‘Sanctuary churches’ vow to shield immigrants from Trump crackdown

Supporters surround Javier Flores and his family during a press conference in the basement of Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia on Nov. 15, 2016. The group gathered to announce that Flores has taken asylum in the church. Senior pastor Robin Hynicka stands immediately behind him. RNS photo by Elizabeth Evans

PHILADELPHIA (RNS) First came the mayors of New York, Chicago and Seattle declaring their cities “sanctuaries” and saying they will protect undocumented immigrants from President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport them.

Then thousands of students, professors, alumni and others at elite universities including Harvard, Yale and Brown signed petitions asking their schools to protect undocumented students from any executive order.

Now, religious congregations, including churches and synagogues, are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” for immigrants fleeing deportation.

On Tuesday (Nov. 15), an undocumented Mexican and father of three, who says he is determined to stay in the United States for the sake of his children, appeared at a news conference at Arch Street United Methodist Church, where he is seeking sanctuary from deportation by federal authorities.

Javier Flores fled to the church ahead of an order to surrender to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The 40-year-old north Philadelphia resident had entered the United States without papers in 1997. Since then, he was deported and re-entered several times.

“Today and every day, if Javier and his family choose to stay with us, they will have a home with us,” said the Rev. Robin Hynicka, senior pastor,  at the news conference at his Center City church.

During his campaign, Trump vowed to deport an estimated 11 million foreigners. Since his election victory, he said he would immediately deport 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of crimes.

“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers, we have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million, we are getting them out of our country or we are going to incarcerate,” Trump told “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl.

Alongside enforcement of immigration laws, Trump vowed to build a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out immigrants.

In the wake of the elections, there’s been an “outpouring of inquiries and support” from congregations across the country that want to sign on as sanctuary sites, said Peter Pedemonti, executive director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia.

“Churches are saying, ‘We want to do this. How do we get started?’” said Pedemonti, whose coalition includes 17 churches and two synagogues that have banded together to oppose deportations and offer their sanctuaries as safe havens.

But just how many faith communities are willing to harbor undocumented immigrants is hard to gauge.

Since 2014, 13 churches in nine cities have provided sanctuary to 15 people at risk of imminent deportation, said Noel Andersen, national grass-roots coordinator for Church World Service, which provides legal services for immigrants.

Andersen estimated there are 400 congregations nationwide that support the efforts or are willing to open their doors to people fearing repatriation.

Churches, along with schools and hospitals, are considered “sensitive locations” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. That means federal agents will avoid arresting, searching or interviewing people there under most circumstances.

The sanctuary tradition can be traced back to the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Numbers cites six sanctuary cities throughout biblical Israel where a person who accidentally killed another could take refuge from anyone avenging the killing.

A more contemporary version is the American “sanctuary church” movement of the 1980s, in which hundreds of Central American refugees trying to avoid deportation sought shelter in churches.

But it’s far from clear how big a role houses of worship will play in harboring undocumented immigrants in today’s political climate.

President-elect Trump won 81 percent of white evangelical voters. While some evangelical groups such as the Evangelical Immigration Table have championed immigration reform, their efforts have not led to movement on the national level.

The major Hispanic evangelical organizations are socially conservative, opposing abortion and favoring broader religious freedom laws. They have advocated for comprehensive immigration reform but have not joined the sanctuary movement.

“Churches need to follow their conscience,” said the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

“If they feel they need to protect undocumented immigrants, they’re within their biblical and theological right to do so. But the real preference is immigration reform. Sanctuary churches is a response. It’s not the answer.”

About 65 percent of Hispanic voters voted for Hillary Clinton, according to exit poll data; Trump won 29 percent of their vote.

“What we have been seeking is a true change in the system,” said Tony Suarez, who serves on Trump’s Evangelical Executive Advisory Board. “All this is a result of a broken system.”

Suarez is executive vice president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which counts 40,118 participating churches, the largest Hispanic evangelical association in the country.

He said the advisory board has been meeting with the president-elect or his advisers on a weekly basis and that their immigration policy is “still evolving.” But he added the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference will advocate for “justice and mercy” for all undocumented people.

The case of Flores, who has no criminal convictions, shows how difficult it may be for undocumented immigrants to flee to churches.

