Rev. Sam Rodriguez, Who Prayed at Trump’s Inauguration, Creates Church Immigrant Safe Haven

Reverend Samuel Rodriguez (Photograph by Ian Allen for TIME)
Reverend Samuel Rodriguez (Photograph by Ian Allen for TIME)

The Sacramento church of an evangelical pastor who led a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration is offering beds for congregants who need a safe haven from immigration raids or domestic violence.

Pastors at New Season Christian Worship Center set up thirty cots in two large rooms just days after the President issued his January executive order that expanded federal deportation policy. Congregants spread the word that they were available for anyone who was afraid of the immigration policies’ potential effect. Half a dozen families showed up in the past month. Most stayed just a couple of days. About half came with fears over immigration and half with fears of domestic abuse, according to church officials.

New Season Christian Worship Center is led by Sam Rodriguez Jr., the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January. Rodriguez has offered legal education about immigrant rights to his parishioners, and has asked them to contact NHCLC’s immigration attorney if they fear their family may be separated. He has also offered similar resources to the NHCLC leadership to distribute to their churches at their discretion.

“The anxiety in Christian conservative, evangelical churches has grown exponentially, because many of our worshipers, many of the families we serve, many of the families in our pews, may very well lack the appropriate documentation, even though we have a don’t ask don’t tell policy,” he says.

The safe haven program is run by pastor Charlie Rivera, who leads the church’s Spanish-speaking Cantico Nuevo ministry. The church decided to speed up the start date of the safe haven program once fears over deportation escalated. “We don’t ask, do you have this documentation or not,” Rivera says. “All we do is provide a safe haven.”

New Season’s safe haven program is different from the sanctuary church movement, which seeks to protect immigrants facing deportation from federal officials. Some 800 mostly liberal Christian and interfaith congregations have signed up to be sanctuary churches and most come from non-evangelical denominations including Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Disciples of Christ churches.

Six families are currently using the nationwide sanctuary church movement, according to the Church World Service—two cases are in Denver, two in Chicago, one in Phoenix, and one in Philadelphia. Federal law prohibits the harboring of undocumented immigrants, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have said the agency will continue its “sensitive locations policy,” which bars agents from searching or arresting potential undocumented immigrants in places of worship, hospitals, and schools.

New Season does not have a plan in place if federal immigration agents arrive at the church, says Rivera. The program is intended to offer a space for recuperation and spiritual encouragement during a time of fear. “We are just there offering assistance, giving them a sense of hope, peace,” he says.

Rodriguez has been working for months to build a bridge between the Latino evangelical community and the Trump administration. During the campaign, he challenged Trump’s commitment to build a southern wall and to deport with force roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants. In a private meeting Trump held with evangelical leaders in June, Rodriguez says he asked Trump to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children, often called Dreamers, to find legal employment and avoid deportation. He also said he asked Trump to not separate families with deportation.

In December, Rodriguez reiterated those concerns in a listening session call with Trump transition officials, while 40 Hispanic denominational leaders listened on the line. “We have every desire to work with President Trump in finding a solution to our immigration crisis, one that addresses his objectives and stops illegal immigration, and deports those involved in nefarious activity, but protects the Dreamers and the God-fearing, hardworking families that are here undocumented,” Rodriguez says.

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Elizabeth Dias

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