By Brenda Gazzar, Los Angeles Daily News
The Rev. Francisco Garcia Jr. knows how difficult it can be for an immigrant to endure church-offered sanctuary.
A decade ago, as a layperson, Garcia supported an undocumented man living in sanctuary at a Lutheran church in North Hollywood. The Guatemalan gardener, who was subject to a deportation order, spent a year confined in the church, mostly isolated from his family. Eventually, he couldn’t live that way and returned to his life in the outside world.
“That was incredibly hard … for everybody,” said Garcia, who today leads the Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood and is co-chair of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles’ Sanctuary Task Force.
Sanctuary, Garcia added, needs to be “a temporary” thing. “If it’s not a (deportation) case that’s likely to get overturned, (offering sanctuary) doesn’t make sense … for the family and for the movement.”
Still, with the recent resurgence of the Sanctuary Movement, such living arrangements soon might be more common.
Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship increasingly are offering an ancient, literal version of sanctuary to undocumented people who might be arrested as part of President Donald Trump’s push to step-up immigration enforcement.
In some cases, a house of worship can double as an immigrant’s home. In others, congregants might shield undocumented immigrants and their families in their homes. In still others, churches and others help would-be deportees pay for legal aid, or sponsor workshops offering information on immigrants’ rights and how to respond if one is arrested by immigration agents.
It’s not clear if physical sanctuary — in a church — will continue to provide much protection. Immigration officers generally have avoided entering sensitive locations, such as churches, to make arrests. While that’s been formal policy since 2011, there’s no law that prevents an immigration arrest in a church.
What is clear is that sanctuary is a tricky thing for a church to offer. There are issues of practicality and adequate physical space to house immigrants. There are liability questions. And, for many churches, there is the possibility of angering or offending members of the congregation who don’t see any push to step up immigrant deportations as something to be resisted.
“It is complicated work,” said Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director for Clergy and Laity United For Economic Justice L.A., to a group of more than 100 people connected to faith groups at a recent sanctuary training in downtown Los Angeles.
“The point is to empower each and every one of you and ask the question: How are you going to do this work?”
For some, the possibility of losing congregants is a real concern. Rev. Paul Elder said several members of Saint Aidan’s Episcopal Church in Malibu, where he serves as a deacon, have left the church at least partly because of the sanctuary issue.
The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, which includes nearly 150 congregations from Santa Maria to San Juan Capistrano, passed a resolution in December declaring itself a “Sanctuary Diocese,” saying it would resist efforts to target and deport undocumented immigrants. It is up to each congregation, however, to determine how such resistance should be enacted. While Saint Aidan’s so far has not been active on the sanctuary issue, Elder believes the diocese’s declaration, along with his personal activism on the issue, was a “final straw” for some members.
“We’re somewhat worried about it,” Elder said. “They’re long-term members of the congregation. They’re contributors to our upkeep and our regular income.”
Some still in the church are concerned about opposing the law, though Elder said similar questions were raised when churches supported African-Americans and others in civil rights demonstrations. “It’s the same thing here,” he said.
Rev. Susie Fowler, deacon of Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale, said her church has unanimous consent from its governing board to participate in whatever way church leaders deem fit when it comes to helping the undocumented. That could include housing, she said, “if it comes down to that.”
While she expects her politically mixed congregation to offer some dissent, she’s fine with that.
“It is to be handled with much care, much love and much compassion and also courage and strength,” Fowler said.
Because of such sensitivities, many church leaders are treading carefully.
Rev. Paul Tellstrom, senior pastor at United Congregational Church in Irvine, said his church plans to hold forums on the deportation issue to measure how members feel about potentially sheltering immigrants.
“We do want to help, but it’s an issue that should be laid out strategically before the congregation,” Tellstrom said, noting his parishioners will need to consider logistics and any legal ramifications.
“Our church members are used to things being strategically rolled out and having a voice.”
There’s also a question of demand.
In early 2016, after President Barack Obama urged immigration officials to round up undocumented children who had fled Central America for the purpose of deportation, the North Hills United Methodist Church Hispanic Mission declared itself a sanctuary. The Rev. Fred Morris, the mission’s pastor, said the church offered to host any family with a deportation order until they could appeal it in court, or to anyone being pursued by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“But we’ve had no takers,” Morris said. “No one has ever come.”
Morris believes that’s largely because such immigrants today often are well settled.
