Sanctuary 101: How churches and synagogues are stopping deportations

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The Sanctuary Movement conceived during the 1980s, when churches took in refugees from Central America fleeing American-funded civil wars, has been rebirthed this year. More than 100 congregations are supporting moral action to help our undocumented brothers and sisters in need. Here’s what you need to know about the movement:

 

1. Sanctuary is old news — like, back when scrolls were what you read, not what you do through your twitter feed.

Image courtesy of Groundswell.

Sanctuary is when faith communities offer safe havens — and they’ve been doing that from the beginning of the Old Testament, to the times of slavery and the Underground Railroad, to housing Jews during WWII, to the draft during the Vietnam War.

In fact, Sanctuary 2014 was inspired by a church in Arizona that successfully kept a family together this year (more on that below). That church — Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson — actually founded the official Sanctuary Movement 30 years ago.

2. Sanctuary isn’t about partisan politics — it’s about families, faith, and justice.

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This isn’t about left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. People who support Sanctuary are connected not by political affiliations or specific faith traditions, but through a shared moral responsibility to compassion and justice. Families being torn apart is morally wrong, so we take action together to stop it.

That’s where faith comes in. Nobody questions God’s commandment against murder or stealing. But our faith also calls us to do something a little harder: welcome the stranger and care for the most vulnerable.

Some people make excuses. They say things like, “Well, these people came to our country illegally.” The Sanctuary movement recognizes that no one is illegal — we are all made in the image of God. And, as MLK wrote in his letter from Birmingham Jail, “There are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all . . . One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly.”

3. Sanctuary is emergency moral action — because our government leaders have failed to act and our laws are broken.

Image courtesy of Groundswell.

We have a promise from President Obama that at some point “soon,” he will reform our country’s deportation policies to end the suffering of families. But right now? Over 1,000 deportations happen each day, tearing apart families and communities.

There are immigrants in our country who have been waiting decades for legislative action to find a legal path to citizenship. But, as Congress stalls and Obama pushes executive action further away, these families continue to suffer.

In Ezekiel 22, God is pissed. He says, “The people of the land have used oppressions, committed robbery, and mistreated the poor and needy; and they wrongfully oppress the stranger. So I sought for a man among them who would make a wall, and stand in the gap before Me on behalf of the land, that I should not destroy it.”

When there is oppression, God calls for someone to stand in the gap and do the moral, just thing. Sanctuary is emergency moral action — standing in the gap to protect the wrongfully oppressed. 

4. Undocumented immigrants are our neighbors.

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Sure, the scripture says, “Welcome the stranger” — but, immigrants facing deportations are not strangers at all. They are mothers and fathers, friends and neighbors, community leaders and volunteers. We see them every day, but they’re disappearing from their homes and communities.

Those in Sanctuary are our brothers and sisters. Sanctuary lifts up their prophetic story and courage to show us the impact of our broken immigration laws. It’s the personal stories of our neighbors like RosaLuisBeatriz, and Francisco that show us how when one of us suffers from injustice, we all do.

5. Is sanctuary breaking the law?

Image courtesy of Groundswell.

Law is a lot like scripture — it’s up to your interpretation. There is a law against bringing in and harboring persons not authorized to be in the U.S. (INA Sec.274) While Sanctuary doesn’t bring people in, whether we are harboring someone is up for interpretation.

Some courts have interpreted harboring to require concealment of a person. When we declare Sanctuary for an individual, we are bringing them into the light of the community, not concealing them in the dark of secrecy. (U.S. v. Costello, 66 F.3d 1040 (7th Cir. 2012)) Other courts have interpreted harboring to be simple sheltering. (U.S. v. Acosta de Evans, 531 F.2d 428 (9th Cir. 1976))

As a reminder: rescuing slaves via the Underground Railroad and protecting Jews from Nazis during WWII were considered illegal. Our saving grace is that immigration officials know that if they went into a house of worship to arrest a pastor, they would have a public relations nightmare on their hands.

Here are two immigration policies that do relate to Sanctuary:

1. “Sensitive Areas” — There’s no official legislation that keeps law enforcement from entering a church to arrest someone outside of a 2011 ICE memo that advises officials to avoid detaining immigrants in “sensitive areas” like schools, hospitals, and churches. But, can you imagine what would happen if immigration officials broke into a church to drag away a mom?

2. “Prosecutorial Discretion” — Activists and faith leaders are using ICE’s own policies of “prosecutorial discretion” to argue that these immigration cases are low-priority. Deportation would only serve to break up a family and the community that supports them.

6. But there are some risks.

Image courtesy of Groundswell

Though no one has been arrested in 2014, in the 1980s, a handful of clergy, nuns, and laymen were convicted in “The Sanctuary Trials” for their efforts on behalf of immigrants. Faith leaders today are working with legal teams to keep this from happening, but have said that if law enforcement enters their church to detain those in sanctuary, they will stand in the way — even if it means arrest.

7. Living in Sanctuary is not easy — especially for a mom.

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Rosa Robles Loreto has been in Sanctuary for almost three months, unable to leave the church grounds without risking arrest. It’s a difficult decision to make, especially for a mom.

Before August 2014, Rosa would wake up each day and get her kids ready for school, hassle them to do their homework, make dugout snacks for their Little League team and never miss a game. Now, Rosa can only see her family when they visit her at the Southside Presbyterian church. Sanctuary is a sacrifice, but it’s better than the alternative — deportation.

8. Sanctuary is working.

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Daniel Neyoy Ruiz was the first Sanctuary case in May at Southside Presbyterian in Tucson, Arizona. The church and community successfully petitioned the Department of Homeland Security to put a stay on his deportation order for a year so he could return home to his family.

There hasn’t been another national win, but locally the tides are turning. In September, the city council and mayor of Tucson voted on a resolution to support Rosa Robles Loreto in Sanctuary at Southside, sending letters to President Obama, the Department of Homeland Security, and every member of the Arizona Congressional Delegation encouraging them to act not just for her, but for all of the immigrants living in fear in their community.

At a church event with more than 1,000 people, the mayor in Portland, Oregon stood up for Francisco Aguirre, who went into Sanctuary in September. Said the mayor, “Francisco Aguirre has been a community leader in Portland and an important voice on issues of equity and immigrant rights . . . Francisco should remain in the United States, and in Portland, until his case can reach a humane conclusion.”

9. You can get involved in the Sanctuary Movement.

The Sanctuary Movement is spreading fast, with over 100 congregations around the country supporting. Everyone can sign the petitions for each person in Sanctuary, and share them with your friends and family. And faith leaders can click here for resources and a sign up form for supporting Sanctuary 2014.

10. Imagine if everyone knew about Sanctuary.

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If everyone knew about these congregations taking moral action for our undocumented neighbors, it might inspire our government to stop the suffering of families and torn-apart communities. It might inspire people to show compassion toward the immigrant, the stranger, the refugee, the wrongfully accused.

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