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Harvard Divinity students walk alongside unauthorized immigrants

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Nestor Pimienta at the South Station bus terminal in Boston.

By Globe Staff 

The bail papers referred to him as “Alien.” As he filed off the Peter Pan bus into South Station, nearly empty just before dawn, he looked younger than his 18 years; soft jawline, peach fuzz, searching eyes. His mother rushed to him, scarcely able to conceive that her son’s six months in an immigration detention center had ended. He buried his face in her coat.

Then he looked up, surprised to see a clutch of young strangers waiting to greet him, one holding a handmade “Welcome Home” sign. They were the Harvard Divinity students who had raised $7,000 in bail money, paid for his 10-hour bus ride, and borrowed a car to drive his mother to the bus station.

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“We wanted to be here to make sure you knew, from the moment you got back, everyone’s here for you,” Nestor Pimienta, one of the students, told the former detainee.

The divinity school activists have emerged as critical figures in the movement to protect unauthorized immigrants in the Boston area. They are working to build what they call a “refuge community” — a group that joins unauthorized immigrants in their struggle to remain here, offering companionship and help connecting with legal and social services.

Their efforts are part of a growing movement among religious congregations to envelop unauthorized immigrants in a cocoon of support as President Trump’s administration takes a more aggressive approach toward enforcing immigration laws. In one of the most visible expressions of that commitment, dozens of religious communities in Massachusetts are preparing to help shelter unauthorized immigrants fleeing the authorities.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Nestor Pimienta and Gabriella Chavezat.

The founders of the “refuge community” — Pimienta and Gabriella Chavez, who both graduated days after welcoming the detainee home, and a current student who requested anonymity because of his status as an unauthorized immigrant — are drawing on both their elite academic training and their experience growing up in working class immigrant families.

The unauthorized student, an aspiring academic, has firsthand experience with the plight of millions fearing detention and deportation. He came to the United States as a teenager, a month too late to qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era policy continued by the Trump administration that offers temporary work permits and deportation deferrals for some immigrants who came as minors.

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“The undocumented experience and the immigrant experience are not the same,” he said.

The trio played a pivotal role last winter in forging the Cambridge coalition of nine congregations and organizations now housing an unauthorized Ecuadorian immigrant and her daughters in a Lutheran church near Harvard Square. This spring, they served as a bridge between the Ecuadoran woman and the coalition, helping with translation and finding her legal representation. Since the woman moved into the church in May, the students have spent hours each day helping to make sure her needs are met.

“The coalition is made up of congregations that are heavy on resources and low on direct day-to-day connection with the immigrant community,” said the Rev. Kathleen O’Keefe Reed, pastor of University Lutheran Church, the host church. “The work and expertise and connection of (the unauthorized student) and Gaby and Nestor have kept us real and grounded.”

The threesome has also challenged privileged do-gooders to question their assumptions about who is worthy of amnesty. The teenager they helped spring from detention in Pennsylvania was caught with an illegal knife by police last year but never convicted, according to his attorney. While his juvenile court case was pending, he was arrested and detained by immigration authorities. Had the divinity students not intervened, he could have been deported to El Salvador, where his family feared he could be killed.

When they heard the detainee’s mother was seeking help raising bail money, the Harvard students saw a chance to make a statement: People who might not otherwise fit the parameters of the “model immigrant” are just as valuable as aspiring doctors and engineers. They are worthwhile, the students say, “by virtue of their existence.” The students established a GoFundMe campaign and raised the money in a week, with help from many in the sanctuary movement.

They practice different faiths — the unauthorized student is Catholic, Chavez converted to Islam in college, and Pimienta grew up Catholic but connects with different faiths. The divinity school training they share is elemental to their work.

“It lets them speak in a way that is very radical and very challenging to people, but . . . in a way that includes an invitation to be better, rather than an admonition of where you’re at,” said Paul Adler, a lecturer at Harvard who studies internationalism in recent US social movements.

The three took various paths to Harvard. Pimienta grew up in a diverse urban neighborhood in Los Angeles County, but had a window into other worlds. His father, who waited tables in upscale restaurants, and his mother, a baby sitter for affluent families, had a remarkable knack for making friends from all walks of life — a quality Pimienta seems to share.

Chavez, whose parents, like Pimienta’s, are immigrants, is from a conservative suburb in Southern California. Her Salvadoran mother gained legal status through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which offered some unauthorized immigrants paths to legal status. The law demonstrated to Chavez the arbitrariness of immigration laws; other families whose loved ones arrived after the deadline set by the law were not so lucky.

The third student finished high school in Texas and studied philosophy in college, graduating with high honors; he hopes to pursue a PhD, but his legal status makes it difficult to know what will come.

“As an undocumented immigrant, you learn that you cannot plan too much ahead,” he said.

Their work together began when Pimienta started a program in which Harvard students, including Chavez and the unauthorized student, tutor the children of university workers. After the lessons, the families and students shared a meal and stories together.

The bonds forged there deepened when Harvard dining workers went on strike last fall to preserve their health benefits. The divinity students founded a universitywide group — the Harvard Student Legal (and Labor), Interfaith (and Secular) Community, known as SLIC — that provided moral support to the workers. The trio spent hours on picket lines listening to workers’ worries. They organized an interfaith service that, workers say, boosted their morale when many were feeling despondent.

“It gave the workers hope,” said Aaron Duckett, a chief shop steward in the dining workers union. “Our lines got lively again.”

After Harvard President Drew Faust announced the school would not label itself a “sanctuary campus,” the divinity students resolved to help University Lutheran, which was considering offering sanctuary to unauthorized families resisting deportation. They enlisted student groups they’d worked with during the strike to provide help if someone went into sanctuary, which gave the congregations the confidence they needed to move forward. Now, more than 150 volunteers from Harvard and the eight faith communities are helping the Ecuadoran woman with food and taking turns staying with her in the church 24 hours a day.

Amid graduation festivities last month, and with family visiting from California, the threesome found themselves shuttling to East Boston to meet with the woman as she considered going into sanctuary. And they spent time getting to know the young former detainee whose freedom they’d helped secure, sharing pupusas and fruit milk shakes with him and his family.

Pimienta and Chavez are considering trying to continue their work full time by building a nonprofit. They see themselves as allies of the unauthorized immigrants they work with, deploying the connections they made at Harvard and elsewhere — not as saviors, or even advocates.

“The undocumented person is the one who is doing the biggest and bravest thing,” Chavez said. “It’s not us.”


Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lisa.wangsness@globe.com