He is a Catholic, but he sought refuge in a United Methodist Church. Although  U.S. Catholic bishops urged Trump to adopt humane policies toward immigrants and refugees earlier this week, not every bishop is likely to advocate for sanctuary churches.

Trump won the overall Catholic vote by 7 percentage points over Hillary Clinton, 52-45.

Protestant mainline churches, more liberal Catholic churches and Jewish synagogues however, are expected to join the movement and open their doors to people seeking refuge.

“It’s really key that people of faith be active, especially white America,” said Hynicka, of Arch Street United Methodist. “It’s time to put your bodies, buildings and assets on the line.”

(Elizabeth Evans is a freelance reporter based in the Philadelphia area)

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  • Right now the law states that undocumented foreigners can be arrested and subject to deportation. That law is constitutional and will likely remain so. For the churches to become refuges is going in direct violation of the law and may not bode well in the long-term.

  • The legality, morality, and political acceptability of this tangled web of issues all boil down to what the cities, colleges, churches, federal government, reporters, and commenters imply and infer at any given moment from the verrrry flexible terms “sanctuary”, “immigration reform”, “protection”, “evolving policy”, “safe havens”, “broken system”,…

    Originally, “sanctuary city” meant one which refused — completely legally — to perform duties that are the explicit responsibilities not of cities, but of the federal government. This municipal maneuver was deliberately designed to shield those cities from having to effectively donate already strained financial, personnel, and other resources to the feds, while shielding the cities from prosecution by said feds.

    And from there, the terms, meanings, and participants have all increased at a rate surpassed only by the leporine opiners.

    It looks to me as if all the above parties are trying their best to fortify their positions while claiming the legal, moral, and political high ground; and it looks to me like another case that’s headed Right (if not right) for the Supreme Court.

  • Post-election, the Catholic bishops said immigrants should be “welcomed without sacrificing our security.” On Tuesday, their pro-immigration efforts would “honor and respect the laws of this nation.” Pope Francis said on Nov. 1: “Migrants should be treated according to certain rules, because migration is a right, but one which is highly regulated.” Also, “If a country is only able to integrate 20 [refugees], let’s say, then it should only accept that many. If another is able to do more, let it do more.” So Catholic bishops will not be offering sanctuary.

  • We need many immigrants for jobs here in the US. I don’t want to see major crackdowns except for criminals. But we have a duty to man our borders and know whose coming in.

  • Actually they aren’t breaking the law. Only the federal government can enforce immigration laws. State and local law enforcement can only get involved if specifically asked by federal officials. Churches have no obligation to inform immigration authorities about their congregations or for anyone.

    Refugees are not considered immigrants per se. Once declared a refugee you have permanent residence and a path to citizenship. Despite ignorant nattering of the nativism crowd, all refugees are heavily vetted because of the benefits it confers. Far more than those on immigration visas.

  • Any church supporting the violation of federal immigration law should be held accountable. Migration is not a right. It is a privilege. Try packing up and moving to live in any country in Europe as an American citizen and you will learn that.

  • They are held accountable to as much as their obligation to enforce the immigration law entails. They have none whatsoever, nor is it ever asked of them. It is not the role of anyone but the Federal government to enforce immigration laws.

    It would be nice if the people who discuss upholding the immigration laws the loudest were those who knew what the laws were or how they worked. But that is invariably never the case. Nativist sentiments almost entirely depend on complete ignorance of the immigration laws and misrepresenting how they work.

  • Church sanctuaries are supposed to be all about worship!! It’s easy for these churchmen to get distracted into politics, and invest their passions there, instead of in the Gospel.

    How thoroughly did they check Xavier Flores’ background? What evidence do they have that he hasn’t committed serious crimes, either here or in Mexico? Do they realize that Methodist missionaries are likely ministering to families in Mexico and Central America, who are spending lots of money on lawyers, to come to the US legally? Isn’t there a mixed message here?

    What about the financial welfare immigrants that are already here, who have to compete with illegals for a decent wage in the workplace with low value-added jobs? Those are the most serious dimensions to this dilemma, and not the “feel-good” of this congregation of “Boomers living in nostalgia for the era of churches protesting government action like they did with Vietnam!

    All of that’s a rather poor excuse for upholding the church’s main mission, that of preaching the Gospel!.

