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Minnesota churches face tough questions in offering sanctuary to immigrants

Protecting immigrants is vital work, but what happens when the police arrive at your door?

Police monitoring the crowds at the Minnesota Women’s March. Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In 1982, a man by the pseudonym René Hurtado found himself living in a suburban church in Minnesota. He had fled El Salvador, his home country, after participating in a U.S.-backed military unit during a civil war. After coming to the United States, he spoke out about the terrible things he had done—torturing prisoners with electrocution and needles, for example—as a member of the CIA-trained Salvadoran military. El Salvador wanted him back, and the U.S. government wanted him deported. Instead, Hurtado hunkered down at St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Hennepin County, Minnesota, while his case played out in the national media and in immigration courts.

Hurtado still lives in Minnesota more than 30 years later. Today, his story has new relevance as Minnesota’s churches again embrace their role as sanctuary spaces, this time in response to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and aggressive deportation policies.

Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has “been a wake-up call for people of faith,” said Minister JaNaé Bates, communications director of the faith-based Minnesota organization ISAIAH.

Bates said the idea of sacred places providing sanctuary is an ancient one. The Old Testament is the original source, she said, “when God declared certain spaces sanctioned for safety.”

“Throughout history there have been unjust laws … used against vulnerable people,” Bates said. And throughout history, churches have provided safety for vulnerable people. Today, member churches of ISAIAH are continuing that historical tradition by offering sanctuary to Minnesota’s undocumented immigrants—an estimated 100,000, according to a 2014 study by Pew Research Center.

ISAIAH is a faith-based coalition of more than 100 congregations that directs its members to take action on local and community issues. Their tagline is “faith in democracy.” For members of ISAIAH, “the spiritual and the political are inseparable,” said Bates.

He said that 25 of ISAIAH’s member churches have declared themselves as either sanctuaries or sanctuary-supporting churches; supporting churches are those that do not have the means or facilities to house individuals but have committed to supporting other congregations with the financial, legal, and physical resources they need to offer sanctuary. So far, 15 member churches have committed to offer sanctuary directly to immigrants in need. 

Pastor Doug Pagitt of Solomon’s Porch in South Minneapolis said his church was one of the first in the state to declare itself a sanctuary church through ISAIAH. Solomon’s Porch originally offered sanctuary to show it was “on the side of the people the government is trying to deport,” he said. It was a decision motivated more by moral and political arguments than by legal ones, he said: “The power we have is the power of public opinion.”

Solomon’s Porch declared itself a sanctuary church in December, after Donald Trump won the election. At that time, Pagitt thought that by taking a public stance, the faith community might help influence the political dialogue around immigration. But since Trump took office, Pagitt said, his congregation’s motivations for offering sanctuary have shifted as the danger to individuals has become clearer. What began as a public stance to sway political opinion has since become a concrete reality, and his church is preparing to house people.

Pastor Eliot Howard, of Linden Hills United Church of Christ, shared a similar perspective. In December, Howard declared his church a sanctuary space because he felt the issue carried a sense of urgency, though at the time, it felt like a hypothetical. Three months later? “It feels real now.”

Some in his congregation expressed anxiety over his decision, he said, but in the end the church offered sanctuary because “it is our tradition. We don’t focus on the president or the politics but what Scripture says.”

Pagitt and Howard both said that Minnesota churches have been too long asleep on this issue. President Obama’s administration deported more than 3 million undocumented people from the United States, which is more than any president before him.

“A lot of us feel a bit shameful and hypocritical that we weren’t doing something about this over the last eight years,” Pagitt said. Howard shared a similar concern. “Maybe some confession needs to be given to the fact that we weren’t attentive at the time of the Obama administration’s deportations,” he said.

Should an individual or family take up the offer made by one of ISAIAH’s sanctuary churches, it’s unclear exactly how much protection they could legally receive. John Gordon, the interim legal director of ACLU Minnesota, said that there have been very few cases in the past brought against sanctuary spaces harboring undocumented people. The law on sanctuary spaces is ill-defined, he said, making predictions about the effort difficult.

There is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy memo that is cited as the legal basis for churches offering sanctuary. The memo details a policy “designed to ensure that [ICE] enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches.”

But such a memo is not law and could be changed simply by the Department of Homeland Security issuing another memo. “My understanding is that whether that [memo] remains in effect depends on what time of day it is and which member of the administration you’re listening to,” Gordon said.

He also said the federal government will have no shortage of legal tactics ready should they want to enter a church harboring an individual they’re pursuing. Local ordinances, for example, are tools ICE will have at hand: Does the church have the correct number of bathrooms, legal fire escapes, or separate entrances for home and public use? Should a sanctuary church be in violation of a local zoning code or housing ordinance, ICE could use that to justify legal entry and “scoop those folks up,” Gordon said.

Offering sanctuary might have started as a symbolic response to Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but already it has shifted for these churches to a question not of if, but when. So what will happen to these Minnesota churches if ICE comes to their doors?

Both Pagitt and Howard admit they’re uncertain how such an encounter might unfold.

Howard said that LHUCC would “deny entry” to ICE. To do otherwise, he said, would be to nullify their declaration of sanctuary in the first place. Protecting the vulnerable, Howard said, requires acts of resistance.

Solomon’s Porch would allow entry if immigration authorities had the legal authority to do so, Pagitt said, but would make a public scene of the event. “[We’d] broadcast it on the internet [and] call people to show up at the building. [We’d] make sure as many people as possible could see it.” To Pagitt, the sanctuary movement is not about harboring undocumented immigrants in secret—it’s about finding power in publicity and exposure.

Those are the tactics that are on display in Denver, where Jeanette Vizguerra and her three children have taken sanctuary in the First Unitarian Society church. Vizguerra was set to meet with ICE after a request to “stay” her deportation order was ignored. In the past weeks, rallies have been held by supporters in an effort to shine light on the circumstances of Vizguerra and millions of others.

“Making a scene is an entirely legitimate, constitutionally protected, and often very effective way to hold the government accountable,” Gordon said of the ACLU. “Shining a light on government practices is a big deal.”

This article was first published in YES! Magazine.


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