Sanctuary 101: How Churches and Synagogues are Stopping Deportations

This article was written by Esther Meroño and was originally published on groundswell-mvmt.org.

The Sanctuary Movement has been rebirthed this year, with over 100 congregations supporting moral action to help our undocumented brothers and sisters in need. Here’s what you need to know.

1. SANCTUARY IS OLD NEWS—LIKE, BACK WHEN SCROLLS WERE WHAT YOU READ, NOT WHAT YOU DO THROUGH YOUR TWITTER FEED.

Sanctuary is when faith communities offer safe havens – and they’ve been doing it 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 successfully keeping 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 during the 1980s, when churches took in refugees from Central America fleeing U.S.-funded civil wars.

2. SANCTUARY ISN’T ABOUT POLITICS—IT’S ABOUT FAMILIES AND FAITH. 

This isn’t about left or right, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. People supporting Sanctuary are connected, not by political affiliations or specific faith tradition, but through a shared moral responsibility to compassion and justice. Families get 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 – that we are all brothers and sisters 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.

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.

Let’s check out the Scripture on this. 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. 

We know scripture says  “Welcome the stranger” – but actually, the 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 Rosa, Luis, Beatriz , and Francisco that show us how when any of us suffers from injustice, we all do.

5. IS SANCTUARY BREAKING THE LAW? 

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 we are clearly not bringing 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))

Quick reminder: Rescuing slaves via the Underground Railroad and protecting Jews from Nazis in WWII was illegal at the time. 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.

Meanwhile, here are two immigration policies you should know about that 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? Plus, God’s on our side, you guys.

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. 

Though no one has been arrested in 2014, in the1980s, a handful of clergy, nuns and laymen were convicted in “The Sanctuary Trials” for their efforts on behalf of immigrants. Faith leaders today are... 

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