Fear Grows that ICE May Not Respect Sanctuary Churches

Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, mentioned that, aside from Morales, there are 10 other immigrants taking shelter in churches. (Photo by Victor Matos via El Diario)

The case of Guatemalan mother Amanda Morales, who took shelter in the Holyrood Episcopal Church in Manhattan on Thursday to avoid deportation, has renewed concerns among politicians and activists about the future of sanctuary churches as a safe place for undocumented people and their families. Even though the mother of three young U.S. citizens was allowed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to stay in the country for 90 days to attempt to reopen her case, it is feared that “la migra” may eventually stop respecting churches as off-limits shelters.

State Assemblywoman Carmen de la Rosa warned that, while ICE has made a commitment to keep its policy of respecting so-called “sensitive locations” – which include demonstrations, places of worship, schools and hospitals – it is possible that it might enter houses of worship at any moment looking for people who have taken shelter there, infringing not legal but moral rules.

“Right now, there is no law preventing them from doing so. However, the governor and the mayor have declared New York a sanctuary city that protects immigrants from ICE, and we hope that ICE will comply with its policy of respecting these locations,” said the Upper Manhattan political leader. “Although nothing really forbids ICE from going into any place, they would have to break a door to do so, and I don’t think they will do that. Still, that is a risk that Amanda and those who chose to take shelter in churches are taking at this moment, in addition to being unable to leave the sanctuary.”

The assemblywoman mentioned that, anticipating that ICE may decide to change its position regarding these sensitive locations, the state assembly approved the New York State Liberty Act, an initiative to lawfully protect places such as churches and courts from the presence of “la migra.” However, the state senate blocked the bill.

An extreme measure

Sara Gozalo, from the New Sanctuary Movement, which gathers churches of different denominations, said that the decision to go to a house of worship to take shelter is an extreme one, and asked the Trump administration to stop its attacks on immigrants.

“The decision to take sanctuary is very personal. I could not advise anyone whether to do it or not, because the person must make a choice between turning themselves in to ICE to be detained and deported, and being in a church where you cannot get out and are, in a way, jailed, as you may be caught if you come out. It is an impossible decision, and no one should have to be in that position,” said the activist, adding that she would not be surprised if ICE began targeting sanctuary churches.

“Historically, immigration authorities have refrained from entering sanctuary places, but we would not be surprised about anything coming from this administration,” said Gozalo. “Still, going into a church would be infringing the religious right of leaders to protect human beings. Breaching that would be the lowest they could go (…)”

Reverend Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement, mentioned that, aside from Morales, there are other immigrants taking shelter in churches who have chosen to do so in secret.

“There are at least a dozen people in the New York area. Our group has around 200 churches of all faiths helping out, some of which are willing to offer physical sanctuary,” he said. “This is a drastic measure. We would not recommend it, because physical sanctuary often becomes a prison.”

Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez, who supports immigrants who chose to turn to churches for refuge, called on undocumented people to consider houses of worship as an option, but only as a last-resort protection mechanism.

“There is an entire institutional framework in New York City that is protecting you. If you feel persecuted by ICE or are afraid, and if they make you choose between taking a plane back to your country or being deported, go to a church. We will protect you there as a sanctuary location,” said the Dominican-born politician. Still, he also admitted that there is no law forbidding ICE from going into churches.

“There is no law on that, but that is the struggle we are in, and we hope that the federal government will make good on its recent promise not to enter holy places,” he said. “It is crucial to have Amanda’s case reopened, as she is a symbol just like Rosa Parks was.”

Protests against ICE

During a demonstration in front of the Citizenship and Immigration Services building in Lower Manhattan, Congressman Adriano Espaillat said that the federal government should halt President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, and described the structure as a gloomy place. “This building is a dark tunnel with no exit. Thousands of people go in, report, and never come out. We need to protect the sanctuary quality of the city.”

Immigration attorney Geoff Kagan reaffirmed that ICE could legally enter churches if they change their policy of respecting sensitive locations, adding: “I do not feel confident that they are not going to do it.”

For its part, ICE stated that it continues to implement its policy of respecting churches as places where they do not carry out their operations. However, they pointed out that the decision to do so is made on a case-by-case basis and that safety concerns, among other issues, are taken into consideration.

“According to ICE policies, law enforcement actions do not occur or are focused on sensitive locations such as schools or churches unless circumstances require so or the actions of other authorities lead our agents to sensitive locations, or with previous authorization of a designated supervising official,” stated ICE.

Father Luis Barrios, of the Holyrood Episcopal Church, where Morales is sheltered, said that ICE may have the legal right to carry out its operations, but that does not make the way they are spreading fear acceptable.

“Everything Hitler did was legal there. Slavery was legal in our country. What we are doing here is standing up against immorality,” said the priest. He warned that he will fight back if “la migra” goes into his church with the intention of taking Morales.

“I hope I’m not there when ICE goes in there, because I am not going to give her up so easily. They are going to have to snatch her away from me, because they will not come into God’s house. If I get in trouble for that, so be it,” he said. “They are not supposed to go in there, but they like to do whatever they want, so I will do whatever I want, too.”

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