My Faith Calls for Sanctuary for Immigrants in State Prison, Too.
On a chilly December morning, I joined seven other faith leaders to block the driveway to ICE’s regional headquarters in San Francisco. We engaged in this act of civil disobedience to thwart the racist, unjust, and inhumane treatment of immigrants at the hands of our government and called on Governor Newsom to untangle his ties with ICE. Like so many justice seekers before us, we disrupted business as usual, specifically interfering with ICE’s ability to detain and deport a Cambodian refugee Tith Ton, who has earned parole after serving over two decades in state prison. We demanded that Governor Newsom do the same, to not hand over Tith when ICE agents arrive at San Quentin State Prison tomorrow morning.
Although California calls itself a Sanctuary State, Governor Newsom still allows our state prison system to collaborate with ICE, doubly punishing immigrants that our criminal justice system has deemed worthy of returning to their communities. This lack of justice is unconscionable, and I am outraged by such aggressive attacks on immigrants and their families. As a pastor of a Sanctuary Congregation, I showed up to stand with Tith’s family whose loved one is at the mercy of this cruel treatment, and to embody my faith in a God of justice and mercy, forgiveness and redemption, transformation and reconciliation. I risked arrest in order to demand that everyone, including immigrants who have served their time, should have access to due process.
As my congregation prepares for Christmas, we recognize that the plight of the Holy Family continues to echo from families here in California struggling for safety and freedom. Just like Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, Tith’s family were refugees. Tith’s mother shared with me how she fled Cambodian genocide, backed by the U.S., when Tith was an infant. Fleeing first to Thailand, she shared the terror of covering her infant’s mouth with a blanket as they travelled, so they wouldn’t be discovered. They ultimately came to the U.S. seeking safety, but could only afford to live in a community suffering from poverty and violence. Under these volatile conditions, Tith got caught up in gang violence and killed a rival gang member when he was 16. Sentenced to life in prison, he served 22 years before being eligible for parole. While in prison, Tith turned his life around: educating himself, becoming a substance abuse counselor, and actively providing for his family. Recognizing that he has paid his debt to society, the parole board recommended Tith’s parole on his first hearing.
Governor Newsom recently granted Tith’s parole, but in a cruel twist of hypocrisy, Governor Newsom could then hand Tith to ICE where he will be imprisoned again for months or even years under the threat of deportation to a country he has never known.
I used to agree with policies that argued that criminal offences of non-citizens merited deportation. This is someone who committed murder, after all. But such punitive thinking doesn’t take into account the realities that force people to migrate in the first place, the conditions in which they struggle, the circumstances that lead to actions of violence, and the inherent racism that subjects immigrants to additional punishment through deportation. Tith has been held accountable for his actions. But so, too, should the U.S. government be held accountable for carpet bombing Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, for its involvement in the genocide of a third of the Cambodian population, for creating the conditions of poverty and violence in many communities of color, and for ICE’s aggressive and racist treatment of people they deem unworthy of humanity. Further, such policies do not allow for opportunities for forgiveness, reconciliation and transformation, privileges readily afforded to white, wealthy citizens. Through learning the stories of individuals caught in webs of oppression, understanding the structural ways immigrants are racialized and criminalized, studying the Biblical command to love the immigrant, and affirming the Scriptural understanding of justice as restorative, my views on such policies have evolved. In the book of Exodus, Moses himself committed murder, yet God chose not to mark Moses by his worst mistake. Moses eventually becomes a leader, and helped free the Israelites out of slavery from the Egyptians.
I urge Governor Newsom not to be complicit in the horrors the U.S. government has enacted on Tith’s family and ensure Tith be restored to his community. He has earned the right to be released, and should experience freedom this week. Over 40,000 have signed a petition urging Governor Newsom to use his power over California’s prison system to not hand over Tith to ICE. It is my hope and prayer that Governor Newsom uses his ability to enact justice and embrace California’s commitment to sanctuary.
On that chilly December morning, while being in solidarity with Tith’s extended family, concerned community and faith leaders, I found a vision of the world I long to live in: one that stands together, works for justice and healing, and demands accountability of those in power. In this holiday season of longing for peace on earth and celebrating the sacredness of family, it is time to right this wrong, unite Tith’s family, and let the light of freedom and justice shine forth.
Reverend Dr. Allison Tanner is the Pastor of Public Witness at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, Oakland, and a faith leader with Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity.