A Presbyterian church in Arizona announced yesterday that it is offering “sanctuary” to an undocumented immigrant scheduled for deportation, the third in a growing number of religious communities who are defending the rights of immigrants by defying federal law and housing people on their property.
Luis Lopez-Acabal, an undocumented immigrant, has been a model husband, father, and citizen in Mesa, Arizona for several years. But today, because of an alleged minor traffic incident in 2007, he is under threat of immediate deportation — and being torn from his family — at the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Lopez-Acabal’s situation is dire, but when Rev. Eric Ledermann, pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona, heard about his predicament, he consulted with his church’s session about the possibility of offering the undocumented man sanctuary, or allowing him to live in their church and avoid deportation until ICE reevaluates his case. Ledermann initially thought his congregation would reject the request, but leaders were deeply moved by the idea, and immediately agreed to take action.
“I was ready to close down the conversation, but … three people seconded the motion,” he said. “This was about the [biblical call] to ‘welcome to stranger,’ to ‘do unto others as you do to me.’”
By granting Lopez-Acabal sanctuary, Ledermann and his church have agreed to allow him to stay in a private room on their campus. Lopez-Acabal’s family will be able to visit while he awaits a decision by ICE, and a church member will be with him at all times. Church leaders will also advocate on his behalf, sending letters and making phone calls to ICE representatives, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and President Obama’s Administration urging them to allow Lopez-Acabal to stay in the country. Ledermann said that they hope that ICE will respond quickly to Lopez-Acabal’s case, but they are ready for a lengthy battle.
“We’re hoping this won’t last long, but we are prepared for it to last,” Ledermann said.
The activism of Ledermann and his church is intended to hold ICE accountable to a three-year-old policy of not deporting undocumented immigrants they deem to be a “low priority,” such as people with strong family connections or a clear criminal record. Ledermann and others argue that Lopez-Acabal should qualify for this kind of “prosecutorial discretion”: According to a statement released before Thursday’s press conference announcing the effort, Lopez-Acabal originally came to the United States seven years ago at the age of 16, when he fled northward to escape gang violence in his home country of Guatemala. He eventually fell in love and married Mayra Canales, a legal permanent resident, and has since become the sole breadwinner for her and her two children — one of which has autism.
“[Lopez-Acabal] has committed no crimes,” Ledermann said. “He has been a good resident, and a part of our community … He is a refugee. We are offering refuge to him.”
The effectiveness of University Presbyterian’s protest effort hinges on ICE’s established policy of not raiding “schools, hospitals, and churches.” The rule effectively allows people like Lopez-Acabal to stay in worship spaces indefinitely, provided they don’t leave church property. The tactic was pioneered during the first “Sanctuary Movement” of the 1980s, when hundreds of churches across the country harbored refugees fleeing violence and war in Central America. Use of the method died out over the years, but appears to have had a resurgence in 2014, as University Presbyterian Church is the third church in as many months to declare sanctuary for an undocumented immigrant. Southside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, Arizona has offered sanctuary to undocumented immigrants twice since May, the first of whom — Daniel Neyoy Ruiz — was granted a one-year stay of his deportation order after living at the church for about a month. Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona also offered sanctuary for an immigrant family in late June, but ICE rescinded its threat of deportation with 24 hours. A third immigrant, Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto, is currently living in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian while ICE reviews her case.
But while faith leaders such as Ledermann and others are working to better the lives of individual immigrants, a broader coalition of faith voices is also pushing the Obama administration to issue an executive order that would grant legal protection for millions of people like Lopez-Acabal. Religious groups have been actively involved in efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform over the past year, and while some Democrats are pushing for the President to delay his possible executive order until after the November elections, earlier this week a group of 40 prominent faith leaders sent a one-sentence letter encouraging President Obama to issue the order — but only if it doesn’t harm efforts to assist the massive number of unaccompanied children who have crossed the border this year.
Ultimately, Ledermann and others are grateful for the chance to put their faith into action by helping people like Lopez-Acabal, but they also look forward to a future where their activism won’t be necessary.
“We don’t think this is a matter of elections,” Ledermann said. “We think this is about real people, with real blood, flowing through real veins, and we need to act because these are our neighbors. Luis was a stranger, but he has also our neighbor, and Christ calls on us to welcome our neighbor.”
“Politicians say that we love family values in this country, but we have an immigration system that is breaking families apart,” he said.