Houses of Worship Poised to Serve as Immigrant Sanctuaries During Trump Presidency

Mr. Flores has taken sanctuary in the basement of the Arch Street church to avoid deportation. On Christmas Day, he had been there six weeks. (Credit: Charles Mostoller for The New York Times)
Mr. Flores has taken sanctuary in the basement of the Arch Street church to avoid deportation. On Christmas Day, he had been there six weeks. (Credit: Charles Mostoller for The New York Times)

Tucked one floor below the majestic Gothic sanctuary of Arch Street United Methodist Church, Javier Flores Garcia sleeps on a cot in a basement Sunday-school classroom that church members have outfitted with a microwave, a compact refrigerator and a television.

Mr. Flores, an arborist, longs for the open air, but does not dare set foot outside. He was supposed to report to the immigration authorities last month to be deported to his homeland, Mexico, but one day before his report date, he took refuge in the church.

His family is why he is fighting to remain, and when they visited him in the church recently, his 5-year-old son, Javier Jr., parked on his lap. The boy often refuses to leave his father’s side, and has ended up staying for days with him in the church. On Christmas Day, Mr. Flores had been there six weeks.

This downtown church is one of 450 houses of worship in the United States that have offered to provide sanctuary or other assistance to undocumented immigrants, according to leaders of the Sanctuary Movement. (Few congregations have the space and fortitude to risk harboring immigrants indefinitely, so others are lining up to contribute money, legal aid, food, child care or transportation.) The congregations joining this network have more than doubled since the election of Donald J. Trump — a rapid rebuttal to Mr. Trump’s postelection promise to deport two million to three million unauthorized immigrants who he said have been convicted of crimes.

Protecting immigrants is shaping up to be a priority of the religious left, an amorphous collection of people and groups reflecting many faiths and ethnicities. It has been jolted into action by Mr. Trump’s victory and his selection of an attorney general nominee who supports a crackdown on immigrants.

“Jesus said we are to provide hospitality to the stranger,” said the Rev. Robin Hynicka, Arch Street’s pastor, citing Matthew 25, in which Jesus instructs his followers to feed, house and clothe “the least of these,” the poor and vulnerable.

“That’s exactly what we were asked by Javier, to provide sanctuary. And of course, we said yes,” he added.

Mr. Hynicka spoke in his chilly upstairs office at the church, which has 375 members. The heat worked better in the basement fellowship hall, where up to 30 homeless people take shelter on winter nights. This church is accustomed to mobilizing for social causes, from gay marriage to fights against casino gambling and for an increase in the minimum wage. Five years ago, the church joined the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, but Mr. Flores is the first person the church has taken in.

On this night, his children excitedly brought Mr. Flores stray pieces of candy that volunteers were stuffing into piñatas for a party later. Mr. Flores and his longtime partner, Alma Lopez, have two children: Javier Jr. and Yael, age 2. He has also been a father to Ms. Lopez’s daughter, Adamaris, age 12, since she was abandoned as an infant by her birth father. All were born in the United States. The family’s home is two bus rides away from the church.

Ms. Lopez, sucking on a lollipop, said having the family return to Mexico is not a solution: “We want a better future for our children. The situation in Mexico is very bad. There’s no work, no good school. Here, we have a future.”

The federal immigration authorities say Mr. Flores has a long history of violations: He was apprehended nine times between 1997 and 2002 trying to cross the border. He re-entered and was ordered removed by a judge in 2007. He re-entered twice in 2014 and served prison sentences for illegal re-entry, a criminal felony conviction.

Last year his children saw him taken away by the authorities, and it took a toll. While Mr. Flores was in detention this year, Adamaris attempted suicide in April, drinking a bottle of rubbing alcohol. She was hospitalized for nine days. Immigration officials released Mr. Flores for 90 days to prepare his family for deportation.

Sanctuary was his last hope.

“My only crime is coming back,” said Mr. Flores, who wears a government-issued ankle bracelet.

The sanctuary movement in the United States is not new. American churches offered sanctuary to soldiers who refused to serve in the Vietnam War. And in the 1980s, congregations opened their doors to Central Americans fleeing wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The movement was revived in 2006 and grew during President Obama’s two terms, said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. At least 2.5 million people were deported during Mr. Obama’s time in office, earning him the nickname “deporter in chief.”

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Laurie Goodstein

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