The sanctuary movement

March 19th, 2017

ICE comes to town

The Reverend Verónica Barrell received a call telling her that a fleet of large vehicles with Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) agents had been seen at the Royal Farms convenience store, Food Lion and Walmart, and they were stopping people. Barrell, a United Methodist clergywoman from Uruguay, has been directing the Una Familia afternoon tutoring program on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. In that role, she has had the opportunity to work with many Latino families, including undocumented migrants who have come to work in the chicken industry and on large farms. So when she heard that ICE agents had shown up in an unusually visible way, she knew it would ripple through the families her program serves. By the end of the day, while children still came to the tutoring program, she heard of parents who were afraid to leave their homes or workplaces for fear of being separated from their children.

When new detention and deportation orders were released by the U.S. federal government in February, stories like Barrell’s began to pop up around the country. The nation’s much-disputed and creaky immigration policy was suddenly in the spotlight, and at-risk migrants had many questions about who was affected by the new rules and how they would be implemented. Churches had a lot of questions, too, as they considered how to remain in ministry with these migrants. With churches and cities exploring sanctuary as a way to protect those who might otherwise face deportation, many Christians look to their faith to inform ways they can care for those who are vulnerable.

The order and the effects

Enforcing immigration laws is an important function for any nation, and expulsions of those who entered the United States without proper documentation had been ongoing prior to the new administration’s rules. However, as The New York Times reported, under the Obama administration, “undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes were the priority for deportation.” The new executive order removes this priority, and according to a Department of Homeland Security fact sheet, “all of those present in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention, and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States.”

Almost as soon as the new rules were announced, there were a series of high-profile operations by ICE agents. In Mississippi, 55 people were detained across the state in a series of raids on Asian restaurants, according to the Los Angeles Times. Outside Rising Hope United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, ICE agents arrested at least two men as they exited the church’s overnight hypothermia shelter for homeless persons. As The Washington Post reported, “Both had been identified . . . as ‘criminal aliens amenable to [removal]’ — meaning deportation.” Overall, the Post reported, at least 683 persons were detained in the first week of raids following the new orders.

Roots of the sanctuary movement

At Saint John’s United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee, a regular Wednesday night dinner drew overflow crowds in mid-February when the topic was immigrant rights. The Reverend Daniel Castillo spoke to people from five Latin American countries who had come to seek information as reports of raids by ICE agents spread. As reported in The Daily Times, Roberta Vargas, a mother of six children, said, “I’m afraid that I will be at the store, and they will get me while the kids are in school.”

Castillo gave out basic information such as, “Do not sign anything. . . . Do not say anything. . . . Ask for a lawyer.” But he also urged the crowd not to overreact. “Go on with your life. Be careful. Don’t do anything illegal or stupid — but you don’t have to live in fear.” Later, Castillo told The Daily Times, “Many people think they don’t have rights when they don’t have papers. . . . When people think they don’t have rights, authorities can abuse their power.”

Other churches are offering sanctuary to migrants. Lutheran pastor Alexia Salvatierra, in a Christian Century interview, says the notion of sanctuary goes back to Numbers 35 and the cities of refuge. “That tradition has been carried forward this way: if someone has broken a law, either an unjust law or a law for which the typical punishment is unjust, the people of God have said, ‘We will shelter you until you can get a fair hearing.’ That’s the core meaning of sanctuary.”

Sanctuary was a feature of the Christian church throughout the ages and influenced the development of the Underground Railroad during the U.S. slavery era. The modern sanctuary movement dates to the 1980s when churches began to house refugees fleeing Central American conflicts. According to Salvatierra, “More than 500 churches participated over about a ten-year period, sheltering about 500,000 refugees.”

Changing landscape of sanctuary

Sanctuary has been effective because traditionally, enforcement agents have been reluctant to enter a church building to remove a person for deportation. ICE guidelines implemented in recent years have declared churches, along with hospitals and schools, as “sensitive zones” where ICE agents “would not go unless they had a judicial warrant for an individual person who had committed a crime,” according to Salvatierra. It’s not clear that these zones will continue to be respected under the new ICE guidelines. In fact, the detention of men exiting the hypothermia shelter at Rising Hope United Methodist Church (mentioned earlier) concerns its pastor, the Reverend Keary Kincannon. “They were heading out to their jobs or to look for work, and it is offensive that ICE targeted them just as they left church property.”

Attempts to criminalize the sanctuary movement or even those who aid undocumented migrants have also been growing. In 2005, the US House passed the Sensenbrenner immigration bill, which would have made aiding an undocumented person a felony. Though it was defeated, Roman Catholic cardinal Roger Mahony said, “If this bill passes the Senate, I am calling on all Catholics across the country to continue to minister in humanitarian ways to undocumented people, to all people regardless of their immigration status, even if you have to go to prison for it.”

“Back in business”

For some Americans, however, the strict enforcement of immigration laws is seen as a necessary corrective after years of neglect. “The message is: The immigration law is back in business,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “Violating immigration law is no longer a secondary offense.” Supporters of strict enforcement worry about the impact on society of a large population of undocumented persons, some of whom may be a threat to the nation’s security.

The Pew Research Center estimates that there were about 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2014, a number that has been relatively stable since 2009 and that has declined from the peak number of 2007. The same report suggests that a greater number of these immigrants are setting down roots, with about 66 percent of adult unauthorized immigrants saying that they have been in the United States at least a decade.

A just and compassionate policy

For Christians like Verónica Barrell, the primary lens through which they view the current immigration debates is not legal, but scriptural. While recognizing the need for good order and security, Christians also respond to the biblical imperatives to care for the vulnerable in our midst and to ensure they’re treated with dignity.

In the wake of the new administration’s actions on immigration and refugees, The United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) issued a statement affirming the stance of the denomination. Citing a 2016 resolution on migrants, the GBCS called “upon all policy makers to work for just and compassionate migration policies that affirm the worth, dignity, and inherent value and rights of all persons regardless of nationality or legal status.” The statement expressed its support for churches “offering sanctuary to migrants.”

The offering of sanctuary is a radical step for churches to take, and one that involves significant commitments to addressing the realities of offering living arrangements and security to migrants. But churches can also take smaller steps to guard and protect the vulnerable. “Whatever decision the larger society makes about how to treat immigrants, they should be recognized as our brothers and sisters in one human family,” notes Salvatierra. “Our willingness to stand with our brothers and sisters and to suffer with them wakes people up to reconsider the situation, to ask deeper questions, to pay more attention.” 

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