Offering sanctuary: The church/immigration story that’s not going away


Back in 2007, the Bush administration wasn’t budging on immigration, so a number of churches began offering “sanctuary” to illegal immigrants whereby the immigrant’s family literally lives on church property where the police won’t touch them. It was similar to a much larger sanctuary movement in the early 1980s when Central American refugees camped out in churches across the country.

I was convinced this new sanctuary movement was going places, so talked the Washington Times (my employer at the time) into sending me and a photographer to interview immigration officials, pastors, activists and the illegal immigrants camped out in church basements in Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and the Seattle area. The result was a four-part series that you can read about here, here, here and here. (It was quite a switch from the kind of coveragethe Times usually runs on immigration). One of my photos from a pro-sanctuary demonstration in Kansas City runs atop this story.

 So when I saw a recent story in Religion News Service about a press conference about the incoming Trump administration creating the need for sanctuary churches, I took notice.

Sanctuary is a complex topic and the villains aren’t always who you think they are. The story began:

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.

The story went on to remind readers of Trump’s promises to deport millions of illegal aliens and that while synagogues, liberal Protestant churches and liberal Catholic parishes are for the sanctuary movement, many Hispanic churches, evangelical Protestants and conservative Catholics have not signed on at all.

I was especially interested to hear how Hispanic congregations aren't automatically signing on to be part of the sanctuary movement.

Then there was this paragraph near the end:

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.

I’m curious why the story didn’t add that this text is “also known as the Old Testament.” The Associated Press stylebook says “Hebrew Bible” is appropriate for stories dealing with Judaism alone whereas “Old Testament” is a Christian designation. Yet, this story is overwhelmingly about churches, not synagogues.

More nuanced was this March 21 story in on Public Radio International’s web site that reminds us that deportations surged under the Obama Administration; a factoid many media omit when reporting on Trump and immigrants. No less an expert than ABC News reported in August that Obama has deported more people than any other U.S. president. We’re talking at least 2.5 million people.

It’s one thing to rail against immigrants, but it’s another to meet these folks and listen to why they fled their homelands in the first place. My sentiments on immigration changed quite a bit after interviewing a lot of immigrants and hearing about the 4 a.m. raids that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) inflict on these folks. When they come pounding on your door, you’re not bound legally to open that door if they do not have a warrant. Yet, who is thinking straight at that hour and has access to a lawyer? And so people get rounded up.

Also, please read this amazing New York Times story “Killers on a Shoestring” about the hellhole that is El Salvador and you can see why its residents would risk everything to get out of there. I spent time with people who didn’t dare leave the square block on which their sanctuary church sat for fear of ICE snapping them up. They were going mad with boredom and cabin fever; they had cleaned the church basement a zillion times for something to do, yet they were the lucky ones who had gotten from there to here.

I also interviewed people who wanted illegal immigrants out yesterday along with the ICE folks, so after you’ve spent significant time with both sides, you realized the issue transcends liberal/conservative categories. There are conservatives are pro-immigration because they don’t want to split up families and liberals who are not and who feel the Obama administration has taken the right path. There are illegal immigrants who should stay here and others who should have left long ago.

This past summer, some Canadian friends of mine finally attained U.S. citizenship after a 20-year process and thousands and thousands of dollars spent on fees, lawyers, travel to hearings, etc. They -- and their fellow new citizens from a range of countries -- are adamantly against any illegal immigration, saying the people who do it legally shouldn’t be superseded by those who won’t.

Then, in southern California's Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, there was the Nov. 10 interfaith prayer service on immigration - requested by the Los Angeles mayor's office no less - that featured Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez trying to calm frantic immigrants. 

I hope reporters who get to cover sanctuary issues don’t just go to the press conferences or church services that showcase one side of the issue. There's no lack of groups who are proclaiming that Trump is starting up a Fourth Reich, that immigrants will be deported by the truckload and we need a new sanctuary movement now.

In 2007, I found that churches (and a few synagogues) initially sound enthusiastic about sanctuary but comparatively few sign on. They tended to be mainline Protestant denominations. I never saw one evangelical church join up.

Will that change in 2017? Journalists should explain that it is a complex commitment to have immigrants housed on church property while ICE agents could pop up at any moment. Some of the larger, richer churches walk away while the smaller, humbler places of worship take people in. It's a great story, but the answers aren't always what you might expect.

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