Luis Lopez-Acabal, an undocumented immigrant, prays with clergy after moving into University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona.

Lamp Left Media

Faith Groups Challenge Federal Immigration Authorities By Providing Sanctuary To Immigrants

Starting this week, more than a dozen places of worship in at least a dozen cities nationwide will begin publicly challenging federal immigration laws by providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants with deportation orders. These congregations are part of a “New Sanctuary Movement” — the revival of another sanctuary movement that began in the early 1980s — to pressure President Obama to reevaluate his administration’s deportation policies and for him to act on promised executive action on immigration relief as soon as possible.

“We support sanctuary because as a faith community, we have the obligation to end deportations,” New Sanctuary Movement member Gerardo Flores, who hails from Philadelphia, stated in a press release. “We must honor values of brotherhood in Philadelphia and we act with the strength of our faith.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have an unofficial policy not to raid places of worship, playgrounds, and schools. Organizers of the New Sanctuary Movement — which provides shelter and food to immigrants and is patterned after the original Sanctuary Movement for Central Americans that began in 1980 — hope that officials will keep to that promise. The immigrants who seek out shelter with these places of worship would likely have very public addresses, but religious leaders and immigration advocates plan to maintain a 24-hour presence with the immigrants they harbor.

Some of the participating worship communities are acting alone, but some are part of city-wide networks of churches who are dedicated to helping immigrants. In Philadelphia, for example, all the congregations offering physical sanctuary are members of the New Sanctuary Movement, including Tikkun Olam Chavurah, a Jewish community; the Philadelphia Praise Center, an Indonesian Mennonite church in South Philadelphia. Other cities with participating places of worship, faith-based organizations, and community groups are Denver, Colorado; Evanston, Illinois; Tempe, Arizona; Chicago, Illinois; Portland, Maine; Aurora, Colorado; Tucson, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; Germantown, Pennsylvania; and Berkeley, California. One event organizer said that many other congregations are in the process of “signing on” to the movement.

“The message is strong and clear from the groups that I serve that the immigration system is unjust and it needs to be changed,” Rabbi Linda Holtzman of Tikkun Olam Chavurah told ThinkProgress on Tuesday. “Obama has once again delayed [executive action] and it’s time that we take matters into our own hands… We can’t start the new year in good faith without standing up for what we believe in.”

Holtzman noted that whereas other churches are housing immigrants in their congregations, her community’s Sanctuary effort will operate a bit differently — namely because her chavurah (Jewish fellowship) does not gather in a synagogue. Instead, she and other Jewish congregants use other facilities — including each other’s homes — as worship spaces. Although Tikkun Olam Chavurah doesn’t have a physical building to house immigrants with deportation proceedings, congregants will volunteer to personally house them. She reasoned, “technically we worship in homes and other places of worship and we hope that is honored by ICE. ICE can decide to enter a house of worship if they wanted to, but it would look terrible.”

Holtzman is driven to help house immigrants, especially Central Americans fleeing violence, because five of her grandmother’s siblings were killed by Nazis during World War II. “I would have a really big family right now if it wasn’t for the Holocaust,” she explained, reasoning that her Judaic faith compels her to act. “The verse that touches me the most is probably at the heart of the Jewish journey: ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ It’s all about how you treat others. Your roots were as slaves and your roots were when you were not part of the community. Remember that.”

Several religious leaders have said their activism is meant to test the Obama administration’s commitment to several ICE memos directing agents to prioritize the deportation of criminal immigrants over non-criminal immigrants, most of whom have long-standing ties to the country.

In addition to individual worship communities, the New Sanctuary Movement also appears to be attracting institutional support from denominational heads. Teresa Waggener, the Assistant Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), who spoke on behalf of Rev. Gradye Parsons — one of the highest elected officials in the PCUSA — told ThinkProgress that “the churches involved feel that they are doing no harm, [by] doing what is right… the churches involved in the movement are in no way attempting to conceal” immigrants who are seeking sanctuary. She said that while there could be repercussions with federal immigration officials for providing sanctuary, her church answers “to a higher calling too and in the Presbyterian church, we say that God alone is the Lord of our conscience. That’s the denomination’s stance as well.”

Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto began taking sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona in August 2014.

Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto began taking sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona in August 2014.

CREDIT: Lamp Left Media

With this new surge of participating churches, the New Sanctuary Movement is beginning to more closely resemble its historical predecessor. When violent conflicts ravaged Central America in the 1980s, churches along the U.S.-Mexico border opened their doors to the thousands of refugees who fled to the north in search of asylum. The U.S. federal government refused to grant most of these immigrants refugee status, but soon an expansive network of hundreds of churches sprung up across the country to harbor immigrants. The campaign — which, like the current iteration, was interfaith — helped put pressure on President Reagan and Congress to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Fast forward to today, when some estimate that there are at least 300 congregations that are willing to give sanctuary to immigrants, once again in defiance of federal law. On Tuesday, a Lutheran church in Portland, Oregon became the latest to offer sanctuary to Francisco Aguirre, an undocumented immigrant who has final removal orders stemming from a drug trafficking conviction and a previous deportation. Aguirre has lived in the country for 19 years and has two U.S. citizen children. A Presbyterian church in Tucson has provided shelter for two other immigrants — one of whom, Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto, has taken up sanctuary for nearly 50 days. Earlier this month, another Presbyterian church in Arizona began providing shelter to Luis Lopez-Acabal, an undocumented immigrant, who was arrested after an alleged minor traffic incident.

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