Welcoming refugees, starting in our city

Today —January 21, 2020 — would have marked a deadline set by President Trump’s Executive Order 13888, designed to put a stop to refugee resettlement in the U.S.

The order required state governors to decide whether they would request to resettle refugees into their state, or stick to the administration’s status quo and be automatically counted as refusing refugees. As the situation escalated, a judge blocked the executive order, saying it violates federal law. But even if the deadline is no longer in effect, today marks an ongoing struggle.

Many leaders of faith voiced their opposition to the order. “This order is in effect a state-by-state, city-by-city refugee ban, and is un-American and wrong,” said Mark Hetfield of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit group that helps refugees worldwide, in a statement. Yet the story isn’t just unfolding only on the national or state level, but in cities and communities around the country, like my home of Gainesville, Florida.

Gainesville advocates mobilized to take action. In November 2019, the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice in Gainesville decided in November to enlist the City Commission in defense of refugees. Mayor Lauren Poe sent a written request to the State Department to permit Gainesville to receive refugees under the resettlement program. City Commissioners agreed on a resolution affirming Gainesville’s intention to welcome refugees and other immigrants.

This was not a new stance. Gainesville became a Welcoming City for immigrants in 2016, joining the Welcoming America network of cities and counties across the country that recognize the contribution newcomers from around the world bring to their communities. 

Communities of faith in Gainesville were already laying the groundwork for this welcoming vision years before, when they gathered a decade ago to launch the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice, a new initiative for inclusivity in Gainesville. The story behind the IAIJ, which I now lead, shows how citizens can make an impact starting on the local level.

The story begins in 2009, when two Gainesville churches — one Mennonite and one Presbyterian—invited representatives of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to share with each congregation on a Sunday morning about their efforts to improve pay and working conditions for the men and women who harvest winter tomatoes in south Florida. A professor active for many years with National Farm Worker Ministry had alerted both congregations to the ongoing struggle by the mostly immigrant farm workers. A few months later, one of the churches hosted the Modern Day Slavery Museum from Immokalee, which documented cases of farm workers held in Involuntary servitude. This hit especially close to home — Haitian workers at a farm in our county had been held slaves for 18 months, and the trial in federal court had only recently concluded.

A recent college graduate in attendance, Kimberly Hunter, came to my wife Eve, the pastor of our church, with the idea to launch a coalition of faith communities to create a broader base for action on behalf of migrants. Kimberly and I met with local rabbis, Christian ministers, and representatives of our two local mosques.  Our proposal was not always welcomed, but we eventually had commitments from eighteen Gainesville churches, mosques, and synagogues. Kimberly became the tireless coordinator of the IAIJ until she moved to the South Bronx to teach in a high school for recent immigrants in 2012, and I then filled her role.

Since our founding, the IAIJ rapidly expanded, engaging in advocacy for the DREAM Act and persuading University of Floriday administration to support undocumented students, eliminating police harassment of worshipers at Spanish-language churches, and organizing help for families whose breadwinners were in detention awaiting a deportation hearing.  For several years we arranged for faith communities to host the Modern Day Slavery Museum and organized groups to pressure Publix supermarkets and Wendy’s restaurants to sign the Fair Food Agreement. 

Our efforts are, naturally, met with resistance. In Gainesville, some citizens argued against our Welcoming City proposal claiming nearly all Syrians fleeing the war-torn country were men of military age and that they planned to set up a terrorist training camp at a church campground in our county. After a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, Florida Governor Rick Scott, now a Senator, asked Congress to defund all refugee programs. 

Immigrant action rally 2
Members of the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Action join with others from around the state at rallies outside Publix headquarters in Lakeland, FL. Credit Elena Stein.

Despite obstacles, we’ve managed to find paths forward. From the beginning, we wanted to reach out to people in detention, but instead met blank walls and bureaucratic runarounds until Joan Anderson from University Lutheran Church found a way to visit detainees. For the past five years, carloads of volunteers have driven twice every month to Baker Detention Center in Macclenny as a ministry of presence to let them know they are not forgotten. We’ve been able to help in small ways— contacting family members, supplying bus fare, and clothing to detainees who have been released.  We’re exploring how we might minister through accompanying people at immigration hearings in Orlando. After a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, Florida Governor Rick Scott, now a Senator, asked Congress to defund all refugee programs. 

All of this local activity — efforts centered around places like churches, schools, supermarkets, and detention centers —is unfolding against the backdrop of hostile federal policy. Even as we face resistance on the federal and state levels, some people of faith are continuing to take a stand for immigrants and refugees. The Florida Council of Churches wrote Governor Ron DeSantis October 30 asking him to opt in to the Reception and Placement Program so that Florida can continue to welcome refugees. There has been no response so far.  

But other state and local officials across the U.S. are joining. Officials from across the country published a letter asking that “at least 95,000 refugees” be resettled this fiscal year, after President Trump previously announced that the number of refugees permitted to be resettled in the United States in 2020 would be limited to 18,000.  Although Texas governor Greg Abbot announced that Texas would not request to resettle refugees, the majority of state governors and mayors, Democrats and Republicans, responded with requests to opt in to refugee resettlement.

Still, given the administration’s intention of reducing refugee admissions to zero, are such efforts futile?  And does it matter if one university town like Gainesville declares its intention to welcome refugees and other immigrants?  

Standing with refugees in our cities may not reverse bad federal policy, but these efforts cannot be dismissed. Dissent by cities and states, including initiatives led by communities of faith, can contribute to a cumulative effect that supports legal challenges on behalf of refugees. By taking action, we can help to refute the false picture of refugees and immigrants assiduously spread by their enemies.


Richard macmaster

Richard MacMaster is a long-retired history professor who lives in Gainesville, Florida. He discovered peace witness and the Mennonite Church in the Vietnam War years and was led by friends to see the needs of refugees and immigrants.






One response to “Welcoming refugees, starting in our city”

  1. Alice Gridley Avatar
    Alice Gridley

    Proud to know of your involvement and accomplishments Richard.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: