Undocumented Immigrants Are Finding Sanctuary In Churches And Synagogues

The renewed "sanctuary movement" is pushing back against strict immigration laws.

All across the country, faith leaders are pushing back against United States immigration policy in favor of a higher law — that of their god. 

The idea that man-made laws aren't necessarily moral is the foundation of what's known as the sanctuary movement, a movement by people of faith to give shelter and sanctuary to immigrants at risk of deportation. And in an era where some draconian immigration laws will be enforced more regularly, the sanctuary movement is once again gaining steam across the country.

"As a faith community, we are called to a higher law, to a higher power," Rev. Noel Andersen, National Grassroots Coordinator of the Church World Service (CWS), told A Plus on the phone. "Part of that is looking at what is a moral law, what is a just law, and what is an unjust law."

Andersen is quick to note that the United States has a long history of unjust laws: segregation, prohibiting women and African-Americans from voting, and the Trail of Tears were all at one time legal under American law. Critics have compared current immigration laws to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which encouraged people in northern states to report free slaves to authorities so they could be sent back to their owners in the South.

"What we know now as students of history is that they [the laws] were immoral," Andersen said. "We believe that the types of policies that the Trump administration is setting are immoral. And the laws that target undocumented people are unjust."

In response, Andersen and the CWS — which works as a refugee settlement organization, does community development abroad, and advocates for immigration policy changes in court — is helping to provide sanctuary in churches for undocumented immigrants across the United States. The group works with more than 400 congregations across the country.

The CWS and houses of faith are in a unique position to act.

A 2011 memorandum issued by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declared schools, hospitals, and religious institutions "sensitive locations." This means that ICE officers are instructed not to detain or arrest undocumented immigrants in these locations unless it was absolutely necessary, such as in cases where they're pursuing a convicted violent criminal.



Gabriela Flora
Gabriela Flora

Still, the sanctuary movement, which was plenty active during Obama's administration, long predates 2011. Some Americans remember and consider the beginning of the sanctuary movement the 1980s, when religious institutions provided safe havens for Central Americans fleeing violent conflict in their home countries. 

But Rabbi Herbert Brockman, head of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn., says the sanctuary movement existed long before the 1980s, too.

"I call it the 'modern sanctuary movement.' Sanctuary community existed in the Bible, they were called cities of refuge," Rabbi Brockman said, referencing the story of the Israelites going into the promised land of Canaan. "You were to establish six cities of refuge where people could come and be protected."

At Mishkan Israel, the congregation isn't currently housing any undocumented immigrants. But it has been providing various services, including housing, to refugees and asylum seekers since 1995, helping settle families from Bosnia, Iraq, Syria, and the Republic of Congo, among others.

"After the election, it became fairly clear to us that bringing in refugees was going to dry up. We were not going to receive the numbers that we had been," Rabbi Brockman said, referring to President Donald Trump's campaign promise to pause refugee programs, a campaign promise he tried to make good on with an early executive order. "So we decided to turn our attention to people here in the United States that were under threat of deportation back to places where there was violence."

Rabbi Brockman's focus is well-timed: one of the biggest issues in the American immigration system is commonly called "catch and release." 

This is the phenomenon of asylum seekers making it across the border, being caught by border patrol agents, claiming that they are seeking asylum because they're fleeing violence or persecution, and then being released from detention with a date to appear in court to see if they qualify for asylum or refugee status.

People in Denver rally on the behalf of a family at risk of separation.  Celeste Martinez.
People in Denver rally on the behalf of a family at risk of separation.  Celeste Martinez.

Of course, many of the asylum seekers are in fact fleeing violence or danger. Unfortunately, the immigration system is so backlogged that court dates can be months or years away. According to the American Immigration Council website, "In 2016, the U.S. immigration court and asylum systems were backlogged with more than 620,000 pending." As a result, most asylum seekers caught crossing the border simply disappear into the United States and begin their lives as undocumented immigrants. 

Knowing that the majority of those undocumented immigrants are Hispanic or Latino, fleeing violence in South America, Central America, and Mexico, Rabbi Brockman decided to organize meetings with members of those communities to ask how his congregation could help. With some guidance, they began to do their part. 

His congregation is living proof that sanctuary goes well beyond just providing shelter: Mishkan Israel works to provide legal assistance to undocumented immigrants, organizes "accompaniment" where congregants attend related court cases as friends to offer support, gives money to families whose heads of household lose their jobs, ensures the legal system protects children whose parents are deported, and offers education so undocumented immigrants and refugees know what their legal rights are. 

