Churches across the country are gearing up to defy the federal government’s deportation efforts, preparing to offer Central American asylum-seekers sanctuary in their churches and protect them from an aggressive new wave of federal raids.
Shortly after New Year’s Day 2016, the Obama administration launched a barrage of highly publicized raids primarily intended to detain and deport Central American immigrants who came to the United States to escape increasingly horrific gang violence in their home countries. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) forcibly apprehended at least 121 people in the first two days of the raids — most of whom were Central American mothers with children — and has promised more raids in the future. So far, four people have already been deported back to countries such as El Salvador, even though the nation is now the murder capital of the world and the U.S. Peace Corps has pulled its people from the region, citing safety concerns.
But a growing number of U.S. churches are working to defend the immigrants, vowing to harbor them in worship halls to protect them from ICE raids. The multi-faith effort is a new wave of what advocates call the New Sanctuary Movement, a network of faith communities formed in 2014 that let undocumented immigrants facing deportation take up residence in their holy spaces — a practice that utilizes the government’s longstanding unofficial policy of not raiding churches, schools, and hospitals.
Several faith leaders trumpeted their willingness to challenge the federal government’s deportation policies at a press event in late December, where a cadre of faith leaders and advocates spoke out against the impending raids and held signs reading “Protection not deportation” in English and Spanish. Among the speakers was Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, Arizona, which has successfully offered taken in two undocumented immigrants since 2014.
“We were pretty appalled that our government would be doing this,” Harrington told ThinkProgress. “People are just so appalled that we would be deporting asylum seekers.”
“There is a huge swath of people who see this issue as a part of their faith,” she added. She then made reference to Jesus Christ’s biblical instruction to take in travelers in need, saying, “There is a call to welcome the stranger and help those who are suffering.”
Although the movement offers sanctuary to any undocumented immigrant whose deportation case meets certain criteria and matches the needs of a congregation, the new call is a direct response to the more than 100,000 Central American adults and children — including the much-discussed unaccompanied minors — who have trekked across the U.S.-Mexico border since 2014. The masses are fleeing unspeakable violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where poverty abounds and roving gangs terrify the populace with violence, rape, and brutal death. Those who make the arduous journey north — mostly women and young girls — often face frightening trials during their travels, dodging vicious Mexican drug cartels that sometimes sell women into sex slavery and struggling to survive while crossing long stretches of unforgiving terrain.
According to Noel Anderson — national grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, which is helping organize the effort — the recent raids have triggered a groundswell of churches who say they are willing to assist immigrants. An online petition demanding the federal government stop the raids garnered more than 3,500 signatures that included 1,000 faith leaders representing around 300 congregations. Another 300 participants logged onto a webinar on Monday to learn more about the New Sanctuary Movement, and Anderson says he’s received a deluge of phone calls from people pitching possible sanctuary recipients.
“We’ve seen a huge influx of congregations wanting to get involved and be a part of it,” Anderson told ThinkProgress. “It’s a significant surge.”
Offering sanctuary is easier said than done, however. There is no single national organization dedicated to helping churches find a suitable sanctuary case, so each city is tasked with building its own network of advocates, lawyers, and faith leaders to design a system for taking in immigrants. Even then, finding a case can be a lengthy process: Immigration lawyers who assist with the movement typically recommend churches take in immigrants who meet certain criteria, and the immigrants themselves are often wary of broadcasting their deportation cases — a move generally seen as a last resort.
“There are a lot more Central Americans that are terrified, scared, and asking for sanctuary,” Anderson said. “But there’s a lot of fear of going public.”
There are also practical concerns. The movement has given sanctuary to 13 undocumented immigrants since 2014, and successfully forced ICE to back down or drop a deportation order in 11 of those cases. But that number pales in comparison to the thousands of Central American immigrants currently facing the potential threat of deportation, and the challenging of providing refuge can be taxing for some congregations: Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto, an undocumented immigrant who was offered sanctuary in Harrington’s church, lived up in the congregation’s building for a full 461 days before ICE finally agreed to a deal to keep her in the country.
“It takes some time to match the right congregation with the right case,” Anderson noted.
Despite these complexities, the new campaign brings the New Sanctuary Movement back to its activist roots. Whereas earlier sanctuary recipients were primarily undocumented immigrants from Mexico, the new effort expands the focus to include the plight of Central Americans seeking asylum — a trend that echoes the original sanctuary movement, when churches offered refuge to Central Americans fleeing a series of deadly wars that rocked the region during the 1980s. The faith-based defiance of federal law eventually helped pressure the Reagan administration to rethink its immigration policy, culminating with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
“We feel as if we’re living through the same nightmare again,” Harrington said, noting that her congregation also offered sanctuary to immigrants in the 1980s. “I hope that the government is thinking, ‘we dealt with the sanctuary movement back then too.’ …The moral arc of the universe didn’t bend towards of the U.S. government.”
“Our hope is that every city will have a network of people who are committed to the work of sanctuary,” she said.