US Clergy Mobilize to Protect Refugees

José Robles, center in white hat, walks with supporters Wednesday to turn himself in to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Tukwila, Washington. (AP photo/Elaine Thompson)

(AP) — A twice-announced nationwide sweep of immigrants and refugees has not materialized, yet, but the mere prospect of it has prompted legions of pastors, rabbis and their congregations across the United States to offer sanctuary and other services to families who fear deportation.

It’s the first such nationwide, grassroots effort since the early 1980s, when churches of all faiths opened their doors to refugees from wars in Central America in what became known as the Sanctuary movement. Here is a look at some recent developments:

Rabbis have organized a network of more than 70 synagogues nationwide committed to supporting immigrants and asylum-seekers, whether through providing sanctuary or other assistance, such as accompanying people to check-ins with immigration authorities.

Some rabbis have been arrested during a series of protests organized by Jewish activists to oppose immigration crackdowns, including a demonstration Tuesday at the headquarters of Immigration & Customs Enforcement in Washington.

The network — T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights headquartered in New York City — says it represents more than 2,000 rabbis and cantors.

“I’ve never seen an issue that has so mobilized the Jewish community all over the country — it’s reached a breaking point,” said T’ruah’s director of organizing, Rabbi Salem Pearce. “A lot of our families went through the things immigrants are experiencing today.”

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Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which has been assisting uprooted people since 1939, has launched a United Sanctuaries of America campaign, seeking to recruit places of worship willing to provide sanctuary to anyone fearful of deportation without due process. LIRS also is reaching out to community organizations and nonprofits to help ensure that sanctuary providers have needed resources such as legal assistance and logistical support.

“The response has been incredible,” said LIRS president Krish O’Mara Vignarajah. “Churches are saying they want to be part of this — some have offered to provide safe spaces or meals. Some who have existing sanctuary spaces are now saying they need the legal services.”

ICE considers churches and some other places to be “sensitive locations” and says it generally does not pursue people inside who are seeking sanctuary.

In Seattle, the Gethsemane Lutheran Church provided sanctuary for more than a year for a Mexican immigrant, Jose Robles, who was targeted for deportation. On Wednesday, Robles — accompanied by his wife and three daughters, Gethsemane’s pastor, and dozens of other supporters — presented himself to an ICE office in a Seattle suburb, where he was arrested after applying for a stay of deportation.

Robles’ fate is uncertain. The pastor, Joanne Engquist, said efforts would continue to get him a U-visa that would enable him to avoid deportation.

Of course, we are deeply disappointed in the outcome,” Engquist said. “What keeps us going is hope for justice.”

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At the Church of the Epiphany in Los Angeles, Father Tom Carey says housing people in the sanctuary is an “option of last resort.”

Carey is a member of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE, which advocates for low-income families and immigrants. Before the announced raids, eight Christian congregations publicly offered their buildings as sanctuaries through the organization.

Even in his sermons, Carey takes a stance. By chance, this week’s reading was the story of the good Samaritan.

“According to the parable that Jesus told, our neighbors are not the people we know. Our neighbors are the people we don’t know who are in trouble,” Carey said. “And the commandment is to love your neighbor.”

Carey’s church also connects people needing legal help with an immigration lawyer who works pro bono. Of his 70 or so congregants, Carey estimates one-third are in the United States without proper documents.

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Pastor Robert Stearns at Living Water International Apostolic Ministries in Houston has said his church can be a sanctuary, but his offer comes with caveats.

“The only people who will be allowed in are those who want to participate in becoming American citizens,” Stearns said.

Stearns opened his small church as a sanctuary at the request of his representative, Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee. If a person in the United States without proper documents approached him, he said they’d find shelter at the church but they would also have to meet with lawyers or with Jackson Lee’s staff.

He believes it would be hypocritical to preach against doing wrong and then aid someone who may be breaking the law.

“We’re not going to throw you to the wolves. What we’re going to do is set the attorneys in place for you if you’re willing to go through that process,” he said. “If you don’t want to do that, there’s nothing I can do for you.”

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In Chicago, the diocese’s Catholic Charities has seen a noticeable decline in the number of people taking advantage of its social aid programs, spokeswoman Brigid Murphy said.

On an agency-wide call Wednesday, concerned staff soberly discussed the downtick in mothers at its Women, Infants and Children Food and Nutrition Centers and identified ways the human services arm of the diocese can help.

Murphy said the organization will try to provide more remote assistance for people afraid to leave their homes. They’ll work to educate about immigrants’ rights and provide as much legal assistance as can be discussed over the phone.

In some ways, however, they’re stymied: Food can’t be distributed by phone.

“Depending on how long this environment continues, we’ll be looking at the best ways to serve people in need while staying within the bounds of the law,” Murphy said. “But I don’t know that we’ve come up with an answer to that yet.”

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Utah’s dominant religious denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, does not offer sanctuary to immigrants, but it tries to stake out a compassionate stance on immigration and said last year it was “deeply troubled” by the family separations at the border.

The religion allows local lay leaders to provide “life-sustaining” help to church members regardless of immigration status, while encouraging people to get legal help to resolve their immigration situation, said church spokesman Eric Hawkins.

Members of the faith, widely known as the Mormon church, account for a large portion of the volunteers who help immigrant and refugee resettlement programs run by Catholic Community Services of Utah.

Said spokeswoman Danielle Stamos: “They’re help is really critical to what we do.”

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Although refuge-seekers are often called “illegal,” the term is often inaccurate. A person who applies for refugee status outside the United States, and is granted it, may enter the country with documents. Political asylum, however, may be granted to people who for one reason or another cannot or did not apply for refugee status outside the United States.

Under the 1980 Refugee Act, asylum-seekers who enter the United States without proper documents, and apply for political asylum, may obtain documents that identify them as seeking legal status. They then may be released, or held in an immigration prison. But they are not in the country illegally. They are in the country legally, awaiting adjudication of the asylum claim.

Whether asylum-seekers are imprisoned or released is not governed by statute, but by policies, which have been continuously changing over time, and by Border Patrol district by district, since the early 1980s.

(Courthouse News contributed to this report.)

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