Andersen said similar services are being provided by CWS, and echoed the sentiment that the idea of sanctuary is as old as the Bible.

"Throughout your different faiths and traditions, you see faith communities do play a role in speaking truth to power," Andersen said. "Perhaps most forthrightly we see this in our sacred texts, the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible really condemn the kings who were exploiting the poor and taking advantage of the vulnerable populations of those days."

In fact, this past March, many Jewish families across the country took the time to acknowledge refugees during their Passover seder, a holiday which commemorates the story of Jews in exodus. Supplemental readings and songs were even written by HIAS, the Jewish refugee resettlement program. 

Even the word sanctuary comes from the term "being sacred," where something is protected. 

These organizations aren't alone: the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA) has a program called AMMPARO, which is an acronym for Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities. It is also a nod to the Spanish word amparo, which means the protection of a living creature from suffering or damage. 

"The ultimate hope is migrants will be treated justly and fairly, and that their human rights will be respected, and that life will be preserved," Mary Campbell, associate director of AMMPARO, said.

AMMPARO doesn't just work inside the United States, either. It actually deploys to countries such as Honduras and Mexico, and tries to work with youth on alternatives to fleeing north, such as relocating to a safer neighborhood in their home country or helping to connect them with short-term job training so they can find employment locally. 

A photograph of a "know your rights" seminar at Sagrado Corazon in Waukegan, Illinois.
A photograph of a "know your rights" seminar at Sagrado Corazon in Waukegan, Illinois. Photo: ECLA

"The migrants that are coming into this country are being mischaracterized as delinquents or criminals," Campbell said. "When you see the majority of the people, these children and families that are coming, they are not delinquents. They are not criminals. What we're encouraging people to do is see them as children of God."

While some Americans view what Campbell, Brockman, and Andersen are doing as illegal — or obstruction of justice — Rabbi Brockman says there is a distinction between sanctuary and harboring a criminal or violating the law. Still, there is some gray area. If a religious institution is providing sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant, they almost always announce it publicly. The purpose is two-part: it absolves some criminality because they are not being secretive about what they're doing, and it increases publicity, which deters ICE agents who might otherwise kick down doors to arrest someone. 

"During the civil rights movement, the power of seeing a camera where policemen have German shepherds that are attacking African-American kids who were simply protesting was very powerful evidence of what was happening," Rabbi Brockman said. "Just the visual seeing of it, of 20 agents breaking into a synagogue to take out this guy for having two DWI charges 15 years ago, they don't want that."

And yet, finding an undocumented immigrant to speak to for this story was an overwhelming challenge, because so many are concerned about being exposed as immigration enforcement becomes more strict in nature.

In February, a group of undocumented immigrants were arrested outside Alexandria, Va., when they stepped outside of a hypothermia shelter that belonged to a United Methodist congregation. As they crossed the street to a 7-Eleven like they did every morning, they were picked off by a group of ICE agents.

"I'm not charging [arguing that] ICE officers are some kind of evil presence," Rabbi Brockman added about the reason for increasing publicity around giving sanctuary. "But it's like police wearing cameras, you're more conscious of what you're doing if people see this. It's the power, the effect of saying, 'is this the country that we want?'"

Churches and synagogues aren't the only ones trying to help, either. Mosques have done their best to lend a helping hand, but their efforts have been met with hesitancy and caution. In Ohio, after a mosque offered itself as sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, Hispanic community organizers essentially gave them a "thanks, but no thanks" response. Many community organizers believe that due to the frequent surveillance of mosques and infringement on the rights of Muslims, sanctuary in a mosque wouldn't make an undocumented immigrant any safer.

As for the many hardline conservatives who believe stricter immigration laws will make our country safer, Rabbi Brockman insists he supports doing just that. 

"If making the country safer is truly the mission, then let's find ways to do that," Rabbi Brockman said. "These same conservative religious people are very pro-family, and what this is doing is destroying families. It's ripping families apart."

Most of all, though, Rabbi Brockman says he hopes people who oppose the work of religious institutions providing sanctuary remember this country was built to accept asylum seekers. 

"If you're Catholic, you were fleeing Protestant persecution in Europe," he said. "If you're a Protestant, you were fleeing French-Catholic persecution of Protestant Huguenots. If you are Jewish, you were fleeing persecution because of your religion. That's how most of us got here."

Cover image via Celeste Martinez.

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