Sanctuary Churches

Sanctuary Churches Take in Immigrants and Take on Trump

With deportations on the rise, hundreds of houses of worship are joining the resistance.


At first blush, Rev. Ken Heintzelman and Pastor James Pennington don't look like they have much in common. Heintzelman is the straight and straight-laced head of the Shadow Rock United Church of Christ, located in a tony northern part of Phoenix. He presides over an elegant, contemporary stone structure with a slanted roof and floor-to-ceiling windows, wearing khakis and a crisply pressed dress shirt. His church is surrounded by a large manicured estate hemmed in by parched hills, all of which seems designed to reflect the taste of the church's well-heeled congregation.

Rev. Ken Heintzelman. Illustraton by augustrats.

Pennington is the gay pastor of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, located smack in the middle of downtown Phoenix. His silver earring, bead bracelet, and gelled hair give the impression he's about to dart off to jam with a garage band. His church's impressive white steeple rises sharply from its street, but the church itself is a modest structure. Inside it has the feel of a repurposed middle school, which seems fitting for the happy-go-lucky spirit of its ethnically diverse and mostly low-income congregation. If Shadow Rock is a country club, First Congregational is a summer camp.

But both are sanctuary churches. Each offers shelter to undocumented immigrants facing deportation.

Just as law enforcement officers in sanctuary cities refuse to obey Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) orders commanding them to detain unauthorized aliens without a warrant, sanctuary churches refuse to heed anti-harboring laws that make it a criminal offense to knowingly shield or transport an "alien who has entered the United States in violation of the law."

There is a big difference between the two forms of sanctuary, though. Despite all the outrage, nothing prevents Uncle Sam from hauling immigrants—even legal ones—away from any city in America for deportation. Indeed, the term sanctuary city is a bit of a misnomer, given that the federal government has near-complete discretion over how and where to enforce immigration laws. The only issue is how much cooperation it can expect from the local authorities.

Pastor James Pennington. Illustration by augustrats.

But when it comes to sanctuary churches, ICE's own internal administrative guidance, along with age-old custom, bars the government from engaging in confrontational enforcement activities on the premises of houses of worship. In the sanctuary church movement's seven-decade-long existence, authorities have never gone into a church to arrest undocumented aliens, even though churches are technically considered public spaces, which officers don't require a warrant to enter.

That internal policy gives churches some power to shield aliens from being snagged, something sanctuary cities can't and don't do. A few other "sensitive locations," including medical facilities, schools, and to a lesser extent courts, are also off-limits to intrusive policing—not just in America, but in virtually every culture and every country that hasn't collapsed into mayhem.

So how is the current presidential administration dealing with these obstacles to the kind of zealous "interior enforcement" it wants to use to cleanse the country of undocumented aliens? Regarding so-called sanctuary cities, the answer is well-known: Donald Trump has declared open season. He is going after state and local governments aggressively by threatening to cut off federal funding streams if they don't back down. He's also ordering more ICE raids.

But when it comes to sanctuary churches and other sensitive locations, Trump has quietly embraced a less open but no less troubling strategy that is eviscerating the longstanding norms preserving a sphere of independence for these institutions. If the administration continues on its draconian course, it will vastly expand the federal government's reach and radically shrink the space where American humanitarianism can find full expression: civil society.

The Federal Hammer Falls

Every time a foreigner is accused in a violent incident in a sanctuary city—for example, when an illegal immigrant in San Francisco allegedly killed a young woman named Kate Steinle (he was later acquitted of the murder charges), or when an Uzbek Muslim immigrant in Manhattan mowed down six pedestrians—Trump dials up the hysteria level and vows to cut the city's federal funding. One of the first things he did after assuming office was sign a sweeping executive order that would have slashed all Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice grants to cities that flout demands from immigration enforcement.

A California federal court in November declared that the executive order was unconstitutional because it was "coercing" local authorities to do the feds' bidding, something five conservative (and two liberal) Supreme Court justices declared a no-no in 2012. That ruling came in National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius—i.e., the case challenging the Obama administration's efforts to cut off all Medicaid funding for states that refused to expand the program as required by the Affordable Care Act.

Citing the high court's decision in the Obamacare case, Judge William Orrick said that cities are not obligated to honor Washington's requests that they hold undocumented aliens without a warrant till ICE can whisk them away for deportation. Compliance, he pointed out, is "voluntary and local governments are not required to honor them." Furthermore, "federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves." In other words, at most the administration can cut off "germane" funds that actually have something to do with immigration enforcement.

