U.S. Churches Feel Need to Offer Sanctuary to Migrants

Undocumented immigrant and activist Jeanette Vizguerra, 45, walks into press conference with two of her children Roberto, 10, and Luna Baez, 12, before addressing supporters and the media while seeking sanctuary at First Unitarian Church in Denver on Feb. 15, 2017. (Marc Piscotty, Getty Images)
Undocumented immigrant and activist Jeanette Vizguerra, 45, walks into press conference with two of her children Roberto, 10, and Luna Baez, 12, before addressing supporters and the media while seeking sanctuary at First Unitarian Church in Denver on Feb. 15, 2017. (Marc Piscotty, Getty Images)

A woman from Mexico who entered the United States illegally feared a meeting with immigration officials would end in her deportation.

So she skipped it and turned to a place she knew would provide her safe haven — the First Unitarian Society of Denver.

When Jeanette Vizguerra moved into the Colorado church last week, the community activist and mother of three young children who are U.S. citizens quickly captured national headlines, shining a spotlight on the growing sanctuary church movement in the midst of the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.

More than 100 people rallied Saturday in Denver in support of Vizguerra. Standing at the church’s front entrance, she draped herself in an American flag.

“I belong here,” she declared in Spanish as the crowd roared and chanted its support.

Like the Unitarian congregation, other faith communities across the USA have signed on to the growing sanctuary movement, agreeing to shield undocumented immigrants from deportation. The tactic is rooted in religious teachings to care for the vulnerable.

“We forget that many people feel they must act even if they don’t want to or are afraid to,” said Charles Haynes, the vice president of the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center. “They feel that the highest authority in their lives is not the state; it’s not the ICE. It’s their conscience, their God.”

But not all congregations support the movement nor think it’s appropriate to go against the federal government. One Tennessee congregation is opting not to become a sanctuary church for those very reasons. And the issue could become more pronounced in the months ahead.

The Department of Homeland Security issued memos Tuesday that put in place President Trump’s increased immigration enforcement plan, making deportation a real possibility for the majority of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Those convicted of crimes are the highest priority, but the memos direct agents to arrest and initiate deportation proceedings for anyone they encounter who is in the country illegally. Those granted deportation protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program are not affected.

Leaders with the sanctuary movement believe a 2011 policy that former President Obama set protects their houses of worship from Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids. That policy limits ICE actions at so-called “sensitive locations,” including churches, hospitals and schools.

As of Tuesday, the policy was still in place, ICE officials told The Arizona Republic. But the agency official could not speculate on future changes.

The idea of providing sanctuary dates back centuries and is referenced in the Old Testament. But the modern-day movement in the United States began in the 1980s.

The Rev. Alison Harrington of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church said her congregation was one of the first to pioneer it, offering protection to refugees fleeing civil war in Central America. In the 1980s the church housed thousands of migrants but only for short periods before they were resettled across the nation.

“It worked more like an underground railroad,” she said.

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SOURCE: USA Today / The Tennessean
Holly Meyer

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