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Unitarians announce immigration sanctuary program

By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

The Two Rivers Unitarian Universalists in Carbondale are prepared to become the valley's first sanctuary church, although at this point there in no one in line to seek their sanctuary.

The program was announced publicly at an interfaith “vigil” in Glenwood Springs on Mother's Day, May 14. Rev. Shawna Foster, the minister of the TRUU, is also a politically active participant in other social-justice causes, such as the recent mission to send of goods and assistance from Carbondale to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

Foster, who has two children in the Carbondale schools, confirmed this week that the TRUU board of directors voted in March to offer sanctuary to immigrants targeted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The TRUU meets regularly in the Third Street Center, and maintains a rectory on the north side of town for Foster and her family.

At the time of the board's vote, Foster said, a local immigrant had indicated a need for sanctuary in order to avoid sudden deportation, but that person later withdrew the request when she received a 1-year stay of deportation. Now, Foster said, the TRUU is refurbishing the basement space at the rectory, at an estimated cost of $5,000, in the expectation that the space will be needed at some point. Foster mentioned a number of other groups participating in the sanctuary movement in general, such as the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) and its member organization, SOUL (Solidarity Organizing Unity and Struggle, in English), along with the First Unitarian Society of Denver and other religious organizations.

But, she said, “As far as I know, we are the first group in the valley offering sanctuary.

“I feel like our congregation is doing what Congress is refusing to do, which is to actually have a just immigration system with some fort of compassion,” Foster continued, referring to the work she and others are doing to deal with the deportation crisis facing immigrant communities from Parachute to Aspen.

“Sanctuary was offered in England in the 1600s because of an unjust justice system,” she reportedly told those gathered at the vigil in Glenwood Springs, “and with an unjust system again, religion has been called on once again, and so Two Rivers has joined our colleagues in Denver in offering physical sanctuary here in the valley. We are united because of families, families under the threat of deportation and separation.”

Among other tales of immigrant anxiety, Foster spoke of Latino residents of the Roaring Fork Valley who have been working to gain legal status in the U.S., only to be arrested by ICE agents and sent to the GEO detention facility in Aurora, a private, for-profit prison that works with federal immigration authorities.

Foster also referred disparagingly of the “rhetoric” of President Donald Trump and others in the federal government who have increased immigration enforcement all over the country, deporting foreign-born parents who have jobs here and have U.S.-born children, thus separating family members as a result of their immigration status.

“You should not be taken away from your kids, your family should not be torn apart,” she said, for seeking a better life for one’s family.

And the mass-deportation strategy has an economic cost, as well, she maintained.

“If you have mass deportation, that will just starve out the economies that are around here,” Foster continued, arguing that the economies of towns and counties in Western Colorado depend heavily on immigrant workers, legal or otherwise.

She dismissed the arguments from federal authorities, who claim they are targeting mainly immigrants who commit serious crimes while in this country.

“We really reject the idea that, ‘Oh, we’re just going to take the criminals, because the executive orders that were signed [by Trump] say anybody who is even accused of a crime” is now subject to deportation, despite a lack of a criminal conviction in many cases, she explained.

“It’s really a corrupt system that benefits people who want to exploit labor” by offering jobs to immigrants at low wages and under oppressive working conditions, she said, because people lacking legal status “can't fight for their wages. That's why I think it's a monetary thing to have a broken immigration system.”

Plus, she said, the prison authorities at GEO, a 1,500-bed facility, put their detainees to work at janitorial and other duties at a wage that reportedly is as low as $1 per day, thereby increasing profit margins by reducing the need to hire U.S.-born workers at regular wages.

GEO currently is the subject of a class action lawsuit, filed in 2014 by nine detainees in the name of 60,000 detainees held at the facility over a span of years, who allege that the company improperly profited from the detainees' work.

Foster doubted whether she is putting herself or the TRUU church in jeopardy by offering sanctuary to immigrants in trouble, because ICE has so far followed a policy of not raiding church-based sanctuaries. Area police agencies have taken a hands-off stance on the immigration question, she noted, and she praised Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario for writing a recent opinion piece in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent explaining why he and his deputies will not be doing ICE's work in the county.

Sophia Clark, a Western Slope representative of CIRC, said her organization has been working alongside Foster and others in the sanctuary movement. CIRC, Clark said, basically maintains a hotline for immigrants (844-864-8341), documents immigration cases for use in helping immigrants threatened with deportation and generally connects organizations so they can work together on different issues related to immigrant rights.

She and Foster both pointed to several cases in the Roaring Fork Valley region in which immigrants have been detained for deportation and, thanks to public outcry, have been released and allowed to rejoin their families.

“Communities really have a lot of power when they work together,” she said.