Local Houses of Worship Becoming Sanctuary Congregations

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Hundreds of houses of worship around the country are standing up for undocumented immigrants in light of President Trump’s executive orders on immigration.

In Sacramento, the B’nai Israel board voted to become the first congregation in the region to officially declare itself a sanctuary congregation. This means they are ready at a moment’s notice to house a family or person who needs a safe place.

The synagogue has not only set aside space, but food, clothing, and a dedicated 24/7 staff to assist and protect anyone who may be in fear of imminent deportation.

“This isn’t about politics, our the first amendment. This is about our faith,” said Rabbi Mona Alfi.

“Love thy neighbor” is inscribed on the side of the synagogue. It’s a driving force for why the congregation is now opening its doors to those seeking refuge.

“We felt that based on our own history, as immigrants, as refugees, as survivors of the Holocaust, it would be sinful for us to remain silent,” said Alfi.

Meanwhile, one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. is Sacramento resident Antonio. He is terrified of being ripped away from his family and sent back to Mexico.

“My biggest concern is getting separated from my daughter, the youngest one,” he said.

Antonio applied for his green card in 1997 and says 20 years later he’s still waiting for an interview.

His parents and two of his children, including 10-year-old Fabiana, are American citizens. “We know we are at risk every single day,” he said.

“We know we are at risk every single day,” he said.

Faced with an uncertain future, he says it gives him hope to see congregations across different faith lines standing with them.

At St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Sacramento, the congregation held a town hall in April to decide whether they will step up to be a place of sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.

“We had concerns raised about our mission, the facilities and about the cost,” said a member of St. Mark’s congregation.

Senior Pastor Reverend Alan Jones is pushing for it. He says it’s what their faith compels them to do.

“The fear that a lot of people are experiencing is doing a lot of damage to people,” said Rev. Jones. “There is some real concern among the congregation about backlash from the community.”

The big question many have: are houses of worship protected?

“Just because you have a conscientious view of things, it doesn’t give you protection from violating the law,” said former federal prosecutor and Sacramento attorney Don Heller.

Heller says there is a federal law that prohibits anyone from knowingly harboring an undocumented immigrant in any place or any building. He adds that federal agents with a judicial warrant can make arrests, regardless of whether those being arrested are at a house of worship. Those who try to prevent it from happening face consequences, including 5 years in federal prison.

“If they stand in front of an ICE agent with a warrant and they prevent them from doing their jobs, then they’re obstructing justice,” said Heller.

In 2011, under the Obama Administration, ICE issued a memo stating immigration enforcement wouldn’t happen in churches and other “sensitive locations” such as schools, unless absolutely necessary.

“Do we want to support the rule of law? Of course, we do. But at the same time, if the rule of law is creating an unjust or uncaring or a very inappropriate, fearful situation, then we can’t support it,” said Jones.

Congregations like B’nai Israel and St. Mark’s say they will be vetting families who seek refuge to make sure they don’t have a criminal background and they believe, regardless of the risks, this is the right thing to do.

“We understand what the risks are, but the risk of not acting is much more perilous,” said Alfi.

More from Shirin Rajaee
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