How churches are protecting immigrants from deportation

In the wake of recent federal immigration raids, dozens of churches across the country are now reviving the sanctuary movement to help shelter immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.

Danny Moloshok/Reuters
Jose (front, 2nd L), from Mexico, and Juan (front, 4th L), from Guatemala, both illegal immigrants facing deportation, sit with their families inside the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church during the public launch of The New Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles, California, May 9, 2007.

"What would happen if a mother from Guatemala showed up at your church door with a little kid in her arms and said, 'Can you help me?'"

Dozens of Americans churches are now mulling this question, posed by Rev. John Fife, a former pastor at Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, Ariz., in the wake of a recent surge in federal immigration raids. Taking matters into their own hands, an increasing number of nuns, pastors, preachers, and their congregations are participating in the sanctuary movement by illegally offering shelter to undocumented immigrants.

The modern sanctuary movement began in the 1980s, when thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing the violence of civil wars were offered refuge by religious congregations. Politically, the movement co-founded by Rev. Fife was a response to the stringent federal immigration policies that made asylum difficult for Central Americans to obtain. It was rekindled in 2007, but dissipated along with hopes of comprehensive immigration reform passing in Congress.

Now, as escalating gang violence rages across Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, there has been an exodus of refugees seeking safety in the US. But what tipped off the most recent revival of the movement are the deportation raids under the Obama administration. In a nationwide campaign, the Department of Homeland Security has begun targeting the hundreds of families that crossed the border illegally this year.

"It was basta – enough," Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor and community organizer, told the Los Angeles Times.

As reported by the Times’s Cindy Carcamo, at least three churches in the Los Angeles area have promised in recent weeks to help immigrants with deportation orders. According to Noel Andersen, grassroots coordinator for the Church World Service group for refugees, there are now at least 50 churches in the country that have vowed to provide shelter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement – up from 35 last year.

"I've gotten at least a dozen requests just in the last three days," the organizer told Ms. Carcamo. Thirty years ago, those confronting ICE were mostly adults. Now, it’s mothers and children who are escaping gang violence. Last month alone, more than 100 people from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras who entered the country illegally were swept up by ICE.

For many religious leaders in the Southern California region, it’s a personal issue. Rev. Fred Morris of North Hills United Methodist Church, for instance, made it out of detention and torture from Brazil's military dictatorship in the 70s.

"We are willing to fight this tooth and nail," Rev. Morris, who is 82, said. "If ICE wants to come get them, they're going to have to break down the church door."

But even within sanctuary, it’s not easy for the undocumented immigrants. It often takes months to appeal for and win legal relief from deportation.

“‘Sanctuary’ might sound like a meditation retreat or an artists’ residency – and it can be that at times,” writes The Nation’s Puck Lo in a comprehensive look at the sanctuary movement as of last May. “But sanctuary can also be like living under house arrest for weeks, even months, confined to the grounds of a church. There’s no leaving to take a stroll or swing by the grocery store.”

Still, many immigrants have no other option. And more and more religious leaders, though wary of breaking the federal law, are eager to help, citing Bible passages such as Leviticus 19:34 – "The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt."

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