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Church Worldwide: Sanctuary for the Undocumented Comes with Legal Consequences


The Trump administration’s hard-line stance on undocumented immigrants is polarizing: People have responded with either “throw the bums out” or “have a heart.”

But the question of whether faith communities can legally offer the undocumented physical sanctuary—sheltering them in churches, synagogues, and mosques to keep them from immigration authorities—is not so cut and dried. Leaders of faith communities involved in what is called “the sanctuary movement” say there are moral and faith issues that sometimes trump the legal and political issues.

“We do not want to be bad citizens. We do not want to violate the law,” said the Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim-St.Luke’s United Church of Christ, one of two Buffalo, N.Y., churches that joined the sanctuary movement in February. “But we will stand on the side of justice and we will stand on our faith and God’s law and our understanding that we are to welcome our brothers and sisters. That is part of who we are and who we have been. We are on the right side of justice and the right side of history.”

But if the morality of the sanctuary movement is arguable, the law is not.

“The law says no one may knowingly harbor or shield an illegal alien from detection or from enforcement of immigration laws,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of public policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent research organization. “The responsible people could be prosecuted, resulting in incarceration or fines. And sheltering the illegal alien is ultimately pointless, because the federal government can enter the facility to make an arrest if needed, or they will simply wait it out, and the illegal alien will be deported anyway.”

Participation in the sanctuary movement surged after the election of President Trump. Before his election, about 400 U.S. congregations were involved, according to Church World Service, which offers immigrants legal assistance and helps organize the sanctuary movement. Today, CWS estimates more than 800 congregations are involved.

Many other congregations support the communities that offer physical sanctuary, providing funds, food, clothing, legal assistance, and more. The movement includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Buddhists, and more.

But it is the congregations that shelter undocumented immigrants that take the legal risks. And that has some religious leaders preaching caution rather than participation to their members.

“When we use the word ‘sanctuary,’ we have to be very careful that we’re not holding out false hope,” Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl said in comments to the editorial board of The Washington Post in early March. “We wouldn’t want to say, ‘Stay here, we’ll protect you.’ . . . With separation of church and state, the church really does not have the right to say, ‘You come in this building and the law doesn’t apply to you.’ But we do want to say we’ll be a voice for you.”

In Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich tempered instructions to priests, saying Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials may not enter without a warrant and reminding priests that only they may live on church property.

Bryan Pham, a Jesuit priest and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, outlined five legal points churches should consider before becoming a sanctuary congregation. Among them:

  1. There is no legal definition or standing for a “sanctuary,” so housing an undocumented immigrant in a house of worship is a violation of federal law.
  2. Congregations can’t claim that harboring an undocumented immigrant is an expression of their First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.
  3. Claiming a house of worship as a “sanctuary” and housing people inside it could be a violation of local ordinances, which may give law enforcement officials probable cause to obtain a warrant for a search and possible arrests.

Labeling a house of worship “may give a false sense of safety,” Pham told National Catholic Reporter. “If you declare yourself a sanctuary, you’re implying you can provide legal and other protection. And that’s not true.”

To date, ICE officials have not entered any churches to conduct a raid—though they did stake out a church-run homeless shelter in Virginia and arrested people as they emerged. And in the 1980s, some church leaders in several states who sheltered about 2,000 undocumented immigrants from war-torn Central America were tried and convicted, but were not given jail sentences.

Today, immigration experts say ICE will likely refrain from entering a church—deemed a “sensitive location,” along with schools and hospitals, by the Department of Homeland Security—because the visuals would bring a public relations nightmare.

In Buffalo, Gonzalez said he and his congregation of about 110 consulted lawyers before making their decision to become a sanctuary. The vote was unanimous.

“No one blinked,” Gonzalez said.

The church officially opened its doors to the undocumented with a public announcement in local media in February. Gonzalez declined to say whether the church is housing anyone, for fear of endangering them and implicating the church.

“I can say, when there have been rumors of ICE activity and Border Patrol activity we have opened up the church and people have come and we have spent the day with them, fed them and provided them a safe and sacred space,” he said.

Should ICE come to the church, its employees are ready, Gonzalez said. They have been trained in the proper legal protocol and in their legal rights: ICE officials must present a warrant and the name of who they are looking for.

“We no longer just buzz people into the building,” Gonzalez said. “We have to know who you are and why you are here. We are doing the best we can to protect ourselves and stand firm that this is holy ground that we will not allow to be violated.”

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