DFW Congregations Offer Sanctuary to Prevent Low-Priority Deportations

ICE officials attempting to deport a family from a church.
ICE officials attempting to deport a family from a church.

If you hear the word "sanctuary" and think of the scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in which Esmeralda pleads with the cathedral priest for shelter (or, be honest, you think of Logan's Run), you might be surprised to learn that actual sanctuaries are a growing movement in many congregations across the country. Over 70 Christian and Jewish congregations have expressed support in the last year for sheltering undocumented immigrants scheduled for deportation.

The movement was prompted by a 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo which detailed that immigration arrests should not be conducted, unless there is a severe imminent threat, in "sensitive locations" -- which includes schools, hospitals and churches. And so far, immigration enforcement officials seem to respect the boundary.

This latest movement is a resurgence of the sanctuary movement in the '80s, in which over 500 congregations offered protection to Central American immigrants fleeing civil war. Sidney Traynham, a spokesman for the national sanctuary movement, says congregations focus their efforts on low-priority deportations, or deportations for non-criminal undocumented immigrants. Under Prosecutorial Discretion, ICE is theoretically supposed to prioritize criminal offenders in deportation enforcement. But too often, says Traynham, families are ripped apart.

"Congregations will connect through legal service providers, and through members of their own congregations to find those who are facing deportation. And they determine if sanctuary is the right step," he says. "In Tucson there's a mom with two kids, and [her case] is completely a low priority. We really have been pushing against this for a long time."

Pastor Owen Ross of Christ's Foundry United Methodist Church leads a growing group of Methodist ministers in Dallas that actively offer sanctuary shelter. "It has had some history in Dallas, and we're starting to get the word out there and working with our partners to see how we can connect."

So far, Ross works primarily with fellow Methodist ministers but is communicating with other denominations for additional sanctuaries. The Dallas group has yet to recruit any cases -- Ross notes that while his church is actively communicating that sanctuary is available if necessary, there are still some issues to be worked out.

For one, there are currently no showers at the church. Last May, when the rebirth of the sanctuary movement began to pick up speed, Mexican-born Daniel Neyoy Ruiz was given shelter at a Tuscon Presbyterian church for almost a month. At Christ's Foundry, immigrants would have to leave the church to use nearby congregants' home showers, which carries the risk of nullifying sanctuary.

It's one problem Ross is aiming to fix by recruiting other local congregations to join the movement. In addition to promoting dialogue within the city, Ross is also working to get the word out about local sanctuaries. His own church services are completely Spanish-English bilingual, and he says the best way to reach potential immigrants in need of sanctuary is through word of mouth.

"Our church is 80 percent immigrants, and they are connected with other immigrants. So word is spreading among family members and community connections," he says. "There's a frequent and consistent message in how foreigners are to be treated. Because of our broken immigration system, we have families being unjustly persecuted and separated."

Traynham also says reaching out to legal groups, day labor groups, and social groups is a good way to reach people. Ross says that as more people to reach out, the church will screen individuals for criminal background, and that each request will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Meanwhile, as the movement gains momentum, it sends no small message to political leaders. "The message that we're trying to send is that the faith community is standing in the gap," says Traynham. "When our elected leaders fail to do what the rest of the American people believe is right, the faith community is willing to stand in the gap and make sure that families aren't needlessly torn apart."


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