Expecting the ruling, the Justice Department tried to issue new rules in the fall tying existing law-enforcement grants to cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. Federal courts around the country have blocked that attempt too, pending a final ruling.

But while judges can hem in Uncle Sam from financially penalizing uncooperative cities, they can't stop ICE from going into those cities and hauling out undocumented aliens itself—and that's exactly what the Trump administration has been doing. It has targeted sanctuary cities with enforcement actions, partly to try to show their leaders who's boss and partly to signal to undocumented aliens that they aren't safe anywhere. The broader strategy is to make immigrants' lives so miserable that they'll "self-deport," as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney infamously put it during the 2012 campaign. At the time, Trump called the idea "crazy" and "maniacal."

In late September, the Department of Homeland Security launched a highly publicized four-day sting dubbed Operation Safe City. Hitting multiple sanctuary jurisdictions around the country, officials rounded up about 500 undocumented aliens. Apparently, they had to abort a more ambitious plan to haul away about 8,500 immigrants because Hurricanes Irma and Harvey forced them to divert some personnel and resources. But more raids are surely in the works.

No Safe Place for Medical Care

The Trump administration hasn't been quite as gung ho when it comes to sensitive locations, but it has still made unprecedented assaults on their independence.

Historically, governments in functional polities have maintained a hands-off posture toward such civil society institutions. There are two excellent reasons for this.

First, these entities are engaged in vital relief activity that transcends political considerations. They require and deserve the widest possible space in which to carry out their missions. Doctors and hospitals are supposed to save lives, soup kitchens are supposed to feed the hungry, schools are supposed to educate children, courts are supposed to uphold the rights even of lawbreakers, and churches are supposed to minister to people without regard to the station—or legal status—of those they're serving. They have an ethos of no-holds-barred, no-questions-asked universal service. Humanitarian groups go where the need is the greatest, and aggressive policing would prevent them from doing so.

Second, the government—including, in this case, ICE—relies heavily on these entities to relieve its own burden for providing critical social services to needy people who fall into its lap. Over time, therefore, a natural quid pro quo has evolved, where law enforcement leaves groups to do their work, and they step in when the authorities need their help. This is especially true for medical camps and churches, and in particular for Pennington's and Heintzelman's churches, which ICE regularly enlists to take care of asylum seekers when it can't. But more on that later.

The Trump administration seems indifferent to such considerations, apparently willing to turn cooperative—even symbiotic—relationships into confrontational ones.

Five-year-old Ian Paz's father, Sixto, takes sanctuary at the Shadow Rock United Church in Phoenix. Photo by Shikha Dalmia.

Previous presidential administrations, for example, maintained an informal policy of leaving courts alone. The Obama administration drew up an official list of "sensitive locations," but for reasons that are not entirely clear did not include courts among them. However, except for a few minor instances, it refrained from enforcement actions there. Now Trump is fully exploiting his predecessor's oversight.

The Immigrant Defense Project, an advocacy group based in New York City, says it received reports of 84 arrests or attempted arrests by ICE in courthouses around the country during the first eight months of Trump's presidency. This represents a 600 percent increase from last year. In some heartbreaking instances, ICE agents in plain clothes swoop into courtrooms and arrest unsuspecting undocumented aliens who are there for hearings in child custody cases or even for redress from domestic abuse.

The administration blames sanctuary cities for these moves. It maintains that its officers have to go into the courts because some cities won't honor ICE directives to let agents make immigration arrests in local jails, where it says people with "criminal histories" can safely be taken into custody. "Because courthouse visitors are typically screened upon entry to search for weapons and other contraband, the safety risks for the arresting officers, the arrestee, and members of the community are substantially diminished," it explains.

That explanation would be more convincing if the authorities weren't also arresting people in courthouses in Tucson, Arizona—which doesn't consider itself a sanctuary city. Indeed, Arizona authorities support tough federal enforcement, and S.B. 1070—the state's notorious "Your Papers, Please" law—requires officers to make a "reasonable attempt" to determine the immigration status of suspected illegals and then hold them until ICE can take them away.

This hasn't stopped Trump. One Arizona county judge expressed "great consternation" when ICE agents showed up in his courtroom in March to arrest Jose Salome Zazueta Medina, an undocumented alien being tried for drug possession. Public defender Margo Cowan fumed that the agency's actions were "not acceptable" because they "interrupted the judicial process."

