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Members of the IAIJ hold signs at a rally for farmworker rights. Photo courtesy of Richard McMaster.

When rumors of Immigrations, Customs and Enforcement raids in Gainesville spread last month, concerned citizens and media representatives came to the Interfaith Alliance for Immigrant Justice (IAIJ) meeting at Emmanuel Mennonite Church that night. Over the next few weeks they developed plans for a sanctuary church to shelter endangered families with a dozen other supporting congregations and some sixty committed volunteers.

IAIJ had its beginnings in another crisis in 2009.  Would the Florida Legislature follow Arizona’s example and pass a harsh anti-immigrant law?  That seemed a real possibility as lawmakers convened in Tallahassee for the 2010 session.  Here in Gainesville, a group of recent UF graduates—who had been active in campus protests to nudge Aramark, the UF food service provider, into signing the CIW’s Fair Food Program—talked about what they could do to stop this. 

They came to the conclusion that campus groups could not carry on the struggle for justice by themselves.   Someone needed to organize the community for immigrant rights and farm worker justice.  Churches, synagogues and mosques seemed the place to start. Kimberly Hunter, who was active in Emmanuel Mennonite Church, took on the task of organizing Gainesville’s faith communities. Religious affiliation was never a requirement and still is not today.

In its first year, IAIJ concentrated on the passage of the DREAM Act—to allow children of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship—and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ effort to get major tomato buyers to sign the Fair Food Agreement.  In the next few years, IAIJ added educational events to build public support for comprehensive immigration reform.

For several years, IAIJ arranged for the Modern Day Slavery Museum to visit Gainesville synagogues and churches and for farm workers from Immokalee to tell their story in houses of worship and in UF and Santa Fe classrooms.

When a longtime Gainesville resident was stopped for a minor traffic violation, identified as an undocumented immigrant, sent to a detention center and deported, IAIJ found support in local churches for the wife and children he left here.

IAIJ members had long looked for ways to visit people awaiting deportation hearings in detention centers, but had no success in interviews with authorities. IAIJ members regularly visit undocumented immigrants in the Baker County Detention Center in Macclenny as Baker Interfaith Friends and help them stay in contact with their families.

The idea of making Gainesville and Alachua County welcoming communities for immigrants and refugees has long been an IAIJ initiative. •

The IAIJ meets at 6 p.m. on the second Monday of every month at the  Emmanuel Mennonite meeting house, 1236 NW 18th Ave. (across from Gainesville High School between the Wells Fargo and PNC banks). Email gainesvilleiaij@gmail.com for more information.