Originally published by The New Yorker
The legendary Chicago oral historian and moral force Studs Terkel once said, “There is a decency in the American people and a native intelligence—providing they have the facts, providing they have the information.” During a lifetime of listening to Americans, Terkel came to believe that, when Americans have the information, they do the right thing.
So here is the information:
For a hundred and fifty-eight days, Malik Naveed bin Rehman, Zahida Altaf, and their five-year-old daughter, Roniya, have been living in the basement of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, Connecticut. There is an electronic bracelet attached to Malik’s ankle, which provides his real-time location to ice authorities. On a recent Saturday morning, Malik showed me the plastic bracelet, which looks like a snug black shackle. Though iceauthorities can send pre-recorded messages to him through the bracelet, he said that they prefer to call him on his cell phone, usually between 2 and 5 a.m.“Malik? Are you there?” they ask. He is convinced they do this to prevent the family from sleeping through the night.
Malik and Zahida are a middle-aged couple, originally from Pakistan, who have been in the United States for almost twenty years. They arrived as asylum seekers in 2000, and the first two attorneys they hired both absconded with their money—more than sixteen thousand dollars in total—and were later prosecuted for fraud. Over subsequent years, Malik and Zahida consulted eight more attorneys. In 2008, immigration officials denied their asylum application. They filed an appeal, which was rejected in 2010. Immigration officials then began court proceedings to remove them from the United States.
In 2012, Roniya was born; she is an American citizen. In 2014, Malik and Zahida gained protection under an executive action concerning enforcement priorities signed by President Obama. Immigrants who had committed no crimes and who had played by the rules—working and paying taxes, for example—were not prioritized for deportation. Then, in 2017, the Trump Administration reversed the executive action, and deportation proceedings were started against Malik and Zahida.
The family’s living quarters consist of a small bedroom and, across the hall, two rooms customarily used for Sunday school. They have the run of the church, but six days a week these three rooms are set aside for their use only. A shower has been fashioned in a bathroom by connecting a garden hose to the sink. A large picture of a beach scene brightens the windowless bedroom. A guitar leans against a wall. A pair of bongos rests on a bookshelf. Members of the congregation have been teaching Zahida how to play both instruments. “I always wanted to learn the drums,” she said. Because she and Malik can’t leave the church, they try to stave off boredom and depression by taking classes in yoga, needlepoint, and ceramics. There is a pottery studio in the basement, and the couple has made more bowls and plates than they can use.
There are at least forty-two families or individuals facing deportation who are now living in churches across the United States. It is only a form of courtesy that prevents ice from entering sensitive areas such as schools and places of worship; if they choose to, they can go anywhere they please. The forty-two cases are those that have been publicized in some way, but because more than a thousand churches have signed on to participate in the sanctuary movement, and because many more churches are providing sanctuary in secret, the total number of humans hiding in American houses of faith is not known.
Old Lyme, Connecticut, is a preppy town of old-growth trees, wide lawns, and twenty-seven miles of coastline, on the Long Island Sound. The First Congregational Church was established the same year the town was incorporated, in 1665. The church, with fluted white columns and a towering spire, was immortalized by the Impressionist Childe Hassam, in 1903. It stands on a manicured pea-green lawn in a neighborhood of similarly situated white Colonial and Victorian homes. American flags bow from wide porches; everywhere, the greens are very green and the whites are very white.
The church, not previously known as a bastion of progressive activism, began forging partnerships in 1985 with churches and social-justice organizations in South Africa, Haiti, and the Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux Indian Reservation, in South Dakota. According to the church’s brochure about its missions, the congregation sought “a deeper level of friendship with those of other races and cultures, recognizing, honoring, and celebrating both the diversity and the integrity and interconnectedness of all of God’s Creation.” When I arrived that Saturday, women and men were pushing shopping carts along the sidewalk, heading for the church. Outside, a large, handwritten sign resting on the steps read:
People of Color
Immigrants and Refugees
The LGBTQ Community
Women and Children
Taught by our faith, we stand firm
You are our family
Lina Tuck, a longtime congregant and a steward of the church’s sanctuary program, greeted me outside. She is an energetic woman in her early fifties who, after the election of Donald Trump, helped create and now runs the church’s immigration committee. Inside, the church was bustling. A dozen or so people carried groceries through the narrow back hallways. “The Saturday food pantry,” Reverend Steve Jungkeit explained to us. The First Congregational serves as a distribution center for the Shoreline Soup Kitchen, so every week about a hundred and fifty families come to the church to collect free groceries.
