Churches Offer Sanctuary to Immigrants Fearing Deportation
By Dani Neuharth-Keusch
Photography By Christian Benavides
Inside northwest Austin’s St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, behind the door marked “No Admittance,” is the repurposed classroom where Hilda Ramirez and her 10-year-old son Ivan have lived for more than a year.
The two crossed the U.S.-Mexico border through coyote networks in 2014 only to be apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement within hours of arriving in the United States. Ramirez said she could not give all the details about why she decided to flee Guatemala but that she feared for their lives and the country offers no protection for women facing domestic violence.
“We had nowhere else to go,” Ramirez said, speaking through her interpreter and English tutor Ana Pomar, a church volunteer and retired teacher.
They spent the next 11 months in detention facilities until a lawyer secured their temporary release. When activists presented the possibility of sanctuary at St. Andrew’s, they immediately took refuge in the church.
Their case is just one of dozens in which undocumented immigrants have found sanctuary in U.S. churches such as St. Andrew’s.
Since Donald Trump was elected president, more churches have been joining the so-called new sanctuary movement, which began in 2014 amid large-scale immigration enforcement actions by the Obama administration. The Texas Observer reported in December that the new sanctuary movement doubled in size to 450 churches across the country in the month after Trump’s election. Now there are more than 800.
That number is steadily climbing as recent waves of ICE operations have sent fear through undocumented communities across the country, said AmyBeth Willis, an organizer for the new sanctuary movement based in Tucson, Arizona.
The raids were reportedly aimed at known criminals who were undocumented, but of the 51 immigrants ICE arrested in Austin between Feb. 10 and Feb. 14, 23 had committed no crime other than crossing the border illegally — the highest percentage of non-criminal arrests in the country, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
“To me, refugees are the most vulnerable people on the planet, yet we have people in leadership who are so unscrupulous that they present them as something to fear,” said St. Andrew’s Pastor Jim Rigby, who has a history of faith-based social justice work. “At some point you say, ‘Is that OK? Am I OK living my life as part of that equation?’ ”
Rigby said he could not imagine anyone being afraid of Ramirez or Ivan.
During an interview at St. Andrew’s, Ramirez, 29 and under 5 feet tall, mostly spoke in Spanish through Pomar, whose English lessons were scattered across Ramirez’s room on yellow sticky notes with the English words for door, wall, window and other objects.
Ivan is also learning English. When he arrived in the U.S., he only spoke Mam, an indigenous Mayan language with 500,000 speakers in Guatemala and Mexico. Now, after just more than a year, Pomar said Ivan is testing above his third-grade level in Spanish and near it in English.
“He’s phenomenal,” she said: “The best student I’ve ever had.”
Over the course of the two-hour interview, Ivan’s initial shyness — at first he stood behind his mother, then he moved to her side and toyed with the petals on her plastic flower ring — eventually faded. He loves soccer, and his favorite school subject is recess.
His mother is not so carefree.
“To get sanctuary isn’t easy,” Ramirez said. “It’s not just a matter of taking a person in. Who’s going to take care of me if I get sick? Who’s going to take my boy to school?”
Ramirez still had an active deportation order and was fitted with an ankle monitor when she first came to St. Andrew’s.
“Some days I was very sad because I’d tell myself, once again, I’m basically in prison. When will I be free to walk about without fear?”
ICE granted Ramirez a temporary stay of deportation last year, which is up for renewal in July. She could have left the church then but chose to stay at St. Andrew’s because she felt safe there, she said.
While sanctuary churches have no official legal protections, a 2011 ICE memo directed agents to refrain from seizing undocumented immigrants from places of worship — at least for now. The memo is only an internal policy that the agency could reverse or ignore.
“Churches’ providing sanctuary is actually this really ancient tradition,” the Rev. Chris Jimmerson of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin said in a phone interview. “It goes all the way back to the Hebrew bible, where there were actually cities that were set up to be sanctuary for folks.”
First Unitarian, where Jimmerson is the minister for program development, became the first sanctuary church in Austin when Guatemalan LGBTQ activist Sulma Franco took shelter against deportation there for three months in 2015. She had been targeted in Guatemala because of her sexual orientation and political work and could not safely return, Jimmerson said. Here, Franco faced an active deportation order when her request for asylum was denied.
That’s when First Unitarian stepped in — and, with the help of local activists and volunteers, started a movement that later connected Rigby to Ramirez and prepared St. Andrew’s to open its doors as a sanctuary church.
Franco has since won her immigration case in court, earning a U.S. residency card at the end of February.
“Our mission is to gather in community to gather souls, transform lives and pursue justice, so if we don’t do this, who are we?” Jimmerson said. More than a dozen other churches in Austin alone have pledged to open their doors to immigrant families, he said.
The Unitarian Universalist Association, Presbyterian Church, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church — all historically progressive branches of Christianity — have officially endorsed the new sanctuary movement. Rigby said he has seen very little conflict within religious communities when it comes to sanctuary, and he expects the movement to cross the lines of traditional justice ministries.
Other denominations are already supporting sanctuary in principle if not in direct practice, including the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops. Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, chair of the Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a public statement opposing Trump’s executive orders to build a border wall and crack down on sanctuary jurisdictions — such as Travis County — where local law enforcement is reducing its cooperation with ICE detainer requests.
Sanctuary on church grounds, compared to a private residence, offers greater protection, Jimmerson said, in part because an ICE raid on a church would be politically unpopular.
Still, federal officials have raided churches in the past. During the Reagan administration, federal investigators placed undercover agents inside sanctuary churches and eventually arrested 16 people. The defendants, including two Catholic priests and three nuns, were indicted for conspiring to smuggle undocumented immigrants, most of whom were escaping rampant violence in Central America, into the United States. Eight were convicted and sentenced to probation.
“I wouldn’t call them ideological,” James J. Brosnahan, the principal attorney for one of the defendants, said in a phone interview. “They were just people who were of the view that Jesus’ teachings … involved assisting those who were sojourners.”
Brosnahan represented Maria del Socorro Pardo de Aguilar, a church worker from Nogales, Mexico, in the original “Sanctuary Trial.”
“She was a 60-year-old widow, mother of five, … who thought that her God suggested that you need to help people who are on the road. And that’s what she did. She didn’t do anything more than that.”
Willis said the risk of legal consequences would not interfere with sanctuary efforts, which she called “civil initiative” rather than civil disobedience.
“We’re enacting what we believe the just way to be is,” she said.
Rigby said the congregation has been trained in how to intervene if ICE agents attempt to remove Ramirez and Ivan from St. Andrew’s.
“You obey every law that you can, every just law,” he said. “But if the law is unjust — if it’s offensive to the idea of universal human rights — then you have to oppose it, you have to violate it.”