In an exercise of religious liberty, dozens of local churches, mosques and synagogues have declared themselves “sanctuary” congregations — pledging to defy President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration by offering to protect those threatened with deportation.
The network, called Sanctuary DMV, consists of more than 60 congregations from 17 religious traditions and aims to “resist the newly elected administration’s policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants.”
For All Souls Church Unitarian in Columbia Heights, becoming a sanctuary congregation could mean becoming a physical haven for some of the nearly 100,000 immigrants who live in the District.
“For us, this is about living out our mission to care for the community, particularly the most vulnerable,” said the Rev. Rob Keithan, All Souls’ social justice ministry consultant. “We feel a very deep calling to respond and make it clear that we value all of all neighbors, regardless of whether or not they have papers.”
Mr. Keithan said becoming a sanctuary is about not only providing a refuge for illegal immigrants, but also creating a supportive and resourceful community.
To that end, All Souls and many other Sanctuary DMV congregations are training volunteers to accompany illegal immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) hearings and respond to ICE raids.
“The principle of the sanctuary movement is to make it a public struggle,” said Mr. Keithan. “We want to highlight the fact that this kind of enforcement makes no sense and is the absolute wrong way to approach fixing a broken immigration system.”
Supporters of Mr. Trump’s immigration crackdown defend the measures by pointing to crimes, like the rape of a girl at Rockville High School in March allegedly by two illegal immigrants. One of the suspects had been facing deportation before the rape charges.
Schools, churches and hospitals are sanctuaries in effect under ICE’s “sensitive locations” policy, which directs agents to avoid taking people into custody in those spaces.
Roughly 800 congregations across the country have declared themselves sanctuaries, a number that doubled after Election Day, according to PICO National Network, a faith-based community organizing group.
The movement dates back to the 1980s, when congregations acted as shelters for Central American refugees fleeing civil war.
“We definitely see this work as building on that legacy,” Mr. Keithan said, adding that several leaders involved in current sanctuary efforts at All Souls — which is located in the heart of D.C.’s Central American community — were once refugees.
Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Georgetown, one of the District’s oldest congregations, sheltered a Salvadoran immigrant who entered the country illegally in 1985.
Mary Kay Totty, who has served as the church’s senior pastor since 2009, said her congregation is prepared to act as a sanctuary again, in keeping with “a tradition we’ve had for years.”
“Whatever challenges we might face with our willingness to be a sanctuary congregation would pale in comparison to the challenges people of color have in this country,” she said.
Deportations were carried out in high numbers under former President Barack Obama, reigniting the push for sanctuary congregations.
But under the Trump administration’s stricter immigration law enforcement policies, the movement has become more critical, according to Mr. Keithan.
Last month, hundreds of people from D.C.-area congregations — including Christians of several denominations, Jews, Buddhists and Muslims — marched through downtown Washington and rallied in front of the White House to officially launch the Sanctuary DMV network.
On Tuesday, the network held a vigil outside the Baltimore ICE office to stand in solidarity with an undocumented woman as she went to her ICE check-in. ICE granted the mother of four from Mexico a stay of one year in the U.S., according to the Washington Ethical Society, a humanistic congregation in the Sanctuary DMV network.