Churches consider sanctuary for Central American migrants amid deportation fears

Immigration officials have not confirmed reports of a broad deportation plan, but some churches are already making contingency plans to shelter Central American migrants afraid of being returned to their home countries.
Immigration officials have not confirmed reports of a broad deportation plan, but some churches are already making contingency plans to shelter Central American migrants afraid of being returned to their home countries.
Corey Moore/KPCC

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Fears that federal immigration agents may soon start deporting some Central American migrants have some churches talking about offering these migrants sanctuary.

"We're beginning to have a conversation within our churches, and within the interfaith community, as to how we can provide a circle of protection for Central American refugees," said Rev. David Farley, a leader with the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Churches learned of the possible raids through media reports published last week. Those news stories, attributed to unnamed sources, reported that immigration officials are planning a nationwide campaign to round-up and deport thousands of Central American migrants who crossed into the United States in the past year and have been already been ordered deported.

Immigration officials have not confirmed that such a campaign will take place, but some churches are already making contingency plans. The idea would be to provide a safe haven for mig who fear that immigration agents will come knocking on their door.

“Were getting ready," said Tonya Rios, a senior pastor with a Methodist church in Baldwin Park. "We're painting some of our extra rooms, making accommodations for beds, so that if in the future the need arises, we're there."

Churches providing sanctuary to migrants isn't a new concept. In the 1980s, churches around the country offered shelter to Central Americans fleeing wartime violence back home.

Clergy leaders say the basic idea is still the same: Like the war refugees, many of the families and unaccompanied minors who have arrived recently have come fleeing rampant gang violence in Central America. The idea would be to keep them from being sent back to the violence they have fled.

Immigrant advocates say if deportations are carried out, thousands of people could be affected, among them asylum seekers who were ordered deported in absentia because they inadvertently missed an immigration court date.

Technically, there’s no legal protection for migrants taking shelter in churches - and churches aren't exempt from federal law. But churches are treated differently by federal agents, said Peter Nuñez, a former U.S. Attorney in San Diego.

"The simple answer is there is no legal protection, but there is political protection," Nuñez said. "Most jurisdictions, whether it's federal, state or local, they are going to shy away from invading a church, from a public relations perspective."

According to a 2011 agency memo, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are discouraged from conducting enforcement at so-called “sensitive” locations, such as schools or churches, unless certain special circumstances exist.