In the cavernous basement of St. Thomas Aquinas community center in South Philadelphia, a mock immigration raid is underway.
As one woman yells “Help! Help!” — pretending to be taken by federal immigration officers — volunteers being trained to disrupt a raid begin singing and sit down as one, blocking the officers’ path.
This scene is part of a training by a nonprofit advocacy group called New Sanctuary Movement. The group hopes to leverage a long-standing policy that federal agents won’t make arrests in houses of worship — to create a kind of mobile sanctuary wherever a raid is happening, through prayers and hymns.
President Trump’s immigration enforcement plans are still evolving, but the ominous feeling that they’ve created in communities of unauthorized immigrants has spurred trainings such as this one across the country.
Here’s how New Sanctuary Movement’s response network will work: when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers approach a home, people inside are instructed to call a hotline. That call initiates a text alert to all of the trained volunteers.
For this exercise, about 150 volunteers are going through the motions of responding to an alert.
“You are not allowed to pass. Please stand back,” says one volunteer acting as an ICE officer. “This is a law enforcement operation, stand 5 feet back.”
It’s intense — many volunteers say they feel anxious afterward. So far, 1,300 people in Philadelphia have signed up and 500 have gone through the training. In attempting to hamper enforcement, the New Sanctuary Movement has three goals.
“So yes, it is to be in solidarity and show up for families. Two, it is to shine a light, and then for some people who are going to risk arrest, it is to peacefully and prayerfully disrupt,” says co-founder and director Peter Pedemonti.
That disruption means volunteers circling an immigration vehicle or a home to try to stop removals. If arrested, disrupters could face criminal charges for impeding officers.
Despite those risks, stories of deportations have drawn people to the training who want to take action.
“The targeting communities is something that makes me really angry,” says language tutor Emily Grablutz. “It’s like they purposely want to break up any sense of safety or stability in people’s lives.”
More volunteers are going through the training, but Philadelphia has yet to see large numbers of immigration arrests under the Trump administration.
Even without the big numbers, uncertainty about what future enforcement will look like is breeding fear.
Hector Portillo, who’s from Honduras, says he’s doing the the training to support his neighbors in South Philadelphia’s Indonesian community, many of whom are undocumented — but he’s not sure he’ll show up for a raid.
“I like [to] help people,” Portillo says. “[I’m] scared I get arrested, I lose whatever I got.”
He’s afraid he could lose his green card.
As these trainings continue, it’s not clear that these tactics will work. Immigration attorney David Leopold says under the Trump administration, even the old policy of avoiding arrests in churches is in question — but protests, these disruptions could have an impact.
“In the past, ICE has been very sensitive to public outcry,” Leopold says. “Mainly because they don’t want to be embarrassed publicly.”
Groups across the country have reached out to the New Sanctuary Movement for advice on starting their own response networks. A group in Austin, Texas, already has its own rapid response program up and running.
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