Men prepare food for a Mexican Taqueria sponsored by Pilgrim-St. Luke's and El Nuevo Camino United Church of Christ in Buffalo, N.Y., in November 2016. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Justo Gonzalez II

Sanctuary for the undocumented comes with legal consequences

(RNS) The Trump administration's hard-line stance on undocumented immigrants is polarizing: People have responded with either "throw the bums out" or "have a heart."

But the question of whether faith communities can legally offer the undocumented physical sanctuary — sheltering them in churches, synagogues and mosques to keep them from immigration authorities —  is not so cut and dried. Leaders of faith communities involved in what is called "the sanctuary movement" say there are moral and faith issues that sometimes trump the legal and political issues.

"We do not want to be bad citizens. We do not want to violate the law," said the Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim-St.Luke's United Church of Christ, one of two Buffalo, N.Y., churches that joined the sanctuary movement in February. "But we will stand on the side of justice and we will stand on our faith and God’s law and our understanding that we are to welcome our brothers and sisters. That is part of who we are and who we have been. We are on the right side of justice and the right side of history."

But if the morality of the sanctuary movement is arguable, the law is not.

"The law says no one may knowingly harbor or shield an illegal alien from detection or from enforcement of immigration laws," said Jessica Vaughan, director of public policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent research organization. "The responsible people could be prosecuted, resulting in incarceration or fines. And sheltering the illegal alien is ultimately pointless, because the federal government can enter the facility to make an arrest if needed, or they will simply wait it out, and the illegal alien will be deported anyway."

Participation in the sanctuary movement surged after the election of President Trump. Before his election, about 400 U.S. congregations were involved, according to Church World Service, which offers immigrants legal assistance and helps organize the sanctuary movement. Today, CWS estimates more than 800 congregations are involved.

A Mexican national opens winter clothing gifts at Pilgrim-St. Luke's United Church of Christ in Buffalo, N.Y., on Dec. 24, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Justo Gonzalez II

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Many other congregations support the communities that offer physical sanctuary, providing funds, food, clothing, legal assistance and more. The movement includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha'is, Buddhists and more.

But it is the congregations that shelter undocumented immigrants that take the legal risks. And that has some religious leaders preaching caution rather than participation to their members.

“When we use the word 'sanctuary,' we have to be very careful that we’re not holding out false hope," Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl said in comments to the editorial board of The Washington Post in early March. "We wouldn’t want to say, ‘Stay here, we’ll protect you.’ ... With separation of church and state, the church really does not have the right to say, ‘You come in this building and the law doesn’t apply to you.’ But we do want to say we’ll be a voice for you.”

In Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich tempered instructions to priests, saying Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials may not enter without a warrant and reminding priests that only they may live on church property.

Bryan Pham, a Jesuit priest and professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, outlined five legal points churches should consider before becoming a sanctuary congregation. Among them:

  • There is no legal definition or standing for a "sanctuary," so housing an undocumented immigrant in a house of worship is a violation of federal law.
  • Congregations can't claim that harboring an undocumented immigrant is an expression of their First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.
  • Claiming a house of worship as a "sanctuary" and housing people inside it could be a violation of local ordinances, which may give law enforcement officials probable cause to obtain a warrant for a search and possible arrests.

Labeling a house of worship “may give a false sense of safety,” Pham told National Catholic Reporter. “If you declare yourself a sanctuary, you’re implying you can provide legal and other protection. And that’s not true.”

To date, ICE officials have not entered any churches to conduct a raid — though they did stake out a church-run homeless shelter in Virginia and arrested people as they emerged. And in the 1980s, some church leaders in several states who sheltered about 2,000 undocumented immigrants from war-torn Central America were tried and convicted, but were not given jail sentences.

Today, immigration experts say ICE will likely refrain from entering a church —  deemed a "sensitive location," along with schools and hospitals, by the Department of Homeland Security — because the visuals would bring a public relations nightmare.

In Buffalo, Gonzalez said he and his congregation of about 110 consulted lawyers before making their decision to become a sanctuary. The vote was unanimous.

"No one blinked," Gonzalez said.

The church officially opened its doors to the undocumented with a public announcement in local media in February. Gonzalez declined to say whether the church is housing anyone, for fear of endangering them and implicating the church.

"I can say, when there have been rumors of ICE activity and Border Patrol activity we have opened up the church and people have come and we have spent the day with them, fed them and provided them a safe and sacred space," he said.

Should ICE come to the church, its employees are ready, Gonzalez said. They have been trained in the proper legal protocol and in their legal rights: ICE officials must present a warrant and the name of who they are looking for.

"We no longer just buzz people into the building," Gonzalez said. "We have to know who you are and why you are here. We are doing the best we can to protect ourselves and stand firm that this is holy ground that we will not allow to be violated."


  1. “the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent research organization”

    Actually it is a front for white supremacist sponsored nativism. A wing of NumbersUSA an anti immigration group popular among neo Nazis and founded by one (Robert Taunton).

    It is neither independent nor performs research. You many legitimate reporters make the mistake of not researching the group prior to quoting them. Akin to calling the KKK an advocacy group and asking for their opinion on civil rights.