Jungkeit, the church’s senior minister, just turned forty-four, though he looks no more than twenty-five. He wore immaculate canvas sneakers, ankle-pegged pants, and black-framed glasses. A newsboy hat was set back on his head. A graduate of Yale’s Ph.D. program in religious studies who still lectures at Harvard Divinity School, he came to the church five years ago. “It was really the emphasis on social justice” that attracted him, he said. “Drawing North Americans out of their comfort zones to get, for instance, a community in Connecticut to care about what’s happening in Palestine.” He added that the “WE AFFIRM” sign had gone up a week after the 2016 election. “We thought we had to clarify where we stood.”
“So it wasn’t a stretch,” Tuck said, about the church’s experiment with sanctuary. In April of 2017, she and Jungkeit proposed the idea of sheltering a family to its board of deacons, and they approved it.
Shortly after that, Jungkeit and Tuck delivered a joint sermon from the pulpit. Tuck shared her own immigration story. “We came from Portugal in 1970,” she told me. “My dad came in 1969 with a visitor’s visa, which expired. So he was here illegally. My mom was a seamstress, so she was able to get a contract to come to the United States with me and my brother. And, since immigration laws were different in 1970, my dad was able to be grandfathered in and stay.” They were given permanent-resident status, and when Tuck was twenty, she and her mother became citizens. Her brother joined the Marines and fought in the Gulf War with a green card and a Portuguese passport. “He just got his American citizenship, like, two or three years ago,” Tuck said.
After receiving approval to shelter a family, Tuck and Jungkeit attended an informational gathering of New Sanctuary Connecticut, a Hartford-based organization that helps place immigrant families in churches. They said that the Old Lyme First Congregational was willing to provide a home for a family in deportation proceedings. At the time, Malik and Zahida were considering sanctuary while pursuing their remaining legal options. Immigration activists from Central Connecticut State University, including a cousin of Zahida’s—a student there—connected the couple with First Congregational. Tuck was told that the couple would soon come to Old Lyme.
“And then we waited,” Tuck said. “And we had a fund-raiser for our food pantry at our church, and that’s the night they were supposed to come. Then Steve gets the call that they changed their minds. They’re going to give up and they’re going back to Pakistan.”
“I was, like, ‘Give me their phone number!’ ” Jungkeit said. “Let me persuade them that there’s another way.”
Malik and Zahida had decided that they were too tired of fighting to continue. They had bought three plane tickets and were driving to J.F.K. on I-95. They would give up their business—likely losing their life savings—and return to Pakistan with their daughter, who had never been there. But on the way to the airport they learned their flight had been cancelled, due to snow. When they returned to Connecticut, they changed their minds and decided to give sanctuary a try.
“Steve got the call, and we were so happy,” Tuck said. “We were so happy.”
“Which is a funky thing,” Jungkeit said, “because they’re in hell. They’re coming to prison. It’s a very ambiguous thing. Because, of course, we’re happy to see them, we’re happy to be in this hospitality mode. We’re happy to push them through. They bring gifts to us, it’s a delight to have them here. Even as we recognize that this is hell for them. It’s a nice hell, but . . . ”
ater that Saturday, I sat with Malik, Zahida, Jungkeit, and Tuck at a round formica table in the basement kitchen. The four adults sat close together, with an easy familiarity born of months spent in close quarters. Malik and Zahida speak fluent, if idiosyncratic, English, and frequently interrupt each other, touching each other on the arm to make a point.
Roniya came into the room wearing a pink dress and a tiara, and showed us a picture she made. She had decorated a sheet of paper with butterfly stickers and added a rainbow, grass, and a sun. She whispered something into her father’s ear, and he told her that it would have to wait. She climbed into his lap and held his face in her hands, examining it. “He just shaved,” Zahida said. “She’s getting used to his smooth skin.”
Roniya pulled and pushed Malik’s cheeks. At fifty-one, Malik has the gentle pliability of an older father. Roniya’s favorite game, he said, is called Teacher Teacher. I asked her what that game entails. “I try to act like Ms. Bruno,” Roniya said, referring to her kindergarten teacher. Roniya’s pupils are Malik and Zahida, and her classroom is the room where we were sitting. One of the church’s associate ministers appeared and took Roniya back to an adjoining room, also part of the Sunday school, which was decorated with an unfinished mural depicting Noah summoning the world’s creatures to his ark.