ICE doesn't consider courts to be "sensitive locations." Yet agents are also going after places it does classify that way. The agency carried out a raid on the No More Deaths humanitarian camp in Arivaca, Arizona, a mere three months after affirming it would honor its longstanding policy—and the Red Cross protocol—of treating the place as a medical facility and thus refraining from enforcement activity in its vicinity. The camp was explicitly formed to address the spike in deaths that followed the feds' post-9/11 crackdown along the California border, which pushed more migrants into the harsh Arizona desert. The number of fatalities among border crossers had shot up from 14 per year in the 1990s to more than 150 per year in the 2000s.

Following the raid, the clinic—which used to provide basic first aid to migrants suffering from heat stroke and dehydration—shut down. Workers became afraid they'd be arrested for violating anti-harboring laws, and migrants became afraid they'd be picked up if they stopped for assistance.

This was not just cruel on the part of the federal government; it was also obtuse. If ICE were to catch these migrants, it would have to offer them the same medical assistance the camp was already giving them.

The Trump administration has been pushing the limits in other "safe zones," too. In September, ICE agents (most likely tipped off by a nurse) showed up at a Harlingen, Texas, hospital in the Rio Grande Valley where an undocumented couple, Oscar and Irma Sanchez, were seeking care for their 2-month-old American-born infant.

The child was suffering from pyloric stenosis, a condition that causes vomiting, dehydration, and weight loss. But the hospital wasn't equipped to treat that illness, and the baby needed to be transported to a facility in Corpus Christi.

ICE agents consented to let the couple accompany their child there on one condition: Once they arrived, they would be arrested and required to face deportation proceedings. The couple, who had no previous criminal record, agreed. An ICE van followed the ambulance transporting the baby all the way to the Corpus Christi hospital. Once there, agents promptly took the parents into the station to be fingerprinted and booked, delaying surgery on the child.

After the parents returned to the hospital, ICE shadowed their every move, including watching when Irma breastfed the baby. At the time of this writing, deportation proceedings against them were underway.

On another occasion, ICE agents stalked an undocumented worker at the Legacy Emanuel Health Center in Portland, Oregon, then arrested him at a bus stop just outside the hospital—a clear violation of the agency's "sensitive locations" policy, according to the medical facility. Its administrators worry that such actions will turn hospitals into traps and deter undocumented aliens from seeking care, compromising the center's mission.

The feds also arrested a father after he dropped off his daughter at school in Los Angeles, signaling that undocumented parents can't expect to perform normal, daily activities unmolested.

All of this represents a dramatic departure from Obama's enforcement policies, and he was no slouch himself when it came to deportations. That administration expanded what counted as a deportable crime, but it also issued clear guidance instructing ICE only to target aliens with a criminal record. Trump has declared that while criminal immigrants will be especially targeted, everyone is fair game.

It is unclear whether courts and hospitals can do anything to protect themselves from overzealous federal immigration enforcement. But when it comes to churches, Heintzelman and Pennington, the two Phoenix clergymen, are determined to try. Their state's religious community already has a noble tradition of resisting the government when it comes to protecting vulnerable foreigners.

A Legacy of Faith-Based Resistance

In the 1980s, after the U.S. began turning away refugees fleeing the repressive right-wing regimes the Reagan administration was backing in Guatemala and El Salvador, Arizona churches mounted a massive sanctuary movement. The Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson declared a policy of open defiance that was quickly embraced by religious institutions across the state and in California, Texas, and Illinois. In all, 150 national congregations and 1,000 local Jewish and Christian houses of worship joined in, working with activists in Mexico to smuggle hundreds of Salvadorans and Guatemalans over the border and then housing them in rectories and pews—a modern version of the Underground Railroad.

First Congregational United Church of Christ. Photo by Shikha Dalmia.

In 1985, the Justice Department issued a 71-point criminal conspiracy indictment against the Arizona activists. The feds won in court, but the publicity they received was so damning that they opted not to push for jail time, even after the defendants told a judge they had no intention to cease and desist. The movement continued to grow following the trial, subsiding only when the country embraced more humane asylum policies, such as the 1990 law allowing the president to grant Temporary Protected Status to certain groups in need of a safe haven.

