Minneapolis churches join sanctuary movement

Linden Hills United Church of Christ, with Pastor Eliot Howard, is offering shelter to undocumented immigrants. Photo by Michelle Bruch

There is a washing machine in the choir room at the Linden Hills United Church of Christ. A lounge with a pool table is a candidate for living quarters. A camping-style shower may supplement the bathroom facilities.

The church is one of several “sanctuary” churches in the Twin Cities that recently pledged to house undocumented immigrants facing imminent deportation.

Church members say the action comes in response to the election of President Donald Trump, who campaigned to “move criminal aliens out day one,” triple the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, end sanctuary cities and immediately terminate President Obama’s executive amnesties. Trump told 60 Minutes in November that he planned to immediately deport 2-3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records.

“It’s very hard to imagine such sweeping action, but we take it very seriously,” said Emily Goldthwaite Fries, associate minister of Mayflower United Church of Christ. “We’re making a very public stance that we resist that.”

Mayflower is supporting a Robbinsdale sanctuary church’s efforts to shelter immigrants.

“The Bible tells us in many different places that we’re to love the stranger,” said Diane Haines, a member of Mayflower.

Solomon’s Porch in Kingfield is preparing to provide sanctuary to immigrants in its building at 46th & Blaisdell. Pastor Doug Pagitt said the public spotlight is important.

“You are not hiding them away, you are publicly protecting them,” he said. “…Providing sanctuary is meant to be a statement as well as an act of protection.”

Churches and schools are deemed “sensitive” places by ICE. According to a policy document provided by the ICE office in St. Paul, enforcement actions should not take place at sensitive locations without prior approval or unless circumstances involve a dangerous individual or a national security matter. The document states that the policy does not affect the statutory authority of ICE agents, “nor is it intended to condone violations of federal law at sensitive locations.”

The sanctuary movement is coordinated by ISAIAH, a coalition of Minnesota churches advocating for racial and economic equity. ISAIAH is training churches willing to provide food and shelter to individuals or families while they work to secure a stay of removal.

Linden Hills United Church of Christ Pastor Eliot Howard said the church has sponsored refugee families from Bosnia and Sudan, but the concept of sanctuary is new. Members have many questions about how the program would work, he said.

“Since the new administration, with so much being up in the air, we needed to make a declaration that has the feel a little bit of Go-Ready-Set. It’s a little out of order, but I think that’s the tension we’re feeling,” Howard said. “We’re focusing on what we do know. We do know our faith, and that’s what is guiding us right now.”

The Migration Policy Institute sets Minnesota’s number of unauthorized immigrants at 85,000, based on 2014 census data, with 63 percent arriving from Mexico and Central America.

Some congregations noted that deportations were already high under the Obama administration. One high-profile incident involved the Spanish-immersion daycare Jardin Magico, where ICE asked 60 employees to prove their legal status. Three of those employees returned to work.

“Even though we certainly were inspired and convicted to do this in the face of all the hate rhetoric in this election season … unfortunately the last presidential administration already deported two-and-a-half million people,” said ISAIAH Communications Director JaNaé Bates. “This is really a band-aid on a bullet wound.”

ISAIAH and some churches like Incarnation Catholic Church in Kingfield advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.

Deacon Carl Valdez said immigration is part of Incarnation’s history, and staff help connect people to attorneys and social services.

“We don’t take IDs at the door,” he said.

He said that while the church counts many undocumented immigrants as members, Incarnation is not a sanctuary church and he’s doubtful the church would make that commitment.

“When I look at the large numbers we have had over the years, in my opinion, I cannot imagine what that might look like,” he said. “How would you choose? Our resources are thin in the first place.”

“I think it’s a good idea, but it’s the last line of defense for our community,” said Pablo Tapia, who advocates for immigration reform as part of the faith-based nonprofit Asamblea de Derechos Civiles (The Assembly for Civil Rights).

The sanctuary movement has a history in Minnesota. Tapia said local churches provided sanctuary to Central American immigrants in the 1980s before some were granted asylum.

“I know some elders who say it was pretty effective,” he said.

St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka declared the church a sanctuary for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala in 1982. At the request of a fellow Presbyterian church in Arizona, they took in an immigrant who went by the name René Hurtado. Hurtado said he was a member of a U.S.-backed military unit during El Salvador’s civil war, and he fled to the U.S. and spoke out about the human rights abuses he witnessed.

“It was a scary time,” said church member Nancy Anderson. “We had people come to our church who acted like visitors and really were not visitors. They were trying to find out what we were up to. … People in our church ended up having files with the FBI.”

Hurtado, who now lives in the Diamond Lake neighborhood, said he stayed at the church for about six months before moving in with a family. Parishioners brought in food for him, and he saw the church as a quiet place to be.

“More than anything, more than the material support, it’s the moral support,” he said.

Hurtado said the concept of sanctuary is well-intended, but it’s not easy for the church or the immigrant. He said it was challenging to deal with the press, and the publicity made him a focus for immigration officials.

“Once you are in sanctuary, you are a target. You have to be willing to live with the consequences,” he said. “…The commitment has to be 100 percent.”

“He became very close to the people in the church,” Anderson said. “…It was a very interesting time for our church. It drew people together, because we had passion and focus.”

The issue also caused some parishioners in disagreement to leave, she said.

Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director at The Advocates for Human Rights, said a church can’t necessarily protect an immigrant from deportation.

“Just being inside a church doesn’t give them any legal defense,” she said. “It doesn’t undo a deportation order.”

She said that throughout the sanctuary movement in the 80s, several people were indicted, charged or imprisoned, some of whom were driving into Mexico to transport people seeking asylum.

“Despite being quite a high profile movement, it had a limited number of prosecutions,” she said.

She said some courts take a broad definition of what constitutes harboring an illegal immigrant, while other courts take a more narrow interpretation.

Rev. Noel Andersen, national grassroots coordinator for immigrants’ rights at the faith-based nonprofit Church World Service, said the election has bolstered the sanctuary movement.

“We’ve seen a surge of newcomer congregations because of the political context we’re in,” he said.

Nationwide, 400 churches were involved in the sanctuary movement before the election, he said, and the number has grown to 800 today.

Andersen said he’s watching for any changes the new administration might make to prosecutorial discretion, potentially changing deportation priorities from the current focus on recent immigrants and those who commit crimes.

At the state level, Tapia said he’s closely watching movement at the Legislature related to driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants and funding for sanctuary cities.

“Our community is nervous, very nervous,” he said.