Arizona Church Defies Immigration Officials, Shelters Undocumented Immigrant

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A Presbyterian church in Tuscon, Arizona is taking a bold stand in support of undocumented immigrants, announcing on Monday that, for the second time in three months, it will grant “sanctuary” to an undocumented immigrant currently facing deportation by federal officials.

Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto, an undocumented immigrant who is said to have a husband, two children (ages 9 and 11), a house, and no criminal history, is scheduled to be deported back to Mexico this Friday at the hands of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. But Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, said Monday that she and her congregation disagree with ICE’s position, and plan to pressure immigration agents into delaying or rescinding the deportation order by housing Loreto in their church.

“We seek to follow Christ who commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves and also to offer radical hospitality to those in need,” Harrington told ThinkProgress. “The scriptures tell us to care for the widow and the orphan, and our immigration system creates widows and orphans every day … So we are standing by undocumented families and not allowing them to be torn apart.”

This is the second time since May that the tiny Tuscon congregation has taken in an undocumented immigrant in defiance of federal law. Earlier this year, the church made headlines for granting sanctuary to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, an immigrant father who came from Mexico 14 years ago. He was detained and scheduled to be sent back to Mexico after being stopped by police for a smoky exhaust pipe, but, after spending a month under the care of Southside Presbyterian, ICE changed its position and granted Ruiz a one-year stay of his deportation order.

The scriptures tell us to care for the widow and the orphan, and our immigration system creates widows and orphans every day.

By offering sanctuary to Loreto and Ruiz, Rev. Harrington and Southside Presbyterian are holding ICE accountable to a 2011 memo issued by John Morton, a former director of the agency. The memo urged ICE staff to use “prosecutorial discretion” when deciding which cases to pursue, asking agents to place a lower priority on the deportation of immigrants who exhibit certain traits, such as long-standing community ties, lack of a criminal record, and children under their care. In other words, upstanding, tax-paying people like Ruiz and Loreto.


“[Loreto] has the most adorable children,” Harrington said. “I met them for the first time last night. They love baseball. As a pastor, my faith motivates me, but the fact that I’m mom has put a fire in my belly that wasn’t there before.”

For Loreto, who came to Tucson in 1999, members of Southside Presbyterian plan on replicating the same comprehensive campaign they mustered in support of Ruiz earlier this year. They intend to keep a 24-hour presence with her at the church, advocate on her behalf to media outlets and political leaders such as Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and send pastors to accompany her when she meets with ICE officials. The church will also continue to work closely with a group of local immigration law experts throughout the process, leaning on them for legal guidance. The group of lawyers meets regularly at the church, and advises the congregation on cases where immigrants might be assisted by sanctuary.

The effort in Tuscon addresses current immigration issues, but housing immigrants at Southside Presbyterian also has special historical significance. When a series of violent conflicts tore through Central America during the 1980s, thousands fled northward to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of asylum. But the U.S. federal government, which provided training and aid to several Central American regimes at the time, refused to grant most of these immigrants refugee status — many in the Ronald Reagan administration argued they were actually “economic migrants.” But a handful churches along the border — led by Southside Presbyterian, then pastored by Rev. John Fife — decided to take the immigrants in anyway, housing them in their rectories and on their pews and daring the government to raid their sanctuaries. Their efforts inspired other worship communities to follow suit, and an underground railroad-style network of hundreds of churches slowly emerged across the country to harbor immigrants. The interfaith campaign was eventually dubbed “The Sanctuary Movement,” and helped put pressure on President Reagan and Congress to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

The historical Sanctuary Movement was aided by the federal government’s longstanding unofficial policy of not raiding houses of worship — partly out of respect for sacred space, partly to avoid the damaging news story that would likely follow their breaking into a church. This policy, it would seem, still holds 30 years later: Harrington said the local Sheriff has already assured her that he would not send his agents into her church to apprehend someone over their immigration status.

“The beautiful thing about offering sanctuary is that we can actually do something,” Harrington said. “We have the ability to stop a family from being torn apart.”

We have the ability to stop a family from being torn apart.

Like the its historical predecessor, this new iteration of the Sanctuary Movement looks to be catching on. Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix, Arizona also offered up sanctuary for an immigrant family in late June, only to have the immigrant’s case closed by ICE officials with 24 hours of their announcement. Harrington says other churches in Tuscon have also expressed interest in assisting with Loreto’s case, and at least two other local worship communities plan on filing joint statements of solidarity with Southside’s actions.

“They have that ‘fire in their belly’ as well,” Harrington said. “They’re excited about the opportunity.”

The tactic has captured the attention of many pro-immigrant activists, and Harrington said she expected the faith community to muster similar efforts to assist with the ongoing humanitarian situation involving thousands of unaccompanied children and families who have fled from Central American and crossed the U.S.-Mexico this year. As the influx of refugees increases, Harrington said she hoped churches would “begin discerning” how to respond to an immigrant child or family who comes to their community looking for asylum.


But when asked how long her church planned on housing immigrants, Harrington said that while her congregation was dedicated to helping those in need, she was “hoping that we will not have to keep at this.” She cited the very real possibility of President Barack Obama issuing an executive order that could offer legal protection for millions of immigrants like Loreto — people who currently fall in the “prosecutorial discretion” category. The proposal has come under fire from many Republicans, but Harrington expressed optimism that the President would mirror the courage of faith communities like hers and stand up for immigrant families.

“I’m hoping he won’t be scared to do that,” she said. “I’m hoping that he realizes that families are more important than politics.”