by Suleiman Allen
Have you ever wondered where we connect clients who are undocumented and need legal assistance with their residency status? There are several options, and one resource is literally right next door: The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant.
Founded in 1982, the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant (EBSC) has for 35 years provided community support and legal aid to refugees fleeing war, terror, intolerance, persecution, and exploitation in their home countries. The Sanctuary Covenant was a pledge first taken up by five Bay Area churches plus one in Tucson, Arizona, who publicly declared by joint press release their intent to “Provide Sanctuary - Support, Protection, and Advocacy” in response to refugees coming to the United States to escape the violence that was occurring in Guatemala and El Salvador. Their pledge followed a demand that the United States government meet its moral and legal obligations to grant asylum to these refugees. This public act of defiance was the beginning of the modern Sanctuary Movement, which remains strong to this day.
Although the word “sanctuary” conjures romantic notions of safe houses and underground railroads, EBSC has had far greater success by providing legal aid and advocacy to refugees seeking asylum. Their Refugee Rights Program (RRP) utilizes the skills of dedicated professionals along with countless volunteers, to assist applicants with Affirmative Asylum, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Permanent Residency, and Naturalization. EBSC proudly claims a 97% success rate, and has helped countless families to find a new home and a new community here in the United States.
In addition to the highly successful RRP, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant also maintains a Community Development and Education program, which offers regular workshops focusing on helping new immigrants to integrate themselves to life in the US. The CDE also houses an ESL program to help new arrivals to function and navigate in an English-dominated society. EBSC strongly encourages fluency in English, as it is incredibly helpful for navigating the barriers to naturalization. CDE also offers one-on-one assistance to new immigrants seeking work, housing, or education opportunities.
The benefits of community education don’t stop with the people who come to the Sanctuary Covenant for help. Much like the Berkeley Free Clinic’s tradition of volunteers moving on to become successful medical professionals, many of the volunteers who offer their time with EBSC move on to law school, frequently focusing on civil rights issues and immigration law. EBSC’s decades-long tradition of community service has helped to promote the growth of compassionate, civic-minded individuals who go on to shape law and policy in our nation. Their dedicated staff is overseen by Maureen Duignan, a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia, who has been with the Sanctuary Covenant program since 1984, and has served as executive director since 2000.
The BFC and EBSC have been working in the last few years to connect more, for referrals in both directions. This includes helping their clients enter the BFC’s Spanish language language dental services on Friday nights. We have also talked with the EBSC about potential partnership in a new building if we can find a suitable space.
In these troubled times, with an ever-increasing cry for policies of nationalistic isolationism, the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant stands as a shining beacon of hope. Their mission to provide Sanctuary - support, protection, and advocacy, is an example to us all.