With ICE deportations increasing 41 percent in 2017, sanctuary churches and synagogues have stepped up to help protect undocumented immigrants from deportation. Since Trump took office, at least 42 immigrants nationwide have taken shelter inside sanctuaries.
The national sanctuary movement — completely different and distinct from “sanctuary cities” — is comprised of over 800 faith communities and its roots stem from the 1980s, when Central American civil war political refugees were provided protection by places of worship. Sanctuary is not without risk for church leaders — in the ‘80s, a handful were arrested for “harboring” undocumented immigrants, though none served jail time. Sanctuary is not a solution; it’s a measure calling attention to the case in question and agitates for a legal resolution.
There is no law stopping ICE from arresting immigrants who take shelter in sanctuary houses of worship. However, ICE and CBP adhere to a policy created in 2011 stating enforcement actions should be avoided at “sensitive locations” defined as schools, hospitals, places of religious worship, funeral and wedding sites, and public demonstrations like marches, rallies, or protests. The policy does not categorically prohibit enforcement operations but prior approval is generally required. Still, ICE has appeared in courthouses and even entered a church.
Following are examples from America’s growing sanctuary movement:
- In Greensboro, N.C., a young, mostly white Umstead Park UCC with a large number of LGBTQ members partnered with five local congregations, including a Jewish synagogue, to protect a father of four children and 22-year resident of the U.S.
- The First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palm Beaches affirmed DACA and declared their church grounds a sanctuary for Dreamers. Colorado has five people living in sanctuary, the most of any state.
- St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas has provided sanctuary for the past two years to a Guatemalan single mother and her 11-year-old son, and is part of two dozen churches in the Austin Sanctuary Network. Denied asylum, she called sanctuary a light in a moment of darkness.
- Churches in Ohio have taken in a number of immigrants seeking sanctuary; the Akron Beacon Journal last October wrote about the burgeoning sanctuary church movement throughout the state.
Church leaders refer to Bible passages that call for ‘welcoming the stranger’ to explain their longtime support for immigrants’ rights. Just today, hundreds of Catholic leaders marched on Senate offices to demand the Dream Act, and forty were arrested in an act of civil disobedience after they refused to leave the Russell Building Rotunda.
Earlier this month, one hundred prominent evangelical leaders organized by the evangelical organization World Relief sent Donald Trump and Congress a letter urging protection for Dreamers; the letter was also printed as a full-page ad in the Washington Post. Supporters included Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who led the prayer at Trump’s inauguration and calls Dreamers “the future of American Christianity.”
Immigration deals with human dignity and family unity. Therefore it’s a Biblical matter and should be of concern to the church. Jesus calls us to love our neighbor. He didn’t say to love our neighbor because they can contribute to the economy or because they have a college degree or because it was not their fault. He simply said to love your neighbor.
Dreamers and sanctuary
As the fight for DACA continues without a legislative solution for Dreamers in sight, some churches have begun conversations about taking in Dreamers should the need arise.
Two weeks ago, the Senate struck down Trump’s hard-line immigration package as well as two more moderate bipartisan plans, leaving Dreamers with dwindling options. Currently, court decisions are currently keeping DACA in place, but Dreamers who are aging into DACA for the first time are not eligible, and courts cannot provide a permanent solution.
If Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans allow DACA to lapse without a legislative solution, church leaders may have to widen the sanctuary concept to include protecting Dreamers as well as their access to education, health care, food, shelter, and other fundamental needs.
For Dreamers, seeking sanctuary would be a difficult last resort in comparison to past achievements of higher wages and spending power, education, careers, cars, and home ownership.
Stressed by a “sense of anxiety” about DACA, two Dreamers, Bibiana Vazquez, 24, and Karina Cruz, 25, recently found comfort by attending an LGBT-positive church at Phoenix’s First Congregational United Church of Christ.
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen,” Cruz said, sitting outside the church after Sunday’s service. “I’m just anxious for everyone because it could change our lives completely — losing our jobs, going back to zero and starting all over again.”