A family mulls risking it all in the name of justice by sheltering the undocumented in their home

“My intention is to be a part of the resistance.”

Claire fixes the bed sheets in a room that may soon house undocumented immigrants. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ Diana Ofosu
Claire fixes the bed sheets in a room that may soon house undocumented immigrants. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ Diana Ofosu

The walls and ceiling of the basement laundry room are still an unfinished mess of exposed beams, nails, and electrical cords. Across the way, narrow hallways extend into two converted guestrooms, each bathed in warm afternoon light from windows that look out on the backyard. Books and fashionable clothing from decades past lay haphazardly stacked in odd corners, and down the hall there’s a sparsely furnished bathroom and a toy-filled family room.

It was a warm Sunday afternoon in May when Claire — a cheerful woman who requested ThinkProgress not use her real name for fear of identification by federal officials — escorted two reporters through a whirlwind tour of the basement in her Richmond, Virginia area home.

With these rooms, she said, she hopes to join the millions of Americans pushing back against the rhetoric of President Donald Trump’s administration.

“My intention is to be a part of the resistance,” she said, smiling.

While most activists voice their discontent with Trump using chants and raised fists at marches and rallies, Claire’s clutter of wood, work tools, and sawdust could be one of the boldest forms of protest yet: She’s building a space to house undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation.

More specifically, Claire is considering making her home part of the “home sanctuary” movement, an offshoot of what’s known as the New Sanctuary Movement, a longstanding religious initiative in which churches and other houses of worship allow undocumented immigrants to live in their buildings to shield them from authorities. Congregational efforts are risky, but “home sanctuary” — modeled after the underground railroad that aided runaway slaves in the 1800s — is far more dangerous for participants, as their actions make them individually liable for defying federal law.

Claire’s basement is a work in progress in anticipation of taking part of the home sanctuary movement. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ Diana Ofosu
Claire’s basement is a work in progress in anticipation of taking part of the home sanctuary movement. CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ Diana Ofosu

Claire hasn’t committed to house anyone just yet. But she’s seriously thinking through her options, and considering the type of family units that her basement could shelter.

“I would think easily we could do four adults, who are married or same-sex and didn’t mind sharing a bed,” Claire said as she scanned the space. “We’ve got a double and a queen.”

Those offering home sanctuary often keep their activities secret, and rarely speak to press. But Claire and her husband allowed ThinkProgress to have a glimpse into the physical, financial, and often spiritual preparation required of those wrestling with whether to take the unusual — and gutsy — step of sheltering those fleeing from authorities.

Claire is nothing if not political, and it doesn’t take long for her to bring up current affairs. Reclining on a small couch in the family room, one of the few fully furnished areas in her basement, she said her interest in offering home sanctuary originated with the rise of Donald Trump.

“During his entire campaign and during his presidency he’s been saying Mexicans are rapists, drug-dealers, and murderers,” she said, shaking her head. “And that’s obviously not necessarily the case for the 11.3 million [immigrant] population.”

“We know better than Donald Trump’s lies,” she added later, her voice dropping to a whisper.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/Esther Yu Hsi Lee
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/Esther Yu Hsi Lee

Even more jarring, she said, is the sharp escalation of deportation efforts under Trump’s presidency. Since taking office, Trump has signed a number of executive orders designed to expand the kinds of criminal offenses punishable by deportation; increased funding to hire 10,000 additional immigration officers; signed off on laxer requirements on new jail contracts to incentivize more localities to detain immigrants; and threatened to pull federal funding from jurisdictions refusing to deputize local police departments as federal immigration enforcers. Trump has also surrounded himself with anti-immigrant ideologues who stand to play a major role in shaping federal immigration policies for years to come.

The president’s recent orders, ostensibly crafted to combat unauthorized border crossings and allay national security concerns, resulted in the arrest of 41,318 people — or 400 people per day — in the first 100 days of his presidency, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

“[I come] from a faith tradition that emphasized the importance of treating the neighbor as you want to be treated, of giving sanctuary to those who need it…of welcoming strangers and maybe even entertaining angels.”