  • Darlin’ actually that was St. Francis of Assisi, who said “preach the gospel wherever you go and when absolutely necessary, use words!”

  • There you go. So when churches become sanctuaries for poor refugees, they are fulfilling their purpose as a church! Thanks Sable.

  • Do these churches plan on providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who are guilty of breaking other laws? What I mean is, would one of these churches shelter a thief, drug dealer or rapist from law enforcement because he is here illegally? Those seem to be the people that Trump is intent on going after.

  • That’s all well and good, but there’s not enough room in all our churches to fit poor refugees or other poor groups. We have to get our hands dirty by going beyond the church to take care of these. Maybe open our own homes? Or write those checks for non-profit organizations that are equipped to care for their needs?

    (BTW, “Sabelotodo” is Spanish for “knows-it-all!” Some of my detractors have called me “Sabe nada,” or “know-nothing!”)

  • Agree. Sanctuary cities definitely existed since Moses time but they were intended to save the lives of people that knew they had done a crime. Sad to have to call it a sanctuary city or church for those that their only crime was to want a better life for their families, you know, the old American dream.

  • I believe most churches would protect existing members first that they may have not known were here undocumented. Personally I don’t think unrespectable folks would want to hang out in churches. I can be wrong.

  • It appears that the point of the article us that to some churches understand the serious trauma of deportation, especially to children born and raised, and only know our culture and English, is damaging to these families. Familes that came for a better life like all our ancestors did. And just like all cultures, only a small % of them are actual criminals but when immigration teams go and raid cities they will not care and rake in everyone in their path. Many are or have paid into the social security system, medicare, etc., in their taxes because they have to show they were contributing for years before you can be accepted into the immigration process. Sad that most of us believe the media lies about these people.

  • Sanctuary doctrine applies, as far as I know, to all manner of alleged criminals. Your mileage may vary from church to church.

  • I realize the theory applies to any crime, I’m just wondering how far these particular churches are willing to go when it comes to undocumented immigrants.

  • Yes, someone else kindly cleared that up.
    But continue demonstrating your condescending rudeness as a facet of your “Christian” witness. It’s very Christ- like of you.

  • You shall not use a place of worship to harbor criminals. Any church or place of worship used to harbor criminals or is involved in ANY illegal activity shall have there privileges revoked.

  • You shall not use a place of worship to harbor criminals. Any church or place of worship used to harbor criminals or is involved in ANY illegal activity shall have there privileges revoked

  • I’am a Native American, i was born in NJ. Where do you think the Indians came from? They walked here from Asia and they didn’t have any papers when they showed up. So Indians were immigrants too. If you want to play that who was here first, it was the Africans, so the whole planet belongs to them and the rest of you are immigrants.

  • It comes to who can obey the laws and who can’t. People who were not invited come into your country and they still can not obey the law and think they don’t have to. They got to go.

  • Churches are dying and illegal aliens are new blood for them. Until they start to rape, rob and murder church goers.

  • Sanctuary cities are a blatant violation of federal law. Some on the left have tried to claim that they’re perfectly legal, but this is clearly false. As James Walsh,
    former associate general counsel of Immigration and Naturalization
    Services, explains, 8 USC section 1324 “deals with those persons who
    knowingly conceal, harbor, or shield illegal aliens and could apply
    to officials in sanctuary cities and states.”

  • How many Mexicans you know who don’t speak Spanish? Parents were not worried about this when they crossed the border so why should we as Americans worry about them.
    “small % of them are actual criminals” The communities are support systems for the criminals, this is where they live. Do you realized there have been over 40,000 Americans killed by illegal aliens since Obama has been President?

  • Get back to me when you can quote actual statistics from a credible objective source.

    One overriding aspect of nativist views is deliberate misinformation. It requires near total ignorance as to how our immigration system works and relies on a lot of sensationistic fiction.

    As crime statistics nationwide bear out, the alleged illegal immigrant crime wave isn’t there. As a population they are more likely to avoid police scrutiny than most.

  • No they aren’t. Hence the ability of state and local government officials to declare such status without drawing the immediate wrath of the federal government. The only people who are obligated to enforce immigration laws in this respect are the federal government and those who they bring in voluntarily to do so.

    Ignorance of the immigration system is a necessary requirement for your views.

    BTW The Daily Wire is not a reliable or objective news site. There is,no necessity to take its claims at face value.

