After drug traffickers murdered several of his cousins, tortured his brother, and threatened to come after him next, Andres fled Mexico and spent 13 years working minimum wage jobs in the US.
While the fear of deportation as an undocumented immigrant constantly loomed over him, Andres still felt that he was safer here than in Mexico — until President Donald Trump took office, he said, and he had to seek shelter in a local church. Andres requested to go by an alias for fear of being deported back to Mexico.
With Trump’s series of crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, a progressive Protestant church in Buffalo, New York opened its doors to any immigrants who felt at risk. Since January, Pilgrim St. Luke’s and El Camino Nuevo United Church of Christ has been housing anywhere from nine to 11 people at a time.
The truth is, people come to make a better life, to work, or — like in my case — to save my life.
The church has also helped immigrants flee the US to Erie, Ontario, a Canadian border town just two hours away. In order to gain initial entry and access to a refugee hearing in Canada, people need to demonstrate that they face serious risk of persecution in their current country.
“The truth is, people come to make a better life, to work, or — like in my case — to save my life,” said Andres, who feels that the new administration has declared a war against people in his position.
To date, the church has helped 28 adults and nine children cross the border into Canada as refugees, according to Reverend Justo González.
“We believe that we are on the right side of justice, and on the right side of history,” said González, who first heard of several immigration raids taking place throughout Buffalo last fall.
He asked his congregation if they were willing to open the church’s doors to undocumented immigrants and, after receiving their approval, prepared a common living area fitted with beds within the church. “One woman stood up and said ‘This is nothing new,'” Gonzalez said.
Throughout history, religious institutions have often let in immigrants at risk of political persecution, deportation and arrest. Individual cases of sanctuary were also common while Barack Obama was president, but Trump’s election saw the number of institutions declaring themselves “sanctuaries” jump from 400 to more than 800 in just a few months.
Such a high number is rivaled only by the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, churches in the US took in thousands of immigrants trying to escape Guatemalan and Nicaraguan civil wars.
Now people from all over the US have asked to seek shelter in their church, he said. Once there, church members help them prepare their application package for refugee status in Canada, and keep them company as they wait to hear results.
Alvaro, 25, was one of the other undocumented immigrants who stayed at Pilgrim before coming to Canada. He requested to not use his last name since he too could be deported. Alvaro, who came to the US from El Salvador after gang members threatened to kill him if he failed to produce an exorbitant sum of money
“It’s very scary but many, like me, have no option,” he said. Like Andres, Alvaro spent more than a year in the US before people around him started saying that immigration officers were coming after him and, still not able to return to El Salvador, decided to seek shelter in a church.
After being turned away from one sanctuary church due to overcrowding, Alvaro spent 30 days at Pilgrim, where he quickly became friends with many other immigrants who were facing a similar fate. Once Alvaro’s application for initial entry into Canada was accepted, members of the church drove him and several others across the Peace Bridge that connects Canada to the US.
Andres and Alvaro both spent longer than others hiding in the church to hear back about their refugee applications. After two weeks, Andres said he started feeling scared as he saw other people hear back while he did not.
“In that moment, a person thinks of so many reasons why you wouldn’t [get accepted],” he said, adding that he turned toward his faith and the other people seeking sanctuary to help him get through the stress of not knowing what would come next.
During this time, he left the church only to take occasional showers and do laundry while carefully screening the surroundings for any immigration officers who could be nearby. While the people in hiding and the church members developed close relationships, long days of waiting in a confined space took an emotional toll.
“It’s a travesty that we have created this environment when this is not necessary,” said González, adding that everyone they helped cross the border into Canada met the initial entry requirement of credible fear of persecution.
Once people seeking asylum cross the American border into Canada, the country’s government generally makes a decision whether to grant permanent status within 60 days.
“Those that we have helped are highly stressed while with us, stressed during the interview process, breathe a sigh of relief when they are granted initial entry,” said González, who regularly comes to Ontario to visit the people he helped cross. “Then once they meet with their attorneys, the reality of the 60-day time limit increases their anxiety and stress levels again.”
Now living close to several other people from the church in Toronto, Andres is waiting for his refugee status hearing on May 30. If Canada doesn’t grant him refugee status, he said, there is no other border for him to cross.
Mark Abadi, Anjelica Oswald, and Alejandra O’Connell helped translate some of the interviews.