In response, immigrant advocacy groups across the country are being joined by churches and individual people of faith who want to prevent more immigrants from becoming one of those statistics. Their goal is to provide hideouts for immigrants who may have final deportation orders requiring them to leave the country immediately. They prioritize parents of young U.S. citizen children, people with longstanding ties to the community, and immigrants who face compelling reasons for not being able to return to their home countries.

Claire, who says she and her husband both come from families with strong traditions in Christian ministry, believes her faith compels her to join this effort.

“[I come] from a faith tradition that emphasized the importance of treating the neighbor as you want to be treated, of giving sanctuary to those who need it, for whatever reason, of welcoming strangers and maybe even entertaining angels,” she said.

Neither Claire nor her husband are strangers to the work of aiding immigrants. She said they both participated in the original Sanctuary Movement during the 1980s, when U.S. clergy smuggled Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries across the border and protected them within church walls. According to Claire, her home was once used as a “transition on the road” during this time, a place for refugees to stay for one night before they made their way to other houses.

But now, Claire is considering embarking on a mission that’s much riskier than sheltering immigrants in the sanctuary of a church.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/Jack Jenkins
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/Jack Jenkins

The ICE agency adheres to an Obama-era memo of not arresting and detaining immigrants at so-called sensitive locations like churches, schools, courthouses, and hospitals to avoid disrupting the daily activities of those areas. Although there is some recent evidence of immigration agents violating that policy — and each time, those arrests radiate fear into the community far beyond the intended target — the ICE agency still enforces the memo with some exceptions. In a “sensitive locations FAQs” published after Trump took office, the ICE agency clarified that agents may enter a sensitive location with prior approval with a supervisor or in exigent cases related to national security, terrorism, or public safety.

“My fervent hope is that those laws will change before too long — [and] maybe he’ll get impeached!”

No such memo exists for providing shelter space within private homes, although ICE agents would need to obtain warrants before they can step foot inside. People who choose to provide at-home shelters risk committing a federal crime that’s punishable by imprisonment.

Claire is aware of some of these risks. Several weeks ago, she attended an interfaith meeting at a nearby place of worship for people interested in offering sanctuary. There, a lawyer explained in grave detail the legal ramifications of harboring immigrants with final deportation orders.

There’s also a risk of potentially becoming a target for violence. Trump’s broad generalization of immigrants and some people of color as criminals has emboldened his supporters to harm those people and others associated with them. As ThinkProgress previously documented, hate incidents have dramatically increased during Trump’s ascension to his presidency.

Claire’s basement is a work in progress in anticipation of taking part of the home sanctuary movement. CREDIT:Jack Jenkins/ Diana Ofosu
Claire’s basement is a work in progress in anticipation of taking part of the home sanctuary movement. CREDIT:Jack Jenkins/ Diana Ofosu

Though Claire seemed visibly troubled by the risks, she steadied herself by invoking a sense of compassion.

“I have a strong conviction that people who are seeking sanctuary or people who have come to the States or who are trying to come to any other country — to leave their homeland, their support systems, their everything — and uproot their families… they have compelling reasons that I should respect,” she said, leaning in. “That they wouldn’t do it on a whim and a lark.”

But there are limits to her hospitality. Claire noted that she can’t offer sanctuary immediately due to construction. And even once her basement is complete, she says she won’t take in anyone who has committed a serious crime or anyone with a history of drug use. She also wants to get to know the potential house guests before leaving them alone in her home.

Running through a litany of possible scenarios, she wondered aloud how she would explain the presence of Latino families in her “lily-white and quite well-to-do” neighborhood. Can she trust the neighbors?

“I happen to know that the neighbors on both sides tend to be very much on the progressive side,” she said hopefully. “But…yeah.”

The questions don’t stop there. What would her adult children say if they come visit and see strangers in her home? Who will get the groceries for her houseguests when she’s away, when she and her husband travel? Will she have to tell members of her church?

“My understanding…was we’re not going to have a list, we’re not going to have anything, so that nobody can be pressured into giving information.”

Claire and her husband will likely have to work out the answers to these and other questions on their own. Home sanctuary participants are usually identified and organized through faith-based immigration advocacy coalitions, but they rarely know each other, and almost never communicate. Instead of direct dialogue between households or a centralized database of participants, amorphous groups in various states and towns appear to do most of the coordinating. Their isolation, Claire said, doubles as a precautionary measure: If participants are arrested and questioned, they won’t be able to name the whereabouts of others in the network.

