2018 Parliament Awards | Justin Remer-Thamert, the Justice Award, and the Compelling Role of Faith in a Just Immigration System
Justin Remer-Thamert is the Executive Director of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice. Liaison to faith communities and allied organizations, Justin helps develop leadership within the organization, supports the leaders in carrying out their projects, gives sermons and presentations regularly, and does intakes for direct service families and individuals.
At the 2018 Parliament of the World’s Religions, Justin was recognized with the Parliament of the World's Religions Justice Award which honors an individual or organization whose commitment to interfaith cooperation has demonstrably advanced justice in the world. As you will learn today, Justin’s commitment to immigrant justice issues are truly making a difference in his community and in the world.
Hello Justin, can you tell us a little bit about your background and work?
I was raised connected to faith based-social justice work, specifically around the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. My father was on trial for supporting two Salvadoran mothers. In part due to this awareness and connection, I began participating in projects in Mexico and Central America in middle school and high school, eventually graduating college with a degree in Political Science, concentration in Latin American Studies, and a healthy smattering of theatre and religion classes under my belt.
After college, I’ve worked with detained asylum seekers and survivors of torture through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, with young indigenous women and LGBTQ people through a Fulbright in Mexico focused on art used in the process of social change, as well as with migrant youth and adults through Border Servant Corps at a Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas.
Since 2013, I’ve acted as the director of the NM Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice which strives to stand with our migrant neighbors through advocacy, accompaniment, education, and direct service efforts. Since 2017, we have formed a rapid response network and court companion program to respond to the violence of Immigration activity in our community as well as supported two New Mexico-based congregations offering Sanctuary to migrants facing the threat of deportation: one a grandmother from Honduras and the other an Iraqi refugee father—both of whom have lived in the US for decades. Most recently, the Faith Coalition became one of the main leaders in the Trans Liberation Coalition which provides short-term post-release support for transgender asylum seeking women released from the Cibola Correctional Facility, the only immigration detention center in the US that houses trans women.
That’s an amazing body of work, especially from someone so young. How does the Justice Award reflect the mission of your work?
I believe the Justice Award reflects my personal mission of bridge building and community transformation through deep relationship at a local level. To me, this means reflecting the ‘ministry of presence’ I learned from my mother—whether that’s bearing witness as a father is ripped from his 3-year-old daughter inside the courthouse by ICE agents breaking courthouse policy or whether that’s bringing numerous faith communities together to support individual families in Sanctuary—through Ramadan, through the death of a son, through the arduous and painful immigration process.
This is also reflected in the difficult and necessary work of confronting racism, xenophobia, transphobia and countless other forms of discrimination that goes against my understanding of our faith traditions and how we build community. This work is most often through developing methods of accountability to address micro-aggressions and other problematic dynamics that play out at a micro level in our personal relationships and organizations.
These building blocks pave the path for wider community transformation.
You attended the Parliament in 2015 in Salt Lake City and again in 2018 in Toronto, what were your most memorable experiences?
I was most grateful for the efforts to center indigenous traditions from around the world as the key to our global survival and spiritual recovery (on the main stage and through the indigenous track). While I do see the need for those of us with white privilege to go further at the Parliament and in our local interfaith movements to really listen and follow QTBIPOC leaders, I saw strides made since the 2015 Parliament.
Some of the most memorable experiences from the Parliament for me included the prevalence of music and ceremony, and the spaces that found such heartfelt, challenging and honest dialogue, most notably for me the sessions: Rising Hate Violence in a “Post-Racial” Society led by a panel of incredible leaders, Sacred Bundles Protect the Earth led by Hereditary Chief Phil Lane and The “Indians” of Old Europe led by Andras Corban Arthen. I also have to add a shout out to Pujya Sadhvi Shri Shilapili Maharaj SadhviJi for saying it’s time for us to “get off our posteriors and change the world for the better!”
What does winning the Justice Award mean to you?