But the notion of sanctuary churches never completely went away, and the movement remobilized as deportations picked up under George W. Bush and then Obama. Those administrations neither prosecuted nor tried to shut down the sanctuary activity, for both of the reasons mentioned earlier: to give them space in which to carry out their humanitarian missions, and to maintain a cooperative relationship, since the feds needed the churches' services.

There was a third reason as well: Courts might well decide that enforcing anti-harboring laws in those cases flies in the face of the First Amendment's protection of free exercise of religion. A hands-off policy allowed for an uneasy equilibrium between the churches' religious liberties and the last two presidents' need to enforce the law.

Heintzelman and Pennington are not sure whether the Trump administration plans to respect that arrangement, but they may be about to find out.

Heintzelman's Shadow Rock has offered sanctuary to illegal immigrants for more than four years and is well-equipped for housing long-term guests. Pennington's First Congregational is a newcomer, joining the fray only after Trump scrapped the Obama-era policy of limiting deportations to criminal aliens.

Pennington ran his decision by the United Church of Christ's entire 34-member Southwest Conference before publicly announcing it, and he got a nearly unanimous endorsement. In fact, the conference added an addendum to its charter encouraging all its members to become sanctuary churches.

The United Church of Christ is not alone. Since Trump assumed office, the number of congregations opting to provide sanctuary has doubled from 400 to 800, according to Church World Service. These communities strongly believe that offering a safe haven to those with nowhere else to go is core to the task that the Bible has assigned churches.

The United Church of Christ thinks the lesson of Jesus' story is that we need to liberate and lift up the most marginalized, persecuted, and reviled members of society. "Jesus didn't die for our sins," Pennington says. "He died out of love for humanity."

To advance that agenda, his church doesn't just tend to the homeless—serving them meals several times a week—but also provides event space for LGBT performances and counseling services for addicts, including sex addicts and child molesters. Given these commitments, the congregation can hardly turn a blind eye to undocumented aliens facing deportation.

Heintzelman, likewise, believes Christianity contains an injunction to open the door to those whom others shun. "It is relatively easy to find homes for warm, fuzzy, homeless grandmas," he says. "It is harder to place gay men escaping persecution in Central America."

That's why progressive churches like theirs collaborate closely with the feds to help take care of asylum seekers. A couple of times a month, ICE stops by Shadow Rock and drops off people who have been granted asylum but need somewhere to stay for a few nights before catching a bus or plane to join family or friends in another part of the country. And when detention centers are full, ICE fits aspiring asylees with electronic ankle bracelets and parks them at the church, which has built a rather warm and comfortable annex for such purposes. The space has several snug bedrooms, a kitchen, and a spacious living room with leather couches, a TV, and a pool table.

The morning I visited Shadow Rock, the battery on the bracelet of a visiting detainee—one of those gay Central American men—went dead, prompting a panicked visit by federal agents worried he'd absconded. As the feds checked the guy out, they studiously ignored the other undocumented guests they knew were living in the church as well.

Given this history of service to immigrants, it makes sense that the United Church of Christ would open its doors to more immigrants as the deportation regime ramps up. But it is doing so as cautiously as possible, using strict criteria to determine whom it will admit and trying to focus on the most deserving.

Church leaders won't take in anyone with a serious criminal history—anything more than a minor misdemeanor conviction is a no-go. They also prioritize people who have relatives in America or are facing dangerous conditions in their home countries, because of the church's commitment to protecting life and opposition to breaking up families. And so far, at least, the Shadow Rock congregation has limited itself to taking in unauthorized folks who are pursuing legal options to avoid deportation orders.

Under the Obama administration, the number of people who fit this bill was relatively small, since back then the feds were leaving unauthorized migrants with families and clean records pretty much alone. But when the Trump administration announced its policy change, Pennington was approached for sanctuary by a sweet Latina grandmother who had lived in America for 20 years. She had been served removal orders and needed a safe place from which to file an asylum petition.

The church was not equipped for overnight guests. It had no rooms with full bathrooms and showers. She spent three nights in one of First Congregational's meeting rooms, sleeping on a couch, before the immigration court issued a stay to her deportation, pending a ruling, making it safe for her to return home.

Shadow Rock has offered sanctuary to a number of people over the last few years. Two—Ishmael Delgado and Sixto Paz—were staying there when I visited.

