A group of men were reportedly arrested by immigration agents as they left a church-run hypothermia shelter last Wednesday, hinting that federal officials may be targeting houses of worship as they continue a recent wave of deportation raids.
According to NBC Washington, the incident took place in Alexandria, Virginia outside a hypothermia shelter owned by Rising Hope Mission Church, a United Methodist congregation. A group of men exited the shelter around 6:45 a.m. last Wednesday and stopped in a 7-Eleven next door, a ritual they say they do every morning.
But as soon as they crossed the street, the men say they were suddenly surrounded by a police vehicles and a team of shouting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who forced them to stand against a nearby wall. Officials then allegedly began questioning the men and scanning their fingers to determine if any had criminal backgrounds. Witnesses told NBC Washington that six men were ultimately arrested and hauled away in two vans.
“It happened really fast, it was like a kidnapping.”
“Like it was a setup or something,” Thermon Brewster, who was at the scene but was not arrested, told Connection Newspapers.
Another witness added: “It happened really fast, it was like a kidnapping.”
The incident hedges close to violating an internal ICE policy that discourages agents from raiding churches, schools, or hospitals. ThinkProgress reached out to the Department of Homeland Security for clarification about whether the agency is still following that policy, but has not heard back.
“They were clearly targeting the church because they knew that they stayed here in the hypothermia shelter,” Rev. Keary Kincannon, a pastor at Rising Hope Mission Church, told NBC Washington. “So they were waiting for them to cross the street and then jump on them.”
The detention of more than 680 people in recent deportation raids has put a spotlight on ICE’s ethically questionable tactics—such as arresting a domestic abuse victim seeking a protective order. But the agency has been known to arrest people outside churches in the past: In February 2016, ICE agents reportedly used fake text messages to lure an undocumented immigrant out of a church so they could apprehend him.
ICE has yet to raid a physical church, however, and the incident comes as more than 800 religious communities across the country pledge to participate in the New Sanctuary Movement—or where congregations harbor undocumented immigrants scheduled for deportation in their buildings in hopes that ICE will drop their case. An undocumented mother of four took sanctuary in a Unitarian Universalist church in Denver, Colorado on Wednesday, instead of taking a check-in with ICE.