Claremonters making a difference

Amid the seemingly constant immigration news dominating headlines across the country, Claremonters have been doing their part and making their voices heard.

Members of the Claremont community were part of a caravan of clergy and other activists who took part in a peaceful protest at the southern border between Mexico and the United States on December 10 to protest migrant detention. Interfaith leader Tahil Sharma and Claremont United Church of Christ co-senior pastors Jen Strickland and Jacob Buchholz, who are married, were part of that group.

Mr. Sharma said the group contained hundreds of people from all across the country, with the majority from San Diego and the Los Angeles areas. They were from a variety of faiths, with Mr. Sharma representing the Sikh and Hindu communities. He is the LA Coordinator for the progressive Hindu coalition Sadhana and an interfaith minister in residence for the LA Episcopol Diocese.

Mr. Sharma, who is also the Faith Outreach manager for Culver City-based Brave New Films, said border patrol officers were waiting for them.

“When we showed up, we walked up toward about a little over a dozen border patrol officers who were armed with tear gas, with batons and with guns,” Mr. Sharma said.

The group sang and prayed, with some crossing into a government territory that extends along a beach. It was there the demonstration became physical.

“It first started off with a very physical pushback by the line of officers, because we were basically old that we had stepped in too far, that we had to push back,” Mr. Sharma said. “So they basically pushed our line of folks backwards by force. And it then started leading to people getting arrested.”

In all, 32 people were taken into custody, mostly for trespassing. One man was arrested on suspicion of assault on an officer, but Mr. Sharma said the charges were quickly dropped.

“The first people to be arrested were elderly women, which was almost laughable,” Ms. Strickland said. “They were arresting women in their 70s and 80s along with eventually people of all ages, but that image is striking.”

Mr. Sharma remembers the look in some of the border patrol officer’s eyes as they were pushing back against the protestors.

“These officers were either upset or angry or frustrated, and it’s still unsure where all of those emotions were being directed toward—the situation or toward the media,” he said. “It was all very unclear.”

But he feels that the demonstration elevated a message about the dire immigration situation in the United States, as well as the over-militarization of the border. He has launched a GoFundMe account to raise money to help members of the migrant caravan who are at the southern border. 

“Any time they see an action like this, they have to understand this is the most visible part of what’s being done, and you can’t assume it’s the only thing being done when it comes to bringing justice to groups who are being oppressed or marginalized,” he said.

Ms. Strickland and Mr. Buchholz are also doing their part to help a few asylum-seekers in need. They helped raise money to bond out one man from Honduras, R. Rodriguez.

Mr. Rodriguez, 25, fled his hometown of San Pedro Sula after local gang members threatened him. He and his brother were bus drivers in town, and were being recruited by the gang members to run drugs. Mr. Rodriguez, through a translator, said his brother tried to leave the business six years ago and was killed.

Mr. Rodriguez made the difficult six-week journey through Central America and Mexico to the northern border town of Mexicali. Along the way, he saw fellow migrants robbed, and was hit with rocks by local authorities for trying to jump on top of a freight train to continue his journey. At one point, he ran for days on foot.

Once he reached the border, he was arrested and taken to the Adelanto Detention Facility in the California high desert, where he spent nine and a half months in custody.

Ms. Strickland and Mr. Buchholz met Mr. Rodriguez through a group called the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, which has connections inside with a number of asylum seekers in Adelanto.

Initially, the goal was to visit these migrants and let them know they were not alone, Ms. Strickland said.

“We wanted them to know there were people outside who knew the process was broken,” she said.

The two pastors are members of a local group called Justice for Immigrants Seeking Asylum (JISA), whose members include people from the Claremont Colleges and residents of Pilgrim Place.

JISA is currently raising $50,000 to provide the opportunity for asylum seekers to seek representation through the judicial process, something Mr. Rodriguez wasn’t afforded—despite his limited grasp of the English language, he had to file his appeal brief himself.

Mr. Rodriguez’s initial request for asylum was denied, and he filed for an appeal. Since he wasn’t considered a flight risk or a danger to the community, he could be released from Adelanto is he could come up with $10,000 bond.

The Claremont community, as well as family members and friends from across the country, pitched in the money needed for Mr. Rodriguez to post bond. When he was released from Adelanto on December 17, he was greeted by Ms. Strickland and Mr. Buchholz, and was able to call his mother for the first time since leaving Honduras.

“I can’t really imagine being locked up for nine and a half to 10 months for having committed no crime other than running for my life and crossing into a country that considered me a prisoner or a criminal, being locked up and then finally getting to walk out into the desert under the stars one night,” Ms. Strickland said.

He is now living at Ms. Strickland and Mr. Buchholz’s house, doing chores and helping out in the church whenever he can. Church members have volunteered to take him out for lunch and dinner, and some members have even bought him clothes, a laptop and a cell phone.

He is also volunteering his services to anyone in the community who needs a little help, including painting, gardening and detailing cars.

“The church community has really helped get Rony the resources that he needs to be able to live here and have taken him into the community,” Mr. Buchholz said.

Mr. Rodriguez still has to wear an ankle-monitor 24 hours a day and make bi-weekly trips to the San Bernardino County courthouse while his appeal is being considered. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent stops by the house every Thursday to check in as well.

But Ms. Strickland said Mr. Rodriguez is just going with the flow.

“We love having him here, he’s such a positive person,” Ms. Strickland said. “Despite everything he’s been through, he has a great sense of humor.”

Ms. Strickland and Mr. Buchholz noted the church’s support of Mr. Rodriguez boils down to the biblical narrative of being your brother’s keeper.

In this instance, Ms. Strickland explained, the gangs that are terrorizing Honduras were formed in prisons in the United States, and when they were deported to their native countries, they took over. 

“I think in our case, we are seeing this need and we’re thinking, we have space in our home. This is the perfect way to meet someone else’s need who really has a need,” Ms. Strickland said. “So for us, it felt like the right thing to do.”

Mr. Rodriguez isn’t the only asylum seeker the church wants to help. They are currently raising $30,000 to help bail out another detainee.

When asked how the church has helped him, Mr. Rodriguez smiled.

He owed it all to the church, he said through a translator. He hopes to help his mother and build her a house one day.

—Matthew Bramlett


[Ed. note: this article has been updated to anonymize Mr. Rodriguez. Some of the wording was also updated to accurately reflect elements in the story]


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