Sergio Gonzalez

The annual El Día de los Niños celebration that took place in Madison earlier this month included fun activities for kids and resources for parents. In the past, lots of people lined up for free picture IDs for the kids that are then connected with the AMBER Alert system.

But this year, Fabiola Hamdan, an organizer of the event and the Dane County immigration affairs specialist, noticed that there was no line at all. Why? Parents were afraid to put down their name and address.

Hamdan was one of several speakers at the annual Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice celebration Wednesday night. In such an immigration climate, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice wanted to award locals for their “commitment to their faith in the struggle for achieving the work of human development and betterment.”

Sergio Gonzalez, a recent PhD from the UW-Madison Department of History and assistant professor of Latinx Studies at Marquette University, was given an award, as was the free, walk-in Community Immigration Law Clinic. 

Gonzalez played a critical part in building up the recently formed Dane Sanctuary Coalition, said Bonnie Margulis, president of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice.

The Dane Sanctuary Coalition is made up of faith-based organizations, schools and campus ministries in Dane County that are committed to provide sanctuary and housing for undocumented immigrants and refugees under imminent threat of deportation. Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice is one of the backbone organizations, along with Centro Hispano and Voces de la Frontera, but Margulis emphasized that “we take our marching orders from Voces and from Centro Hispano.”

The coalition hasn’t had to host anyone yet, but “we are hearing more and more from the immigration attorneys that we work with and the people on the ground that are doing this work that it is a question of when, not if,” Margulis said.

Gonzalez traveled with Margulis as the coalition formed to explain the history of the sanctuary movement to congregations.

Hearing about those “deep roots” of connection between the faith community and sanctuary movement was helpful for congregations, Margulis said.

“I think it gives them more of a feeling of, ‘We’re not out here on our own, this is part of an ongoing movement that has been going on for decades, so we are just continuing that tradition,’” she said.

Gonzalez shared some of that history as the keynote speaker at Wednesday’s event.

“This struggle for immigrant justice in 2018 as part of a longer story,” he said. “The struggle that we have in front of us is one that our ancestors have faced before.”

When Mexican farmers and industrial workers were recruited to work in Wisconsin in the 1920s, they came to a country that valued their “cheap and controllable labor,” but saw them as “culturally inferior,” Gonzalez said.

Unwelcome in the wider white community, they carved out their own community spaces, Gonzalez said, forming mutual aid organizations and baseball teams. One of the only examples where the white population and people of Mexican descent shared community was at the Mexican Mission Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, founded in 1926 in Milwaukee with the support of the white Catholic church.

In a 1966 migrant farm workers “march for respectability,” workers carried the United Farm Workers labor union sign, the American flag and an image of the Lady of Guadalupe, Gonzalez said.

“Religion was central to this movement because it was a way of organizing it,” Gonzalez said.

“Priests would invite farm workers into their churches to organize,” he said, in a “connection between religiosity, social justice and immigrant justice and migrant justice.”

That connection only grew in the 1980s, when 1 million Central American refugees arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum from civil war in their home countries. They were quickly denied, detained and deported, Gonzalez said, because the U.S. government was supporting some of the dictatorships causing the political situations that the refugees were running from.

But communities of faith decided that “morality, and not legality, would be the guiding question of the sanctuary movement of the 1980s," Gonzalez said.

Soon, Milwaukee sanctuary congregations included Catholic and Lutheran churches and Jewish synagogues. And by 1983, St. Francis House on the UW-Madison campus had joined in as the first sanctuary congregation in Madison.

In the recent “upsurge of anti-immigrant sentiment,” he said, the question again arises: “What is our obligation as faith communities?”

“One of the clearest answers to that question has been the Dane Sanctuary Coalition,” Gonzalez said. “Congregations across this county have stepped forward and said that once again, questions of morality and not legality will help guide our decision on how we treat our immigrant sisters and brothers.”

CILC was also honored for its work, which began in 2009 as an all-volunteer effort of immigration attorneys in the Madison area to legally represent those who can’t afford a lawyer.

Since then, CILC has seen about 4,000 individuals from 160 countries. CILC was able to hire its first paid attorney last year, who has “secured the release of almost every single one of her clients,” said Raluca Vais-Ottosen, CILC board member.