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East Bay Sanctuary’s Sister Maureen works at being her brothers’ keeper

By Jennifer Dix Daily Planet Correspondant
Saturday December 02, 2000

The phone rings almost nonstop. This one is a call from a San Francisco attorney. Like so many calls to the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, it is urgent. The attorney is doing pro bono work for a Guatemalan couple, political refugees now living in Stockton. They have just been granted asylum, so they can now apply for refugee status for their three children, 9-20 years old.  

There’s just one problem. The children are in Guatemala, and they must get to the United States before a Jan. 15 deadline. Their parents have little money and don’t know how they can finance the trip. Would the sanctuary group have any funds available? 

Anyone looking around EBSC’s office, a church basement furnished with mismatched furniture, would know that money is one thing that’s in short supply here. But that doesn’t faze Sister Maureen Duignan, the Franciscan nun who serves as refugee rights coordinator. She immediately starts to think of ways to garner support. 

“You need to go to the media,” she tells the attorney. “See if some of the major newspapers will pick up on this – it could be a nice Christmas story.”  

Duignan, a diminutive woman in her middle years with wispy strawberry-blond hair and a ready smile, is accustomed to crisis. Her early work took her to refugee camps in Honduras and Haiti. More recently, she’s worked closely with Haitian President-elect Jean-Bertrand Aristide to bring medical aide to the island-country off the Florida coast.  

Here in Berkeley, she sees a daily stream of immigrants in dire need. Many come from Central America, but they are also from Nigeria, China, Algeria and elsewhere. 

Many have suffered untold horrors in their home countries, witnessed friends and family brutalized or murdered, and often they have come to America without jobs, money, or housing. What they have is a desperate desire to live in peace and safety. 

In the basement of Trinity United Methodist Church, volunteers, including law students, interview immigrants as the first step in helping them gain legal residence. “When people come to this office, they’re really handing themselves over to Immigration,” says Duignan. “That’s why it’s so important that they be carefully screened, to see if they have a good case.” However, if a person doesn’t appear to have a legitimate case, “We don’t hand them over to the authorities,” Duignan notes pointedly. 

The sanctuary movement takes as its directive from such Biblical admonitions as Leviticus 19:33-34: “And if a stranger sojourn with you in your land, you shall not vex him; the stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself,” or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 25) : “I was a stranger and you took me in ... Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.” 

Sanctuary is an ecumenical movement that started in the United States in the 1980s in response to the masses of Central Americans who were fleeing violence in their home countries, especially El Salvador and Guatemala. During the Reagan era, the U.S. government, which supported right-wing governments in Central America, was unwilling to grant political asylum to most of these refugees, asserting that they were immigrating for economic reasons. In response, sanctuary members began helping fugitives to illegally cross the border and reside in the U.S. 

Over the past two decades, sanctuary groups around the country have protested U.S. policy abroad, lobbied for more lenient immigration laws, and worked to raise American awareness of foreign issues. Few if any, however, have become involved in the process of political asylum to the extent of East Bay Sanctuary. 

“We started working with detention centers,” explains Duignan. “Then it just snowballed.” At first, EBSC members raised bond to release a few immigrants from jail. Soon they were looking into the legal process of asylum for refugees, and all the attendant issues facing immigrants. Today, EBSC has an interest in some 3,000 cases overall. They range from new arrivals to immigrants who have been in the country for a decade or more, in various stages along the way to permanent residency or citizenship. The staff makes appointments to sees up to 30 visitors a day, but walk-ins are a frequent occurrence, and the office is always busy. 

Duignan points to a wall of file cabinets. Those labeled “Asylum,” she explains, are some people whose cases have been backlogged since 1993, when the courts were simply too clogged to handle them. The applicants have their work permits but they are still waiting for an asylum hearing. 

Next there is a row of cabinets labeled “Asylee,” for those who have been granted legal asylum. “This is our joyful section,” Duignan says. There are also “Proceedings” files, for those whose cases are denied or on appeal, and several file cabinets representing immigrants who entered the country under one of several temporary protective acts passed by Congress. 

The high number of asylum cases here reflects the Bay Area’s openness to immigrants, as opposed to some other parts of the country. “The Bay Area has very compassionate judges,” says Duignan. “Sometimes if we get a call from another state, for example Texas, we tell them, ‘You better get out here.’”