    The latest “nacht and febel” efforts against illegal aliens is counterproductive. Rather than spend efforts and resources going after actual violent criminals and public threats, they are wasting them going after people who are largely a net gain for the country. More non violent inoffensive people detained means less space for the real bad guys. It means less effort is put into finding them. It destroys any chance of cooperation and trust between police and immigrant communities. More importantly this sort of heavy handed action eventually causes problems for citizens and legal residents. There is only so much nonsense people will put up with before the efforts are stopped.

  2. Thank you for pointing this out. Yes, CIS is a hate group.

  3. Here is one paragraph from that confirms CIS’s extremist agenda: Coverage of Krikorian by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremists and hate groups in the United States, has been far more critical, if not scathing. Krikorian, the SPLC claims, has been known to “hobnob with extremists.” According to the SPLC, Krikorian accepted an invitation to speak alongside known Holocaust denier Nick Griffin and so-called “racial realist” Jared Taylor at the Michigan State chapter of Young Americans for Freedom in 2007, despite the group having recently made news for orchestrating such offensive events as “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day,” a “Koran Desecration” competition, and covering the campus in “Gays Spread AIDS fliers.”
    Please be more circumspect in your references.

  4. ilegal means against the law. lawlessness is unacceptable. churches who wish to help immigrants should escort them back to their own country and help.them build a better llife there. those who wish to return to the et In line

  5. where is your evidence that cis is as you say?

  6. Much ado about nothing? I would be very surprised if ICE started invading churches to make arrests but apparently others wouldn’t put it past this administration.

  7. splc is so radically left I believe. nothing the comes out ogf thatorganization. we can consider them a hate group.

  8. And you base this on the self serving statements of people they deal with. Right Wing Watch comes to the same conclusions and they rely entirely on public press reports and statements by hate group leaders made in them.

  9. Immigration law is not criminal law. They are very different. People who use analogies between the two merely demonstrate their ignorance of the situation.

    It actually now makes it easier for them to operate and makes exploiting illegal alien labor easier. Nativist measures always end up being worse than counterproductive, they make problems greater and more widespread.

    If you gave a damn about stopping real threats by dangerous illegal aliens then you would not support such wasteful activity.

    But if you just want to see a bunch of brown skinned people harassed and treated harshly for its own sake, carry on.

  10. And we all know one can trust Wikipedia……lol

  11. It depends on how strong the private prison lobby is. They are a guiding factor to both this crackdown and Sessions attitude towards marijuana offenses. Keep those private detention centers packed with people for profit.

  12. It tends to be far more reliable than the people who make such scoffing remarks. 🙂

  13. Nope. I show my work and leave links to sources when possible.

  14. I find it amusing that RNS constantly hits me with pop-ups begging for money when this is the level of journalism they practice. Their reporters cite well-known propaganda outlets like the Center for Immigration Studies as if they were reputable, unbiased sources, and we’re supposed to reward them with donations? At the very least, the CIS should be identified in the story as anti-immigration.

  15. How about the people who are providing physical sanctuary start advocating that they will sponsor these people for citizenship if allowed by enabling legislation (5 years financial responsibility)? And, if individuals can’t do it, then perhaps the church community can do it or can make a commitment to provide significant support to families who want to sponsor but might not be able to completely do it on their own? Now, that would really be putting their money where their mouth is, and make them think many times about screening who they will sponsor long-term. And, it would be great if they could also sponsor those in detention centers who are claiming political asylum and have already been criminally screened, but the commitment could run shorter time in these cases until the individual’s case is resolved. Without some efforts and actions to problem-solve these issues, they will only become increasingly divisive in our communities.

  16. At the very least, it cannot be in dispute that CIS is not a neutral research organization as the article implied. It is anti-immigration. This is clear from reading not even the top half of its website’s home page.

  17. Completely ridiculous. And laughable. NumbersUSA was founded by Roy Beck alone, and has explicitly rejected immigrant bashing and nativism since its inception. Spuddie doesn’t even get the fake smear right (Robert Taunton? This guy? No, Spuddie is trying to identify John Tanton. But either way, it’s nonsense spewed by people who either don’t know what they’re talking about, or want to shut down legitimate debate about immigration policy.

  18. Except none of that is actually true. They are very much associated with white supremacy through John Tanton. They are specifically there to give immigrant bashing a patina of respectability with phony stats and innocuous sounding reports. Dimwitted members of the MSM frequently fall for their nonsense due to lazy source vetting.

  19. Wow. So immigration law is not criminal law. Where did you get your law degree, the Soviet Union, George Soros University? What a leftist puke you are.

    Illegal immigration is illegal. It is against the law, communist.

  20. So you got nothing of value to say. Typical conservative wants to spout a great deal about immigration laws but doesn’t know a thing about them. Let’s be honest all it is to you guys is an excuse to harass brown skinned people.

    Go phuq yourself.

  21. You left out “dishonest”.

    I’d be interested in what YOU know about immigration laws, btw.

    In the past it appeared to be nothing.

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