Congregations’ role as sanctuary coming under strain under Trump administration?

The longtime tradition of government respecting the autonomy of churches in offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants and other violators of the law is gradually being dissolved under the presidency of Donald Trump, reports the libertarian magazine Reason (February). The internal policies of government immigrant agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have long treated congregations in a similar manner to other sensitive locations, such as hospitals, courts and schools, as being immune to police intrusion. Even though cities may declare themselves “sanctuary cities,” they nevertheless face immigrant deportations that are legal. But 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,” Shikha Dalmia writes. But that distinction has been less evident to the Trump administration, as it has “eviscerated the longstanding norms preserving a sphere of independence for these institutions. If the administration continues on its draconian course, it will vastly expand the government’s reach and radically shrink the space where American humanitarianism can find full expression: civil society.”

Congregations have historically received special exemption from police intrusion because of their mission to minister to people without discrimination, as well as law enforcement’s reliance on these entities to provide much needed social services. But Dalmia adds that, besides cracking down on illegal immigrants in courts and other public places, the “Trump administration has been pushing the limits in [traditional] ‘safe zones’” including hospitals. This is a dramatic departure from the Obama administration’s actions (although that administration was actively deporting illegal immigrants as well). Since Trump assumed office, the number of congregations opting to provide sanctuary has doubled from 400 to 800. But most of these churches have sought to collaborate with ICE, refraining from sheltering those with serious criminal records, for instance. But Trump has “maintained a strategic ambiguity about whether or not he plans to honor the policy of not raiding houses of worship.” ICE did raid a humanitarian camp in Arizona and agents detained six men after they left a church-run homeless shelter in Virginia. The Trump administration’s advocacy of religious freedom could be jeopardized if it moves against the churches. And such a move could drive the sanctuary movement underground; already some of “California’s faith leaders are building a secret network of houses where undocumented…families could go into hiding in the event of a full-blown crackdown,” Dalmia concludes.