Tempe Church Grants Sanctuary to Immigrant Facing Deportation

Left to right: Reverend Eric Ledermann, organizer Erika Andiola, Mayra Canales, and Mayra's husband Luis Lopez-Acabal.
Left to right: Reverend Eric Ledermann, organizer Erika Andiola, Mayra Canales, and Mayra's husband Luis Lopez-Acabal.
Matthew Hendley

A Tempe church is giving sanctuary to a Guatemalan immigrant who's facing deportation as a result of a traffic stop.

Reverend Eric Ledermann of the University Presbyterian Church says Luis Lopez-Acabal can stay "as long as it takes" to avoid his deportation."

Luis is our neighbor who has been here for a long time," Ledermann says. "He has knocked on our doors and said, 'Help me.' We have offered that, and we want him to stay. I am a husband, I am a father or two children -- I cannot imagine being ripped away from my wife and family. I would do anything to stay with them."

The church's offer to provide a sanctuary to Lopez is the latest case of an American church offering sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation, and is at least the third church in Arizona to do so recently.

These sanctuary cases are a sort of revival of something that happened in the '80s, when churches started opening their doors to Central American refugees who faced deportation. According to a paper from the Migration Policy Institute, the practice actually started in Arizona:

The network of religious congregations that became known as the Sanctuary Movement started with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona. These two congregations began legal and humanitarian assistance to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in 1980.

When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced -- on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero -- that his church would openly defy [the Immigration and Naturalization Service] and become a "sanctuary" for Central Americans. The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago.

At the Sanctuary Movement's height in the mid 1980s, over 150 congregations openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. Another 1,000 local Christian and Jewish congregations, several major Protestant denominations, the Conservative and Reform Jewish associations, and several Catholic orders all endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary. Sanctuary workers coordinated with activists in Mexico to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans over the border and across the country. Assistance provided to refugees included bail and legal representation, as well as food, medical care, and employment.

Lopez, the young man offered sanctuary by the Tempe church, says he came to the United States alone from Guatemala at the age of 16 to escape gang violence. He's married to a permanent resident who has two children, both U.S. citizens.

Now faced with deportation proceedings, he's looking to the University Presbyterian Church to help keep his family together.

"I believe here I'm going to be safer, and be able to stay with my family," Lopez says.

Reverend Ledermann described the offer of sanctuary as a sort of Christian duty to keep the family together.

"Our scriptures call us to care for the widow and the orphan, but it is time that we work to prevent the creation of widows and orphans through a broken immigration system that is tearing families apart, sending many back to countries that they no longer know, with some of the highest homicide rates on the world," he says.

Ledermann placed some blame on the Obama Administration, and made a public call for the administration to stop separating families through deportation proceedings.

"We are calling upon President Obama to fulfill a promise he has made hundreds of times in the last several years to keep families together . . . and to do justice in the face of brokenness, and to further create opportunity for millions of others who simply want to stay with their families, and continue to be a part of the communities they have lived in for so long by expanding deferred action," he says.

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Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Matthew Hendley at @MatthewHendley.


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