Delgado was a cook who had lived in America for 27 years with his unauthorized wife, Dreamer son—Dreamers is a moniker for people who were brought to the country illegally as minors—and American daughter. But thanks to an old DUI conviction, he received deportation orders in October 2015. He took sanctuary in the church while he filed his application for a U-Visa, an immigration document for people who assist authorities in solving a crime. (His brother had been mugged and beaten at gunpoint, and he had helped the police find the culprits.)

Since Trump assumed office, the number of congregations opting to provide sanctuary has doubled. They believe that offering a safe haven to those with nowhere else to go is core to the task that the Bible has assigned churches.

Paz came to the United States through an amnesty program 20 years ago and worked legally as a roofer; he hasn't so much as a misdemeanor on his record. During that time he's been married twice. He has two daughters and an adorable, rambunctious 5-year-old son, Ian, all of whom are Americans.

Paz applied for permanent residency years ago, but for a variety of bureaucratic reasons that were not his fault, the request didn't come through. He technically became an illegal immigrant at that time but didn't think it was a big deal—until last year, when he was caught at a Phoenix checkpoint and threatened with deportation. He has reapplied for his green card and has been awaiting an answer for months.

Abandoning Religious Liberty

Once upon a time, ICE would hold off on carrying out a deportation order when someone could show he had a visa application pending. That changed a few years ago, which is why both Delgado and Paz ended up taking sanctuary at Shadow Rock. During Obama's presidency, Congress appropriated funds for the deportation of 450,000 immigrants annually, which forced the administration to go after populations that had hitherto been left unmolested. But at least Obama's commitment to not making arrests at sensitive places made them feel safe so long as they stayed on church premises.

That's no longer the case. Trump has maintained strategic ambiguity about whether or not he plans to honor the policy of not raiding houses of worship. Even if the administration does affirm it, notes Heintzelman, the promise isn't worth much. After all, it raided the No More Deaths camp after assuring its operators they were safe. Agents similarly detained six men after they left a church-run homeless shelter in Virginia in February.

So Delgado and Paz were shaking when ICE showed up to check their fellow guest's ankle bracelet. Paz hasn't set foot outside the church in a year and a half, even missing his dad's funeral in Mexico. But his family visits him, and 5-year-old Ian actually moved in over the summer break.

Delgado, on the other hand, would sneak out occasionally to visit his kids or do gigs as a chef to help support his family. Unfortunately, a few weeks after I met him, ICE—which had apparently been stalking him—caught Delgado during one of these outings. He was deported.

Many restrictionists—such as anti-immigration hawk Roy Beck of the group Numbers USA—have the president's ear, and they see nothing wrong with this departure from existing norms. In fact, they want the administration to crack down harder. "The sanctuary churches are undermining the rule of law, which is the cornerstone of a just society," Beck said last winter in an interview with PBS.

Heintzelman vehemently disagrees. An unjust rule of law can't be the basis of a just society, he insists. If an ICE raid comes, the United Church of Christ is fully prepared to sue the Trump administration on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the government shouldn't be enforcing laws that interfere with what a church believes is its religiously ordained duty.

That argument should, in theory, appeal to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who supported the craft store Hobby Lobby's fight against the Obamacare mandate that it pay for abortifacient coverage for its workers. Indeed, if Hobby Lobby, a for-profit business, has religious liberties that need to be respected by the state, surely houses of worship do also.

That's the catch-22 facing the Trump administration: By adopting this expansive view of religious organizations' First Amendment rights, it opens more space for churches to undermine its designs on mass deportation. But if it moves against the sanctuary churches, it undermines its alleged commitment to maximizing private organizations' religious liberty—setting a precedent that will almost certainly come back to haunt people of faith the next time a Democrat is in the White House.

Furthermore, raiding churches could drive the sanctuary movement underground. To date, Pennington and Heintzelman have diligently kept ICE informed when they offer someone safe haven. They also send the agency regular updates about the progress of their guests' visa applications. But according to various news reports, California's faith leaders are building a secret network of houses where undocumented and mixed-status families could go into hiding in the event of a full-blown crackdown.

Trump's merciless enforcement of the country's unjust, unrealistic, and inhumane immigration laws is breeding a civil disobedience campaign. And the more aggressive the administration's behavior—the more it pits the demands of law enforcement against the dictates of Americans' consciences—the more resistance it will encounter.

This is not a clash that Pennington and Heintzelman are seeking. But it's also not one they're willing to shrink from. "If ICE agents show up at our doorstep to take away our guests," maintains Heintzelman, "I will personally stand in the way."