Immanuel Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, VA, photo from Welcome Your Neighbors Facebook page.

Churches Sacrifice to Offer Sanctuary

By Merilee Dannemann

New Mexico News Services — It is possible that the future of immigrant deportation may depend on how many churches have showers in their buildings.

That’s one factor communities of faith are invited to consider when they evaluate whether to offer sanctuary to an immigrant threatened with immediate deportation.

But it’s not critical, according to Marian Bock. An immigrant threatened with deportation will gratefully accept whatever amenities you have, she said, including sponge baths in the sink.

Bock is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and serves on their sanctuary task force. She spoke recently, together with Justin Remer-Thamert, executive director of the New Mexico Faith Coalition for Immigrant Justice, at an Albuquerque church where members were beginning a discussion of whether to become a sanctuary church.

The Friends Meeting House in Albuquerque became a sanctuary in March for Honduran immigrant Emma Membreno-Sorto, a 25-year US resident, married to an American, who has been under an active deportation order. She had applied for political asylum years ago but the paperwork was never completed.

The protected immigrant, who is called a guest, never leaves the property and might not even go outside. If she leaves the building even for a minute, she is vulnerable to being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The community must provide meals and whatever else the guest may need. Doctors may volunteer to make house calls. The guest cannot leave the premises to work and may not be able to contribute financially.

One volunteer must stay with the guest at all times, including overnight. This is so that, if ICE shows up, the volunteer serves as witness to whatever happens.

This requires scheduling volunteers for four shifts a day. More volunteers are needed for other tasks. Volunteers don’t have to be members of the congregation but must have received training. The Coalition offers that training.

Volunteers must be US citizens – a protection for them so that they are not subject to immigration issues if they get crosswise with ICE.  But there is no guarantee that volunteers will be free from other prosecution.

The sanctuary status of churches is not federal law but is based on a memorandum issued by ICE in 2011. The memo identifies “sensitive locations” where ICE officials will generally not arrest anybody unless they have a warrant from a judge. Those locations include churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of faith, schools, hospitals, the site of a religious activity such as a funeral or wedding, and public demonstrations.

However, Remer-Thamert cautioned, ICE could make exceptions to its own rules and has a reputation for coming in the middle of the night. The memorandum is not a law. What keeps the guest safe in a church, he explained, is not the memorandum but the public relations backlash when agents invade a church.

An online document called the Sanctuary Toolkit explains:

“Generally, people enter sanctuary because they have received a final order of deportation but believe that they have a legitimate case that either has not been thoroughly presented or appropriately argued before an immigration judge… Often there are extenuating circumstances that could or should have been raised in their defense ….”

Membreno-Sorto is one of two immigrants known to be in sanctuary in New Mexico. The other, whose case has also been publicized, is Kadhim Albumohammed, an Iraqi who has lived in the US for more than 20 years and who previously assisted the US military in Iraq. He is in sanctuary at another Albuquerque church.

Some advocates regard the “sensitive locations” memo as virtually an invitation to churches to act as protectors to immigrants in this situation.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to give legal status to the sensitive locations guideline. New Mexico Senators Heinrich and Udall and Representatives Lujan and Lujan-Grisham are co-sponsors.

But Congress doesn’t seem to be engaging seriously about comprehensive immigration reform.

Merilee Dannemann is a columnist with New Mexico News Services. Her columns are distributed to several New Mexico newspapers and posted at www.triplespacedagain.com and nmopinions.com.

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