Through this award, I see the Parliament of the World’s Religions lifting up what it means to do justice in today’s world.
At a time when the United States is separating families, locking migrant children up under bridges, growing its for-profit detention system, and compromising access to justice by detaining migrants in the courts, it is the duty of our faith traditions to stand for community building, tearing down borders of separation, and offering hospitality to our neighbors, following the lead of other countries receiving refugees and migrants by the tens of thousands or even millions.
Because I often engage with the “right” (often white) circles to be recognized for faith-based justice work (often seen by white folk as benevolent work and an extension of my power to those without a voice, rather than a fight for our collective liberation), I also see the receipt of the Justice Award as an opportunity to shift the conversation we have from the honoring of one dynamic leader to seeing the “leader-full” efforts for change that the Black Lives Matter movement uplifts.
In the brief words of acceptance I had prepared, I wanted to note how the Justice Award belongs not just to me but to many in my community who inspire, strengthen, challenge and guide me: to Ana, born to US citizen parents who deferred her dream to care for her siblings after their dad was deported; to Leila who left a daughter in Uganda to seek asylum and, despite 18 months in detention, still lives with her case and thus life in limbo; to Kadhim, an Iraqi refugee father and Emma, a Honduran grandmother who have lived in Sanctuary for over a year fighting unjust deportation orders despite having each established lives and families in the US; for Joselin, an indigenous trans woman who recently won asylum and is building a life in my community; for Alejandra who is in critical condition fighting for release, for medical care not being received, and to avoid deportation to a country where she’ll be killed as a trans woman #FreeAlejandra. I am moved by the lives of those who have died in the desert or in immigration custody due to abusive conditions and lack of medical care including: Roxsana, a trans woman who died in my home town, and Jakelin and Felipe, two Guatemalan children who died in detention this last year.
It is imperative we speak out and change our immigration system. Our faith compels us.
How has winning the award affected your work and life post-Parliament?
The Award sitting in a place where I see it every day, reminds me of my commitment to this work, even on difficult days. This notable recognition has opened a few doors for new connections or created a sense of legitimacy of our work in the NM Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice.
That said, because I feel quite uncomfortable receiving public recognition, the PoWR award has forced me to determine how to tell the story of the community at play and shift this recognition from being centered on me as an individual to me in the context of a community striving for a better world.
You are doing some amazing work for your country and community, can you tell us about future projects and how interfaith colleagues can get involved.
We are in dire need of standing in support of migrants at the border, in detention, in our communities, and those speaking up for justice.
Sign this petition and call the ICE officers and elected officials noted at the link: https://www.change.org/p/immigration-and-customs-enforcement-ice-freealejandra to #FreeAlejandra who’s stay of deportation just ended, despite the continued appeal of her asylum case. Receiving inadequate medical care in detention and needing community support, she should be released to a team of support through the Faith Coalition.
Support the Faith Coalition by visiting our website: nmfaithcoalition.org and donating to our efforts or specifically to the Trans Liberation Coalition (a joint venture between the Faith Coalition, [email protected] and other community partners for post release support for asylum seekers and asylees) by noting TLC on the memo line of your donation.
To support the bond fund of the #Borderland16 who received arrest warrants in a campaign by Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies to slander and pacify community members through fear after a peaceful occupation in the Border Patrol Museum highlighted the Border Patrol’s role in the death of migrants, visit:bit.ly/borderland16.
Follow the lead of immigrant-based groups in your community for how to support with rapid response, court accompaniment or other necessary efforts. Or find ways to support the groups working with the hundreds of migrants released daily in El Paso, TX, Las Cruces and Albuquerque, NM or other cities along the border by contacting Annunciation House in El Paso, Border Servant Corps in Las Cruces, NMFCIJ, Catholic Charities or Albuquerque Interfaith in Albuquerque.
A special thank you to Justin Remer-Thamert for sharing his great work with the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Interested in learning more about his work? Visit the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice