A network of two dozen churches has promised to offer “physical sanctuary” to illegal immigrants facing deportation, saying they want to create a safe haven that federal officials won’t invade as a way of preventing the migrants from being kicked out of the country.
The movement is the latest effort by activists trying to stop as many deportations as possible after failing to win relief from President Obama, who earlier this month temporarily shelved his plans to expand his nondeportation policies, angering Hispanics and immigrant advocates.
“All over the nation, communities of faith are saying we won’t break our promise, and so we declare sanctuary,” said the Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. “We will continue to fight to keep you with your families.”
Dubbed Sanctuary 2014, the movement consists of 24 churches in 12 cities scattered across the country that have vowed to open their doors to holding illegal immigrants facing deportation. They said they have four active sanctuary cases.
One of those is Rosa Robles Loreto, who has exhausted her court options and whom the government has ordered deported. She has been at Southside Church in Tucson for seven weeks, never leaving the church property.
“She will remain until the day that she can safely return to doing what she loves most — cheering for her 8- and 11-year-old boys at their Little League games,” Ms. Harrington said.
Ms. Harrington said Ms. Loreto shouldn’t qualify as a high-priority target for deportation under the Obama administration’s own rules.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency that handles deportation, has a policy that generally prohibits sending agents in to conduct arrests at churches, synagogues, mosques or other buildings used for religious services.
The policy also discourages enforcement actions at schools and hospitals, and even at marches and rallies.
The policy allows for ICE agents to act if there are “exigent circumstances” such as a national security risk or pursuit of a dangerous felon.
Churches are counting on that.
“We’re really confident that they will not enter into the sacred space of a house of worship,” Ms. Harrington said.
The legal situation is somewhat murky, with courts ruling both ways on whether harboring illegal immigrants runs afoul of the law. But the churches said that won’t sway them.
“There is a risk involved, but we all answer to a higher calling too,” said Teresa Wagner, who works at the Presbyterian Church General Assembly’s office of immigration issues.
Churches’ role in illegal immigration has proven to be a touchstone. In 2005 the House passed a bill that would have made it a crime to aid an illegal immigrant in remaining in the U.S. Churches objected, wondering whether they would face charges for having a van drive an illegal immigrant to church.
That bill never received a vote in the Senate.
Immigration has also proved to be a thorny issue for Mr. Obama, who in the 2008 campaign promised to pass a bill legalizing most illegal immigrants in his first year in office. That effort never got off the ground, as he put his effort into health care, global warming and the economic stimulus instead.
Facing slumping support among Hispanics ahead of the 2012 election, he announced a unilateral policy carving so-called dreamers, or young adults who were brought here illegally as minors, out of any danger of deportation.
Activists had asked him to expand that policy to include millions of older illegal immigrants this year, and Mr. Obama vowed to take action at the end of the summer. But he shelved those plans earlier this month, saying he didn’t want it to interfere with this November’s elections.
The Washington Times has calculated that about 60,000 immigrants will be deported in the two months between the time Mr. Obama shelved his plans and the election — many of whom would likely have gotten tentative legal status under an expanded nondeportation policy.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat and a longtime immigration advocate, said he’s asked Mr. Obama to hold a meeting with illegal immigrants who are facing deportation in order to hear their stories directly.