With Roniya gone, the light in Malik’s eyes dimmed. He placed his hands together on the table and told me the story of his family. Malik and Zahida both grew up in Islamabad. They met in 1989, when he was working at his father’s grocery store, where Zahida shopped every few days. Malik was smitten, and when the couple began the chaste process of courtship, they asked Zahida’s family to approve the union. Because Malik was perceived to be from a lower caste, her family refused. Undeterred, Malik and Zahida defied her family’s wishes and eloped. Because they faced stigmatization and worse at home, the couple moved to Saudi Arabia, where Malik worked for many years as a refrigerator and air-conditioning repairman. Eventually, the couple moved again—this time to Connecticut, where Zahida’s cousin lived. They entered the United States in 2000 on a tourist visa and applied for asylum.
Malik worked as a pizza deliveryman, logging eighty hours a week. He thrived in the environment and dreamed of someday opening his own pizzeria. In November of 2017, he and Zahida opened Pizza Corner in New Britain. They had invested all their savings—about sixty-six thousand dollars—into it. “It was beautiful,” Zahida said. “November 4th was our first day open.” Malik and Zahida had gone to great lengths to make sure that ice was aware of the business and that they were in full compliance with any applicable laws. “I go to the office,” Malik said. “There’s nice officer. He said, ‘You guys good. You live here, you have any problem?’ I said, ‘No, man. I’m very happy.’ ” In January of this year, Malik and Zahida went to Hartford for their annual check-in with ice, a ritual that had been uneventful for almost a decade. But this time, Malik said, an officer told him to buy a ticket to Pakistan. He and Zahida were being deported.
The family arrived at the Old Lyme church two months later. Another fund-raiser was held, and this time, they provided the food—a friend of Malik and Zahida’s, Luis Torres, had taken over the day-to-day running of the pizzeria.
Most of the congregation embraced the sanctuary plan, with a few exceptions. “Someone sent me a letter and withdrew their pledge. Which was, frankly, not insignificant,” Jungkeit said. “They felt like we were thumbing our noses at the law.” In their letter they cited Robert Bolt’s play “A Man for All Seasons.” “This person came to me and was talking about Thomas More, and his struggle with the law, and upholding the law in that particular play. Turns out I know that play well. I played Thomas More when I was in college. And I said, ‘I, too, love the law, I, too, take it seriously. I’d rather have law than not. But I understand the law in a very different way. It’s not a cut-and-dry thing. It’s an argument, it’s something you discuss, it’s endlessly revisable.’ ”
Malik and Zahida are now hoping that the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls River, Virginia, will reopen their application for asylum. Given that their first two lawyers improperly handled their case and absconded with their money, they hope that they will be given another chance at the government’s protection.
Meanwhile, the family and the church work together to solve the many issues attendant to living in a state of house arrest. Malik has diabetes, so the congregation has arranged for a physician’s assistant to visit him. Roniya spent the spring living with Zahida’s cousins during the week, so that they could more easily take her to and from a kindergarten in Hartford, about forty miles away. The family was able to be together during the summer, but, when school starts at the end of August, Roniya will again be away five days a week.
O.K. Now we have the information. Here’s how Americans can do the right thing: first, more churches that, like the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, want to embody the words in the Bible—“Welcome any alien into your land, for you were once an alien in the land of Egypt”—can consider their roles in protecting families who have committed no crime other than wanting a safe place to live.
“The way I would frame it theologically,” Jungkeit said, “is that, in the Hebrew tradition, in the Christian tradition, in the Islamic tradition, hospitality is the central focus. It is front and center. But then there is more than just hospitality. There is an equal commitment to justice. Seeking social justice. And I understand that to mean, as practitioners of religion, we are to be involved in the public sphere. We are to engage with the life around us.”
Second, Americans can consider whether the immigration policies of the Trump Administration are now so unjust that they offend all consciences. If Malik, Zahida, and Roniya are sent to Pakistan, the people of the United States will be no safer. As Jungkeit correctly notes, the law is endlessly revisable and was written to be interpreted through our judicial system with sensitivity to historical and human context. Every day, in every court in the land, judges use discretion based on the particulars of a case in issuing their rulings: Who was harmed? What effect will this punishment have? What public interest is served through this ruling?
Most important, how is the United States made better or more secure by throwing away this family’s eighteen years of law-abiding life in Connecticut? The answer is that we will be no better and no more secure. We will only be more callous, less compassionate, less fair, and we will continue to spin so far from the moral center that we may never find our way back.