To Address Today's Immigrants, People in Many States Look to 1980s Sanctuary Strategy

by | September 30, 2014

By Julián Aguilar

Faith-based leaders in Texas could be asked to open their churches and other places of worship to undocumented immigrants at risk for deportation as part of a growing national movement. And while some leaders say they would consider such a request — as some Texas churches did in a similar movement decades ago — others say they have been providing such shelter for years.

Last week, faith-based and congressional leaders from Arizona, Illinois and Pennsylvania announced a multistate sanctuary movement patterned off a similar effort that took place in the 1980s.

Those leaders are calling on congregations to openly offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who could be deported under current immigration laws. In addition to offering such immigrants protection, the leaders hope to pressure the Obama administration into acting soon on the issue. The White House announced last month that it would delay any action on immigration reform until after the November elections.

Sidney Traynham, a representative of Church World Service, a faith-based humanitarian agency and a member of the Sanctuary 2014 coalition, said that it had reached out to Texas congregations but that none are a part of the movement yet.

In the 1980s, more than 500 congregations, including some in Texas, joined the effort and built an “underground railroad” used by undocumented immigrants to travel to and from safe houses to congregations, according to the Sanctuary 2014 website.

Whether the effort can be duplicated in Texas this time around hinges on various factors, said Michael Seifert, the network director of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a network of community organizations. Among them is the perception of why people are fleeing, he said. In the 1980s, Central Americans were engulfed in civil wars and mayhem that the United States was directly involved in, including the Iran-Contra affair. Today, most of the Central Americans coming into the U.S. say they are fleeing cartel violence and poverty. Though politicians express sympathy for the migrants, some also argue for swift deportation.

“It could be a really different response if we had Marine Corps or mercenaries going down the streets” in Central America, Seifert said. “It’s different in response to drug cartels going nuts.”

A U.S. Border Patrol spokesman did not return a call seeking comment on how the movement could affect the agency's daily operations.

Seifert added that the conversations on whether congregations in the Rio Grande Valley should take part in the movement, or exactly how they can, are ongoing.

“I’m not sure we’re there yet, but I am also quite aware that the sensibilities of people wanting to take people in are,” he said. But the divisiveness surrounding the immigration debate might also be a reason for congregations to pass on the effort this time, Seifert said.

The surge of Central Americans, specifically the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the Rio Grande recently, has enraged conservatives who blame President Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, for luring the migrants here and causing the influx. Congressional debate on immigration legislation, which had stalled this year, is expected to re-emerge this fall. And following a 2013 Texas legislative session where few immigration-related bills were filed, state lawmakers are expected to be more active on the issue when they return in January.

The Rev. Diane McGehee, the director of the Center for Missional Excellence for the United Methodist Church’s Texas Annual Conference, said the concept of sanctuary comes from a simple belief: All people deserve a place of worship regardless of immigration status or any other factor.

The Texas chapter of the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdiction includes 700 congregations, some which would consider joining the effort, McGehee said.

“There probably would be churches that would be enthusiastic about doing this,” she said. “And you probably have some that would not want to go that route.”

Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, an El Paso-based immigrant shelter, said he supports the sanctuary efforts across the country.

But Garcia, whose group took in hundreds of undocumented immigrants during last summer’s immigrant surge, adds that churches and other groups have been providing shelter for decades for reasons that are not politically motivated.

“The question isn’t ‘Is there the political will?’ because it’s been done before,” he said. “Right now we have 15 to 20 immigrants at Annunciation House. We don’t go out there and say, ‘We are declaring sanctuary.”

But he doesn’t mind if congregations in Chicago, Philadelphia or elsewhere do it for political reasons because the issue gets raised in environments where people are usually uninformed.

“They’ve got the theories, we’ve got the warm bodies [on the border],” he said.

The Catholic Diocese of El Paso, which provided temporary shelter to more than 3,000 undocumented immigrants last summer, expressed a similar position.

“The way the diocese sees it is that they have always welcomed the undocumented and they are going to continue to do so,” diocese spokeswoman Elizabeth O’Hara said.

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