by CHRIS ROGERS
Last Saturday, more than 40 local people gathered to discuss establishing a sanctuary church in Winona that would shelter immigrants facing deportation.
“We have a faith tradition that says, ‘Care for the immigrants because you were once immigrants,’” Rochester Peace United Church of Christ Pastor Beth Rogers stated. Rogers was one of numerous faith leaders from Rochester who spoke about their experience establishing a sanctuary church network there.
“I would think that, as a sanctuary support community, we are part of the good Samaritan story,” said Sister Ruth Snyder of the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester. “We do not want to turn a deaf ear to people facing deportation,” she added.
The idea behind sanctuary churches is that, as a last resort, immigrants would live inside a church rather than being deported by the federal government and, potentially, being separated from their family or returning to violence in their home countries. Kathryn Lozada, an organizer with the faith-based social justice group Isaiah, said that across Minnesota, 53 congregations have already committed to serving as a sanctuary church or as a “sanctuary support community,” helping out churches that house immigrants.
Lozada, Snyder, and others explained the risks they weighed, the logistics they considered, and the beliefs that led them to make the commitment to establish a sanctuary church network.
“The sanctuary movement is not new,” Rogers stated. “If you look back to ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ [when he cried,] ‘Sanctuary!’ That’s the sanctuary movement.” The concept of temples and churches providing safe spaces, even to fugitives, goes back to ancient times, and there are more recent examples. During the 1980s, some U.S. churches sheltered Central Americans fleeing violence in their countries, and Winona Interfaith Council member Dwayne Voegeli and Mike Resman, of the Rochester Friends Group — also known as the Quakers — likened the modern sanctuary movement to the underground railroad.
However, under U.S. law, churches are not immune from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) searches or from being prosecuted themselves. It is ICE policy not to make arrests at churches, hospitals, or schools, but there is no law requiring federal agents to follow the policy strictly. It is likely only actual places of worship — not any church-owned building — that are protected under the policy, explained Rabbi Jean Binkovitz, a retired immigration attorney. Snyder explained that, unfortunately, her religious community decided that it could not actually shelter immigrants facing deportation because its headquarters was legally a residence, not a church, but that did not mean they could not help other churches do so.
Congregation members could face legal risks themselves, Binkovitz added. Harboring illegal immigrants is a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Exactly what counts as “harboring” is a little more complicated, she said. Federal courts in Minnesota have ruled that housing alone does not constitute “harboring,” but providing housing, food, and access to other services might. Divvying up these duties between sanctuary churches and sanctuary support churches may help mitigate the legal risk, Binkovitz advised. Utilizing a church that acts as a shelter for all kinds of people — not just illegal immigrants — is another way to mitigate the risk, she added.
The policy against raiding churches does not provide much legal protection, Binkovitz said. “What is protective is the optics of just going into a church and dragging out a pastor,” she stated. There is strength in numbers, too, Binkovitz said, explaining that many sanctuary networks also call on support congregations to come to the sanctuary church in the event of a raid. “It looks much worse to do this to three or four religious institutions rather than just one,” she said. While some congregations have decided to be discrete about sheltering immigrants, many, including the congregations in Rochester, have decided to be as public as possible. They publicize the fact that they are sanctuary churches, and they notify local and federal law enforcement whenever they shelter someone.
“The safest thing is to do nothing, but that’s not what we’re called to do,” Binkovitz stated.
Resman said it plainly: “We are inviting you to participate in civil disobedience.” While people today might admire the moral courage of 19th-century underground railroad workers, Resman added, “Those people broke the law.”
When Scott Segal of the B’nai Israel Synagogue in Rochester got up to talk about why his synagogue chose to be a sanctuary support congregation, he shared a story. Travelers were fleeing to the U.S. from the fear of death in their home country, but they were turned away at the border because they did not have papers, Segal said. It is a true story, Segal explained, not of Latin American refugees, but of the M.S. St. Louis, a German ocean liner full of Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany on the eve of the holocaust. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, these refugees were turned away by U.S. officials who said they needed to “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” That forced the St. Louis to return to Europe, where various Western European countries accepted the refugees. Some made it to Britain, but according to the holocaust museum, 532 passengers were caught in continental Europe when Germany invaded and 254 of them died in the holocaust.
“Sanctuary is not enough,” Lozada stated. “It is providing a safe space in an emergency, but do we have enough spaces for the 100,000 people [in Minnesota] that are at risk right now?” According to the Star Tribune, a 2014 Pew Research study estimated Minnesota’s population of undocumented immigrants to be 95,000. Advocating for immigration reform is crucial, Lozada and others stressed.
“The number-one issue the families are facing is the driver’s license,” said Miriam Goodson of the Alliance of Chicanos, Hispano, Latino Americans (ACHLA). Undocumented immigrants often cannot get driver’s licenses, but they need transportation. As one woman who attended the event put it, “In this country, if you don’t have a car, it’s like having no legs.” Undocumented immigrants try to follow the law as much as they can, by finding ways to get car insurance without a license, but getting cited for driving without a license can be a fast track to deportation for many, Goodson explained. Creating a special driver’s license for undocumented immigrants is something the state of Minnesota could do, she pointed out.
Voegeli said that the Winona Interfaith Council is still looking for a church willing to shelter immigrants facing deportation and for congregations and individuals willing to support a sanctuary church. Dan Wilson said he mentioned the idea to his congregation, the Winona Friends Meeting; the members were interested, but wanted to know more. After Saturday’s meeting, Wilson explained, “Now I feel like I have something to go back to that group with.”
For more information, contact Voegeli at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 507-450-6405.
Editor’s note: Pastor Beth Rogers is not related to Winona Post News Editor Chris Rogers.