When the Sanctuary Movement rose in the 1980s, people fled war-torn nations such as El Salvador and arrived in the United States with only the clothes on their backs. Conversely, many of the immigrants facing deportation under the Trump administration have lived here for decades, hold jobs and have children in local schools.
“(Sanctuary) becomes very complicated, logistically,” Morris said.
The church has found other ways to help. Two years ago, the United Methodist Church in Southern California opened a welcome center in North Hills for unaccompanied minors who crossed the border seeking refugee status. They initially helped three children. Today, more than 100 children from gang-infested countries in Central America are registered at the center.
Morris said those children can get help in the form of legal assistance, medical care and interaction with other children in the same situation.
“Unless they have an immigration attorney who understands immigration law, (those children) have a 90 percent chance of being deported to their home country,” Morris said.
“If that happens,” he added, “there’s a very strong possibility they would be murdered by the gang they are fleeing in the first place.”
Meanwhile, partly because it’s legal to arrest people in church, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles is trying to help immigrants in other ways.
In lieu of physical sanctuary, Bishop David O’Connell of the Archdiocese’s San Gabriel Pastoral Region works with a task force that helps parishes throughout Southern California organize “know our rights workshops” for people who might be subject to deportation. He’s also visited the border and placed bottled water on trails where thirsty immigrants are known to cross.
“If it comes down to, in the future, that the only option to help our people, to protect them, is to have sanctuary (in our churches), then we will consider that,” O’Connell said. “But right now, there are other things we should be doing that are much more practical.”
Still, some parishioners are bewildered by the concept of sanctuary.
“We have so many homeless in California, so many vets in need, so many children who can’t read. Why are we spending our time and energy on people who are breaking our laws?” asked John Goya, a practicing Catholic in Long Beach who is also on the board of Make California Great Again, a pro-Trump nonprofit.
Goya said while he’ll always be a Catholic, the archdiocese’s push to help undocumented immigrants could prompt him to rethink his attendance at his local church. Goya, who is of Cuban and Spanish descent, noted that he also has some Jewish roots.
“Maybe I’ll start going to temple.”
Offering sanctuary also can be legally risky.
In the 1980s, several church leaders around the country were prosecuted under federal law for offering sanctuary to refugees from Central America. Of 11 Sanctuary-affiliated people tried in Tucson, Arizona, in 1986, three were acquitted, six got five years’ probation, and two received three years probation. Others doing sanctuary work elsewhere spent some months in prison or in a half-way house.
Joel Fetzer, a political science professor at Pepperdine University, said if someone has no legitimate claim to asylum in this country and takes refuge in a church, immigration officers could claim “with some plausibility that the church is violating federal law, and there’s a legal right to seize him and detain him.”
Despite all of that, many church leaders remain bent on offering some assistance to people they view as victims of an unfair immigration system.
More than a year ago, the United Church of Christ in Menifee said publicly it would house Syrian refugees. Soon after, somebody put up a sign in front of the church that read: “This Church is a Blasphemous Cult.”
Church leader the Rev. Bill Freeman said he’s ready to make a similar offer today to potential deportees.
“Some people are concerned about whether I’m going to get arrested, whether the church is going to get raided,” Freeman said. “But, again, Jesus was crucified for what he did, and getting arrested for what Jesus says, that’s a small price to pay.”
Sanctuary also could be extended far beyond any one house of worship.
Faith leaders and congregants connected to LA Voice — a coalition of churches, synagogues and mosques — are stepping up to offer sanctuary in their own homes throughout Los Angeles County. The Rev. Zachary Hoover, executive director of LA Voice, a member of PICO National Network, said that “with some hustle” they could find sanctuary housing for more than 150 people. Hoover noted that people kept in a private home might be better protected, legally, than they would be in a house of worship.
Pini Herman, a retired demographer in Los Angeles, said he’s open to having immigrants stay at his home. He added that he’s motivated by his family’s own past. As a child, Herman and his family fled anti-Semitism in Hungary during the country’s uprising in 1956. He said his mother had survived the Holocaust more than a decade earlier because several Hungarian families were willing to risk their lives to hide her away.
“I don’t think anybody is illegal,” Herman said.
“If they’re being pursued on that basis, I believe I should give them shelter, whatever the dangers may be.”
Staff writers Deepa Bharath and Alejandra Molina contributed to this report.