An interfaith 'Jericho Walk' circles ICE headquarters every week

NEW YORK — As many as several hundred people have shown up to walk single-file around the building where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is headquartered in Manhattan. On most days, the group tops out at about a dozen. 

“It becomes easier to manage the silence when there’s less people,” said Ravi Ragbir, an immigration activist and organizer of the “Jericho Walk.” 

Silence is an important part of the walk, which is as much ritual as protest. Started in 2012, it is open to people of any or no religion. The walkers imitate the Israelites’ capture of Jericho, the Canaanite city. According to Joshua in the Old Testament, the Israelites obeyed God’s instructions to circle the city walls without speaking, once each day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day. On the final day, Israelite priests blew their ram’s horns, Joshua’s people shouted, the city’s walls fell, and their army conquered Jericho.

A prostitute named Rahab becomes a spy for the Israelites. In return, her life is spared. The story illustrates many points to the faithful: it’s good to obey God’s plans; God has mercy for those who turn from evil (Rahab later is revered as an ancestor of Jesus); and God protects and guides his people to overcome all odds against strongholds of sin and evil.

After their seventh lap around the skyscraper, the activists shout. They seek to destroy the symbolic “walls of injustice that divide us,” according to the prayer they recite in unison.

Then, the activists pray out loud for God to soften the hearts of politicians who have the power to make immigration laws that respect human dignity. 

Activists pray after their “Jericho Walk.” Photo by Micah Danney.

Activists pray after their “Jericho Walk.” Photo by Micah Danney.

Ragbir, a Christian immigrant from Trinidad and Tabago, is facing deportation. He is executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant advocacy organization in New York City. He described U.S. immigration policy as historically race-based and inherently unfair. Ragbir said that as a Christian, he doesn’t support laws that in his view allow poor immigrants in to build the country’s infrastructure but keep them out when labor isn’t needed.

In sweltering late-morning heat last Thursday, a small group of activists gathered on the steps outside New York’s Federal Building they were about to march around. Rev. Micah Bucey, interfaith coordinator for NSC, had an announcement: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a resolution declaring itself a sanctuary denomination, the first in the nation.

The sanctuary movement is not new. Religious leaders defied federal immigration laws in the 1980s, when refugees were barred entry because the U.S. government supported regimes they were fleeing. That civil disobedience is distinct from what the present sanctuary movement looks like today. Much of the opposition now is from state and city governments that refuse to aid federal enforcement efforts.

The organized activism by NSC aims to stay on the right side of the law. The group has a legal team that sees to that. Started 10 years ago, its mission is to provide a support network to immigrants. Within the organization they’re called “friends.” NSC trains citizen volunteers to accompany immigrants to mandatory ICE check-ins and immigration court hearings.

“Accompaniment provides citizen-witnesses of ICE’s behavior, emotional support for immigrants and also establishes that our friends have strong ties to the local community, a fact appreciated by immigration judges,” the group says on its website

Volunteers tend to be liberal, often drawn to NSC’s work out of strong objection to President Donald Trump’s policies, but NSC is explicit that the issues it works to counter predate Trump.  

Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, blows a ram’s horn. Photo by Micah Danney.

Ravi Ragbir, executive director of the New Sanctuary Coalition, blows a ram’s horn. Photo by Micah Danney.

At a training hosted by a conservative Jewish synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (conservative refers to religious practices; the congregation is politically liberal), teacher Ambien Mitchell spent the first 15 minutes of the meeting asking how much attendees knew about policies under President Barack Obama. She asked how many people were deported by Obama.

“Three-point-five million human beings,” Mitchell said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is a human rights issue.”