Arizona Churches Offer Sanctuary from January Immigration Raids

Immigration reform activists protest at the White House on May 1, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Immigration reform activists protest at the White House on May 1, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock

As immigration enforcement officials prepare to round up and deport about 15,000 undocumented immigrants, a network of Arizona faith leaders are mobilizing to shield families.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is finalizing details, but, according to an article published just before Christmas by the Washington Post’s Jerry Markon and David Nakamura, beginning in January, authorities are planning a wave of raids targeting families who came to the United States fleeing violence in Central America but have been denied asylum.

ICE spokesman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe declined to confirm the Post’s report, which cited anonymous sources, but, in a written statement provided to New Times, she reiterated that “our border is not open to illegal immigration, and if individuals come here illegally, do not qualify for asylum or other relief, and have final orders of removal, they will be sent back consistent with our laws and our values.”

Some Arizona faith leaders, however, argue that the agency’s plans are morally wrong.

“To say this is a very unfortunate move would be a huge understatement,” said Reverend Alison Harrington, pastor of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. “The reports of violence in Central America are horrendous. It chills me to think that our government would send families back to places where children are being sexually assaulted, and people are being dismembered and decapitated.”

Harrington said she hopes the government will reconsider, but, meantime, she and others have decided to offer sanctuary to those targeted for removal.

Raids, by nature, are unpredictable. So Southside is encouraging Central American immigrants issued a deportation order to come to the chapel and claim sanctuary as soon as possible. Harrington is recruiting churches in Arizona and elsewhere to do the same.

Since the Arizona legislature in 2010 made it a state crime to violate federal immigration laws and enabled local police to check immigrants’ papers if there is “reasonable suspicion” they are in the country illegally, many communities have organized text or calling trees to alert neighbors when authorities are in the vicinity. However, Harrington said, oftentimes, once a raid has begun, roads are shut down and it’s too late for families to escape.

“There’s very little you can do in the moment,” she said. “If there are people out there with final orders of deportation they shouldn’t wait for a raid. They should get to safety now.”

As detailed in the New Times cover story “Saved,” Southside Presbyterian Church has been instrumental in establishing a nationwide network of churches dedicated to providing sanctuary for undocumented immigrants who have exhausted all their legal options. Southside has taken in three immigrants since 2014 and with the help of dedicated lawyers and activists, successfully has pressured authorities to grant reprieves from deportation to all of them. The latest, Rosa Robles, safely returned to her family in November after spending more than a year bunked at the church.

Reverend Ken Heintzelman, senior minister at the Phoenix-based Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, still is working out logistics of how the church will provide sanctuary from the upcoming raids but said he probably could house 200 people for a few days by putting sleeping bags on the floor. Shadow Rock, like Southside, already has helped a string of immigrants avoid deportation.

Heintzelman and Harrington’s congregations are working with local immigrant-rights groups to educate people about what to do if their neighborhoods are raided. If authorities show up, for example, immigrants are advised not to open the door unless the official produces a search warrant, Heintzelman said. They should not answer any questions, including about where they were born or how they entered the United States — or show authorities any documents except a letter from a lawyer.

Heintzelman said he is “frustrated” by the “criminalization” of migration, which he sees as a natural human phenomenon.

“If you are hungry, you are going to move where the food is,” he said. “If you are thirsty, you are going to move where the water is. If your children are threatened by gang activity, you’re going to move away from that.”

He and Harrington agree that the faith community has a moral obligation to step in.

“We can’t say we love our neighbors as ourselves and tell individuals who stand on the verge of being deported and killed to go away,” Heintzelman said. “God brought these people to our doorsteps, and we are determined to help them.”


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