Churches across the US are fighting back against the Trump administration’s mandate to ramp up deportations with new sanctuary practices of their own, using private homes in their congregations as shelter and potentially creating a modern-day underground railroad to ferry undocumented immigrants from house to house or into Canada.
Church leaders from California to Illinois and New York told BuzzFeed News they’re willing to take their sanctuary operations for undocumented immigrants underground should federal immigration authorities, emboldened by Trump’s recent directives to take a harder line on deportations, ignore precedent and raid their campuses.
“We’re willing to take that risk because it is our call to justice, and this is how we live our faith,” Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim St. Luke’s in Buffalo, told BuzzFeed News. He leads one of the churches that has reached out to an organization in Canada to possibly take in undocumented families.
Gonzalez knows they are stepping into legally murky territory, especially when it comes to possibly smuggling immigrants into Canada, but he said attorneys in his congregation have agreed to help them pro bono if they find themselves in hot water.
“I’m thrilled that we’re establishing a cross-border [link] into another country, so we could support people finding places they are welcome in because, frankly, this administration is not the place,” Gonzalez said.
LA Voice in Los Angeles, an interfaith organization that is also working on a network of churches to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, has also considered connecting with Canadian groups if the need arises, officials said. The group is also working with about 200 places of worship to provide sanctuary in the region.
Given the choice to risk deportation or stay together, some families may opt to head to Canada to stay together, LA Voice officials told BuzzFeed News.
“I really feel like what we’re doing is what God would want us to do,” Rev. Zach Hoover, executive director for LA Voice, said.
The group is willing to not only to take undocumented immigrants, but to hide them in housing provided by their network of churches, mosques, and synagogues across Southern California. Hoover admits it’s a legal gray area and doesn’t discount the possibility of the federal government targeting groups like his in the future.
Still, he says his faith and that of other religious leaders makes it an easier decision to make.
“When you die, the question is not ‘Did you follow the government?’ and then you’re allowed into heaven,” he said. “It’s ‘Did you care for your neighbor?’”
Despite repeated assurances by senior Trump administration officials that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement will continue to focus on those living illegally in the country with criminal records or who pose a threat to public safety, many congregations are skeptical. President Trump’s recent executive orders on immigration and two Department of Homeland Security memos abandon Obama-era mandates to only focus on criminals for deportation, and instead put nearly every undocumented immigrant at risk of deportation for something as minor as a traffic ticket.
Recent ICE raids in cities across the nation that rounded up hundreds of undocumented immigrants also raised ire, even though officials insisted they were routine and planned before Trump took office.
Trump has also taken a combative stance with local jurisdictions that have enacted sanctuary-type policies limiting cooperation with immigration authorities, threatening to yank federal funds in response.
Rev. Beth Brown of Lincoln Park Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Illinois, said she hopes the potential public fallout from ICE agents raiding churches will keep them from doing so; her church may also decide to shift into a less public underground network that could move undocumented immigrants from church to church or into homes to keep them out of reach of federal officials.
ICE lists churches as “sensitive locations” that should be avoided unless circumstances require immediate action, or if there is prior approval from a site supervisor. And in a statement to BuzzFeed News, ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said the agency’s sensitive locations policy remains in effect.
But clergy leaders BuzzFeed News spoke to aren’t counting on it.
“There is some question about whether this sanctuary movement is going to continue being that public, or if the sanctuary movement is going to go more underground,” Brown said. “That stems from concern that under this administration, the same expectations that ICE would not go into sensitive locations may or may not be the same under this administration.”
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Salvador Hernandez and Adolfo Flores