  • Let me get this straight, I’m sure the numbers are way higher of white Americans causing crimes and raping. So if you are white and a pedophile it’s fine get out of jail quick, and let be in the community, but if you are Mexican undocumented then go back to your country and rape. Humans of all races are filled with evil thoughts. How about focusing on what realy matters and stop wasting money, time and resources on this crack down.(tunnels is how ppl really cross over lol!!!) Almost sounds like the holocaust when ppl had to hide from wrath. Can this president focus on what is realy important. Inflation, cleaner air and water, sexual educationonal prevention classes in school, fair wages for all, grants for school, traffic, Bay area home rises and the way property taxes are rising is ridiculous!!!!!!!

  • There is NO proof that the Africans founded civilization in every continent; that is bogus history. The Olmecs were not Africans; they were Amerinds. I have been there and saw it with my own eyes. Check the link so you can see what I saw with my own eyes. DNA studies on Native Americans have shown that Amerinds are a mixture of Polynesian and Phoenician (Semitic). Native American languages do not come from the same language family as the Asian languages. I am also Native American on both sides. My father’s side of the family still speaks a Native American language.

  • These innocent families shamelessly scam the government every chance that they get. That’s why they have large amounts of disposable income and ride around in expensive vehicles with only one parent working while the average working-class American struggles to get by even with both parents working. Let Americans keep working hard so that their taxes can go to provide for illegals. Clearly you have never lived near the border and don’t know the true face of illegals.

  • Thanks for the laugh! Illegals do not get welfare or Social Security like they state in the media unless they are crazy enough to go by someone elses identity. My state is super strict and they investigate who you are too death before givnig you anything. I am disabled from a car accident after working professionally for 28 years. Clearly you do not know! I am US born from legal parents from Cuban 1960s and lived in hispanic Communities. Family of pastors and church going all my life, was dtudying tuo be a pastor before my car accident. Close to the community and its needs. The one who doesn’t know us you!

  • That may very well be the case where you live but not where I live and have lived. My mother’s family is ethnically classified as Mexican because if you know your history, like you know everything else, then you should know that a lot of the people classified as Mexican in Texas are really descendants of Apache, Comanche, and other tribes who had Spanish culture forced upon them through the many missions established in the Southwest by Spaniards, the Alamo is one of these former missions. I know about many of the tricks and scams that illegals use. I am well aware that a lot of them do work with someone else’s identity; they don’t stop being illegal immigrants because of this. And yes, I do know that Mexicans are predominantly Amerind. Most of the illegals are from southern and central Mexico. And yes, I also do know better than you, that the rivalry between the city-dwelling tribes and nomadic Amerind tribes goes back to Pre-Columbian tribes. First you were Native American, now you are Cuban, I guess that next you’re going to be something else or just say that you are a mixture of everything, WHATEVER. I guess you are also going to say that reports like the ones at the link below are also false. Even though a lot of us live around illegals who we know are guilty of this type of fraud and more.

  • Harboring criminals…and EVERY illegal alien is a criminal thief… is AGAINST God’s Law. People who favor illegal aliens are putting foreign citizens ahead of the economic welfare of THEIR OWN CHILDREN. (Illegal immigrants compete for jobs; All immigration bids up Costs of Living and bids down Wages.) Helping thieves steal from your own children is DEFINITELY a SIN.

  • Sad that you feel you need to be derogatory to me. I live in the North East and am fully aware that there are different circumstances and illegal activities that are being done. But yet again there are very strict rules and it is very hard up in this corner of the US to get away with driving big cars and having disposable income that may be accessible in the south. It is extremely expensive to live in the North East and therefore the illegals barely survive. I was not and am not talking about the circumstances of all illegals across America. I was just commenting on their circumstances up my way. They do not have huge disposable incomes and most of then don’t drive because they cant afford to own a car and the insurance.
    My fathers mom is a proud Mexican women that went legally to Cuban to have and raise my father and other aunts and uncles. Since several of them were official ordained pastors, theirs and my families were saved from the horrifying events at Castros take over in Cuba. As a pastor my father chose a sanctuary city and I have spent much of my life seeing their hard life here on the East Coast. Until you come here and see for yourself I guess you will continue to believe what happens by you happens everywhere but that is only being close minded…