Magazine article The Christian Century

More Congregations Become Sanctuaries for Immigrants under Threat of Deportation

Magazine article The Christian Century

More Congregations Become Sanctuaries for Immigrants under Threat of Deportation

Article excerpt

When Javier Flores, a 40-year-old father of three, received an order to surrender to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he fled to Arch Street United Methodist Church. He said he is determined to stay in the United States for the sake of his children.

The north Philadelphia resident, who has no criminal convictions, entered the United States from Mexico without papers in 1997. Since then, he has been deported and reentered several times.

"Today and every day, if Javier and his family choose to stay with us, they will have a home with us," said Robin Hynicka, senior pastor of the Arch Street church, on November 15.

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

In the wake of the election, there has 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 buildings as safe havens.

Since 2014, 13 churches in nine cities have provided sanctuary to 15 people at risk of imminent deportation, said Noel Andersen, national grassroots coordinator for Church World Service, which provides legal services for immigrants. He 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 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 recent version is the American sanctuary church movement of the 1980s, in which hundreds of Central American refugees sought shelter in churches to avoid deportation. …

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