Things That Matter

Places Of Worship In The US Are Sheltering Undocumented Immigrants And Here’s How They Can Do That

As the 2020 presidential campaign draws closer and immigration policies are increasingly relevant in key districts, the Trump administration is doubling down on its efforts to catch and deport undocumented migrants. At the same time, Catholic churches and other places of worship are doubling efforts to house and protect migrants. This is why and how religious centers can protect migrants: they are traditionally considered a “sanctuary” in which peace cannot be violated. This has to do with the right to worship, but also on the moral authority that religious organizations traditionally hold.

However, things are not that simple when thinking about the laws that actually govern the relationship between religious organizations and the State. We explain it here:

The traditional status of “sanctuary” is what allows religious authorities to harbor immigrants.

Credit: Sanctuary feature. Digital image. U.S. Catholic

As U.S. Catholic explains, churches have special status: a sanctuary. Because of the separation of the church and the State, places of worship are considered a no-go zone for ICE and other agencies. However, having a “sanctuary” status is more custom and tradition, a sort of unspoken rule, rather than a law. As U.S. Catholic explains: “ICE has operated with a policy of avoiding Safe Zones, which are locations where it has traditionally not raided or arrested people. Those include schools, hospitals, and churches—places where people who are in need go, where the most vulnerable are found.” Jesuit Father Bryan Pham says: “As a practice, ICE has not gone there,” says Pham. “But it’s not a law, so it can change or be interpreted at a local level.” The Trump administration is famous for breaking with traditions like this, so it has been more common now to see places that were considered safe to be raided by the authorities. 

ICE is sending churches letters and fines for harboring migrants: financial pressure is another ICE technique.

Credit: @LetEdithStay / Twitter

The Irish Times reports on the case of Edith Espinal, an undocumented migrant who has been harbored by a Mennonite church in Columbus, where she has been living for 21 months. The church received a letter from ICE advising them of a half a million dollar debt incurred by Espinal for refusing to leave the country. The newspaper reports that it has known of “several immigrants living in houses of worship who this week received similar notices, the latest measure taken by the Trump administration in its crackdown on illegal immigration. Citing the Immigration and Nationality Act, ICE officials said the agency has the right to impose civil fines, up to $799 a day, on immigrants who have been ordered removed or who have failed to leave the country. Officials said the agency began issuing such notices in December, although it was not clear on Thursday how many had been sent.”

There are some heartbreaking stories: imagine being pregnant and living con el alma en un hilo at a sanctuary site.

Credit: CBS Chicago / YouTube

In a story published by the Daily Herald on May 25, 2019, we knew of Adilene Marquina, who is an undocumented migrant who has found refuge inside the Faith, Life and Hope Mission in Chicago. She has received notices from ICE urging her to leave the country. This pregnant Mexican woman fled her country seeking political asylum, only to have it denied four years later. She has to leave the country in October.

Faith has no color: Churches and other centers of worship are mobilizing.

Credit: sanc_sign. Digital image. WAER

As reported by The Washington Post just this past July 15, “Churches and other houses of worship have offered their buildings as sanctuaries, and activists have volunteered to stand watch”. This is in response to reports of possible massive raids by ICE to target migrants. It is not only churches that are working as safe places for migrants, but also Hindi temples, synagogues, and mosques. 

Jewish communities are also doing their part.

Credit: Truah_Logo_purple_transparent. Digital image. T’ruah

Jewish communities in the United States are a product of migration and sometimes forced migration. Just like Central American migrants today, they fled persecution and war in Europe to settle in the United States. As reported by Haaretz on July 14: “The New York Jewish community mobilized on Sunday to help undocumented immigrants who are at risk of being rounded up for deportation.” Further, they explain: “The organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, joined the New Sanctuary Coalition, a network of houses of worship around the New York area which are offering a haven to undocumented immigrants during the raids. T’ruah also organized and guided some 70 synagogues across the country in serving as places of refuge for those at risk as part of its Mikdash initiative.” The group includes more than 2,000 rabbis and cantors “who want to represent the moral voice of the Jewish community.” They called the raids cruel, immoral, and inhumane.

Bishops have asked priests not to let ICE agents into churches without a warrant.

Credit: Blase Cupich / Facebook

As reported in the Daily Herald, Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, Illinois, one of the cities with a higher concentration of undocumented migrants, wrote a letter to priests saying: “Threats of broad enforcement actions by ICE are meant to terrorize communities.” Cupich urged priests in the Chicago Archdiocese — which serves more than 2 million Catholics, many of which are of Latino heritage, “not to let any immigration officials into churches without identification or a warrant”.

New legislation is being put together: The Protective Sensitive Locations Act.

Credit: germantownmenno / Instagram

Legislators and policymakers are mobilizing to extend the special status to other organizations and places that are sensitive in nature and could be affected in greater measure by ICE roundups. Oregon’s United States Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley introduced legislation to block ICE actions at sensitive locations without prior approval and exigent circumstances. Foreign Affairs New Zealand reports that: “The Protecting Sensitive Locations Act requires that, except in special circumstances, ICE agents receive prior approval from a supervisor when there are exigent circumstances before engaging in enforcement actions at sensitive locations, such as schools, hospitals, and health clinics, places of worship, organizations assisting crime victims, and organizations that provide services to children, pregnant women, victims of crime or abuse or individuals with mental or physical disabilities.” This makes total sense in light of traumatic experiences suffered by undocumented migrants and their loved ones, such as mothers being taken away while picking up their kids from school. 

Latino Senators are joining the fight to expand the status of Safe Zone to other locations.

Credit: cortez-masto1600x900. Digital image. Human Rights Campaign

United States Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) joined Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and a group of fifteen Senators in this initiative. She told Foreign Affairs New Zealand: “It’s disgraceful that ICE is targeting schools, churches, and hospitals, preventing immigrant families from going about their daily lives and accessing essential services. There are reports across the country of parents and children who are missing doctor’s appointments, dreading going to school and avoiding reporting domestic violence due to fear of arrest or deportation. This legislation will ensure ICE agents respect existing policies that prohibit indiscriminate immigration enforcement at sensitive locations, keeping families safe and respecting the basic rights of our immigrant communities.”

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