed to prepare for ICE raids, some of which were created in response to hearing about the July 13 raids ahead of time. For example, the Immigrant Defense Project created a 52-page toolkit that details ICE’s strategies and tactics for resistance. This coalition, however, will be different, according to both Ragbir and Senator Benjamin.

“Our initiative is offering the whole thing. We are not just telling people not to open their doors. This is a more proactive approach that will also empower people because they have an elected official supporting them. This is more than what already exists. There are new places that will open their doors to immigrants that wouldn’t have before,” said Ragbir.

These are the first Harlem and East Harlem Houses of Worship to join the New Sanctuary Coalition of Sanctuary Congregations. This is key, as this area was the location of ICE activity earlier this year, according to Benjamin’s office.

While the targets of the July 13th ICE raids in East Harlem managed to avoid deportation, others have not been as fortunate. During a five-day sweep in late September, ICE arrested 82 individuals in the New York City area. The hope is that should Harlem be targeted again, the community will be prepared.