Interfaith organizations in Berkeley welcome world’s refugees

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Tucked away underneath the Trinity United Methodist Church is the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, a law clinic that advocates for the rights of low-income refugees and immigrants.

On any given weekday, the waiting room is humming with snippets of multiple languages, children playing and papers being shuffled.

The Community Development and Education Program Director Manuel De Paz starts his day at 9 a.m. From then until 5 p.m., De Paz meets with dozens of immigrants, helping them find housing, receive workers compensation and learn English.

“I am working with people that have been, or are still, going through the same experiences that I went through,” De Paz said.

De Paz fled El Salvador when he was 13 after his two brothers and sister were tortured and killed by the Salvadoran army. He came to the EBSC in 1991 and through its help he became a U.S. citizen in 2008.

The EBSC aims to advocate for 700 cases this year — 500 adult cases and 200 unaccompanied minor cases — to help its clients find refuge in the United States. According to EBSC Program Director Mike Smith, these men and women left their countries not to make it big in America, but because, like De Paz, they lived in genuine fear.

Most of their clients — the majority of whom come from Mexico and Central America — have suffered some form of abuse, gang violence or rape. These immigrants come to the United States, Smith said, because their countries are unable or unwilling to protect them.

“People don’t understand how serious the problem is and how serious the persecution and trauma is,” Smith said. “There are just lots of wounded people coming here.”

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, internationally there are more than 63 million people of concern, which includes refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, etc. Nationally, more than 500,000 people seek asylum or refuge in the United States.

Since 2008, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has deported more than 2.8 million immigrants. These high rates of deportation keep immigrants in fear and away from work, school and living a functional life, said Reverend Jeff Johnson of University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley.

“Our immigration system is broken at the highest levels,” Johnson said. “And now it’s crucially important to support these people as the violence in Central America has escalated beyond belief and, yet, we continue to deport people back to those places of violence.”

Berkeley first declared itself a city of refuge in 1986. Since then, numerous waves of immigrants have come to America, and City Council passed an item June 28 that reaffirms Berkeley’s status as a city of refuge.

According to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, this means that city law enforcement and staff will not target or deport immigrants in Berkeley. Additionally, the city is taking a stance against the current rates of deportation within the U.S., Worthington said, adding that this decision wasn’t a “political action” but a “fundamental moral issue.”

“Again, we live in perilous times when national leaders advocate openly about building walls and barring whole populations from entry into the United States,” Johnson said at a Berkeley City Council meeting. “It’s a time of increased xenophobia where refugees are scapegoated and blamed.”

The EBSC is just one of many interfaith programs in the East Bay that offers services to immigrants. For years, congregations such as St. John’s Presbyterian Church and University Lutheran Chapel have offered sanctuary to people fleeing their homes because of political unrest or persecution.

According to Director of  the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights Rev. Deborah Lee, faith communities in the East Bay are leading by example in order to encourage members of the greater community to reach out and aid refugees and immigrants. It’s an opportunity for faith communities to stand for the protection of basic human rights, Lee said at a Berkeley City Council meeting.

Since the EBSC hired him in 2006, De Paz has taken a stance and advocated for the protection of thousands of immigrants coming to America. According to him, working at the EBSC is his way of giving back to those who helped him on his own journey.

“It’s healing because through helping other people who have suffered for the same amount you have suffered, or more,” De Paz said, “you’re not only healing yourself but also becoming a better human being.”

Contact Brenna Smith at [email protected].