For more than three decades, churches and synagogues across the country have served as sources of refuge to immigrant families at risk of deportation.
But today, they take a considerably more nuanced approach in handling a crisis that affects tens of thousands of noncriminal immigration violators and their families, from as far south as Arizona border towns to the heart of New York City.
The Sanctuary Movement, as it is commonly known, arose from some of the darkest days of Central America’s history. When President Ronald Reagan first took the oath of office in 1981, civil conflicts and economic calamity had begun to ravage Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
By decade’s end, nearly 1 million refugees had fled north to the United States to seek asylum.
Congregations, in a show of defiance to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), shielded refugees who otherwise would have been denied asylum status.
Fast forward to 2014, when gang and drug violence, as well as economic devastation south of the border, led to another massive influx of refugees and migrants, including children.
An estimated 4.5 million children born in the U.S. have an undocumented parent.
The response has been a deportation policy that has led to more than 350,000 annual “removals," a term coined in 1996 that refers to both border exclusions and deportations. In many cases, families are separated.
Tucson, Arizona’s Southside Presbyterian Church, which co-led the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, has revived its efforts by providing physical shelter and legal assistance to immigrants facing deportation.
The Reverend Alison Harrington, in an interview with VOA, said more congregations feel “outraged and heartbroken” over current U.S. deportation policies, and are opening their doors in hopes of keeping families together and communities intact.
Harrington said a growing anti-immigrant nativist movement by individuals and politicians is only fueling these efforts.
“You kind of have this rising of people, who are people of faith, who will be conscious to say, ‘This is not who we believe we are as a people, as an American people,’” said Harrington, adding that she feels a moral imperative to help.
Because of the church’s proximity to the Mexico border, along the barren Sonora desert, Harrington said she encounters immigrants seeking assistance on a regular basis.
In the 1980s, a period she calls a “nightmare,” 80 people slept on the church floor on any given night, roughly 14,000 over the span of a decade. But the church now accommodates only one family at a time, in rare circumstances for a month or more.
In 2014, she recalls one family — Rosa, along with her husband, Gerardo, and two sons, now 9 and 12 years old — who remained in sanctuary for a record 461 days before Rosa's case was resolved.
“We had to get into high-level negotiations on that one,” Harrington explained, “so a lot of the details are confidential, but her case was resolved to the point that we knew she would be safe to leave.”
Services to immigrants
While churches similar to Southside most commonly provide direct services to immigrants seeking immediate assistance, including short-term housing, other areas of the country have higher settlement rates.
As a result, immigrants in places as far apart as New York City or the San Francisco Bay area require a different set of services.
Judson Memorial Church, in the heart of Manhattan, is one example that provides sanctuary in more ways than one.
“It could be physical, it could be spiritual, it could be financial, it could be legal,” the Reverend Donna Schaper said.
The key word is “accompaniment,” Schaper said.
“We accompany about 200 people a month, and we train volunteers to go to ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] so they know their rights,” she said.
ICE employees, Schaper explains, are not the enemy. Her employees even make a point of knowing them by name.
But she makes it clear that she does not morally respect the game they play, one that she says “terrifies people.”
A family, divided
Just outside Schaper’s door, Miguel Ángel Animas and his two U.S.-born daughters are seated, awaiting help from the staff at the church. His wife, the girls’ mother, was recently deported to Mexico.
Schaper explains how immigration, like the environment and homelessness, lacks enough of a human face to inspire swift action on comprehensive reform. She pauses briefly, thinking of Animas’ youngest daughter, who is playing a “Dora the Explorer” video game on a tablet.
“Look at that girl, Michel. Who wouldn’t want to help her, if they saw her?” Schaper asked.
“I can’t let myself say that [Americans] don’t know or that if they knew, they would do something,” she explained. “They take care of dogs and cats. These people are not dogs and cats.”
Despite Schaper’s frustration, she describes New York City as a “very friendly city” to immigrants. And in her tenure at Judson Memorial Church, she has seen success, especially at the local level.
In 2009, the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC – an interfaith network of citywide congregations, including Judson – spearheaded an effort to prevent ICE agents from interviewing and detaining immigrants at city jails convicted of minor offenses, or whose cases were dismissed.
Their fight eventually paid off.
In 2011, then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed a City Council bill reversing key provisions, a major victory for Judson and New York immigrant families who might have otherwise been separated.