US churches defy Donald Trump by offering sanctuary to undocumented migrants

Andrew Buncombe
Pastor Noel Anderson of the non-profit Church World Service says some congregations are ‘ready to risk the chance of breaking the law’: AP

Hundreds of churches across America are speaking out in defiance of Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration stance – seeking to protect threatened communities and even offer themselves as physical sanctuaries.

Up to 800 congregations are providing help and support to undocumented migrants who are now at an increased risk of being detained. Some of them are literally offering themselves as sanctuaries, in the expectation that agents from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are unlikely to enter inside.

Church leaders say communities have become increasingly frightened since Mr Trump directed his administration to enforce the nation’s immigration laws more aggressively, unleashing the full force of the federal government to find, arrest and deport those in the country illegally. Unlike under the Obama administration, which deported hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants but prioritised those who had committed crimes, Mr Trump has told his government to also target those who have not. Mr Trump wants to hire up to 15,000 new agents.

But activists are equally preparing for a fight. Taking a leaf from the sanctuary movement of the 1980s and 1990s, when Christian communities stepped in to provide help to thousands of Central Americans fleeing the civil wars – the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, was at the heart of the effort – communities are preparing to take a stand.

“Obama created the machinery for this. He later tried to move back from it,” Pastor Noel Anderson of the non-profit Church World Service told The Independent. “But now Trump is putting this machinery in overdrive.”

He added: “We are very concerned that these policies are happening. We have a moral responsibility to resist and some congregations are ready to risk the chance of breaking the law.”

According to federal law, locations like churches and synagogues are technically public spaces that officials could enter to conduct law enforcement actions. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security issued a memo limiting ICE actions at "sensitive locations" such as schools and houses of worship.

But how long that policy remains in place is unclear. Last month, ICE officers waited outside a cold weather shelter attached to the Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Virginia. At around 6.45am on 8 February, agents swooped on up to half-a-dozen men emerging from the shelter, handcuffed and detained them.

The church’s pastor, Rev Keary Kincannon, said that a number of witnesses saw the men being taken away. Since then, they have been trying to obtain information from the ICE headquarters about what has happened to the men.

“The community is a little more fearful. We have had people coming forward to express their concerns,” he said. “We think [the Trump administration] is trying to send a message. And our message as a church, is that we will do what we do because God loves everyone.”

Mr Trump has ordered officials to step up their efforts to detain and deport undocumented migrants (Reuters)

He added: “We don’t ask people immigration status anymore than we’d their political affiliation.”

The raid outside the Virginia’s churches homeless shelter, is just one example of the aggressive new stance being taken by ICE agents following Mr Trump’s new directive.

Daniela Vargas, a 22-year-old so-called “dreamer” who was brought to the US as a child, watched as her father and brother, who were living in the country illegally, were detained by agents in Jackson, Mississippi. When Ms Varagas spoke out at a news conference this week alongside immigrant rights advocates, she too was subsequently detained by officials.

“You know who we are and you know why we’re here,” her friend, Jordan Sanders, told Univision about the agents.

Also last month, agents in El Paso arrested an undocumented women who had gone to a courthouse to collect details of a protective order in which she alleged she was a victim of domestic violence.

It was reported that the woman was detained, after officials may have received a tip from the woman’s alleged abuser, who was already in custody.

Ravi Ragbir, an activist with New York’s Judson Memorial Church, located next to Washington Park Square, said that in recent weeks he had been travelling across the country to conduct training sessions with other churches who want to learn about becoming sanctuaries. He said that the church had received lots of calls from people very fearful about what may happen to them in the new environment.

“Under Obama, there was a facade of humanity,” said Mr Ragbir, whose church is one of around a dozen in New York to offer sanctuary to undocumented people. “You know that the whole goal is to get rid of as many people as possible.”

He added: “This is why the community has to mobilise to protect the church and the space. We respond by educating everyone.”

He said he believed that for now, ICE agents may be reluctant to forcibly enter a church. However, that could change.

“If they come into a church to take someone, it could become violent,” he said. “There is a sense of tension.”