“My understanding…was we’re not going to have a list, we’re not going to have anything, so that nobody can be pressured into giving information,” she said.

Claire and her husband will also have to decide how far they’re willing to go to protect those they shelter. Claire isn’t sure, for example, whether she could defy a federal agent at her doorstep asking for entry to arrest and detain an immigrant inside.

“This is one of the ones I think I have to check on,” Claire said, making a mental note to pose that question to the lawyer she met at the local training. “I think… as long as it’s an option for me to not answer the door, and that’s sufficient…” Her voice trailed off and she paused.

“I think probably the biggest fear is getting into it and finding I don’t have what it takes,” she said.

Claire’s faith is her guiding star. Sitting in a home filled with tiny references to her Christianity — religious images hanging on the walls, Bibles and hymnals tucked into odd corners — she explained holy scripture obliges her to pursue a form of justice defined not by humanity, but by God.

“I know that my faith side, my historical perspective side, says, ‘The political law at the moment is not necessarily definitive for me,’” Claire said. “There are other laws that are more important — there is humanity that is more important.”

Claire pointed to families who housed Jews during the Holocaust as inspiration.

“The verses I particularly hang on to where Jesus says ‘I have sheep not of this flock. Sheep of other folds,’” she added. “And I just believe that whatever intelligence, God-ness out there would picture things differently in different cultures… And if I’m family, then that’s how we treat people. And ‘family is welcome in my home’ I guess is a part of that.”

Claire, a U.S. citizen, will never face deportation. But she could be arrested.

CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ iStock
CREDIT: Diana Ofosu/ iStock

She could face imprisonment under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which punishes individuals for concealing, harboring, or shielding “such alien in any place, including any building or any means of transportation.” There’s precedent for federal action against activists. In 1984, the Department of Justice pursued criminal convictions against two activists in Texas, resulting in one conviction and one acquittal. The following year, the DOJ indicted 16 people, including three nuns, two priests, and a minister, on 71 counts of criminal charges to smuggle refugees into the country.

Claire pointed out she could be detained by authorities despite not being their main target. There have been a number of “collateral arrests” in which ICE agents detain people on the basis of immigration violations simply because they are in the same room as the main suspect of their inquiry. That was the case when Daniel Ramirez, a DREAMer who came to the country as a child, was swept up in an immigration raid when ICE agents came to arrest his father. Ramirez, who was granted deportation protection, was detained for 46 days before he was released amidst public outcry.

It’s a nightmare hypothetical scenario. But Claire can take some solace knowing she lives in an area of the country that’s more sympathetic to immigrants.

Claire, a U.S. citizen, will never face deportation. But she could be arrested.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney recently signed a directive reaffirming a commitment to protect and promote the safety of all residents, regardless of their immigration status. Although the city has not been designated as a so-called “sanctuary city” — places where local authorities can choose to defy requests by federal immigration officials to hold suspected undocumented immigrants in local jails for potential deportation proceedings — officers also don’t ask the people they arrest for their immigration status, a spokesperson for the Richmond Police Department said. The spokesperson added that they only turn over immigrants in custodial arrest to the Richmond Sheriff’s department where they are processed — meaning they’ll be fingerprinted and booked. At the Sheriff’s office, the Richmond jail will only hold people no longer than their prison sentences, “unless ICE has produced a criminal warrant,” Tony Pham, the general counsel for the Richmond Sheriff’s Office, told Richmond’s alternative weekly newspaper Style Weekly in February.

For now, Claire still doesn’t know whether she’ll end up housing someone. That decision will likely be made if and when she is ever formally asked to do so. But in the meantime, she said, she will continue attending meetings for those curious about sanctuary to learn how to be a better Christian ally for immigrants — and a better American.

“I have, for a long time, had a sense of being more Christian at my center than being American, or nationalist,” Claire said, adding that she sees all of those “touched by the same spirit” as part of her “family.”

“Nations are arbitrary,” she added. “And family is welcome in my home.”

But first, she said, she needs to finish waterproofing the basement.