Sanctuary . . . A sanctuary, in its original meaning, is a sacred place. By the use of sanctuaries as safe havens, the term has come to be used for any place of refuge. For people of faith who are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, a sanctuary is indeed a holy place, sacred and inviolable.
Jeanette Vizguerra is a Mexican mother seeking to avoid deportation. As she held her 6-year-old daughter, Zuri, she spoke during a news conference in a Denver church where she and her children have taken refuge. But when Jeanette Vizguerra walked into that Colorado church, she also walked into the forefront of a possible clash between Donald Trump and many sanctuary churches across the country.
Vizguerra has lived in the U.S. since 1997 with four children, three of them born here. She was due to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead, she took sanctuary inside the First Unitarian Society of Denver.
“I did not make this decision lightly,” Vizguerra said through an interpreter. “I was thinking about it for weeks. But I think that I made the right decision in coming here instead of going to the immigration office.”
The pastor of the church, Rev. Mike Morran, said, “It is our position as a people of faith that this is sacred and faithful work. We know Jeanette. We know her to be an honorable human being.”
But critics say the church is violating the law. While it has been for years federal policy not to do immigration enforcement in churches and other “sensitive locations,” such as schools, unless absolutely necessary, today that may be a lapsed policy.
“President Obama’s administration thought it was prudent to avoid rounding people up in places like hospitals or churches,” says Richard Garnett, director of the program on Church, State and Society at the University of Notre Dame Law School.
But Garnett says if the new administration changes that policy, it could set up a conflict between President Trump’s push for tougher enforcement of immigration laws and his administration’s support for religious freedom.
“Sanctuary works,” says Seth Kaper-Dale, pastor of the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey. “I can tell you from our own experience that all nine people who lived here have kept their families together, have been able to raise their children, have been able to go back to their jobs. Is sanctuary brutally hard? Yes. But it is a tool that we will use if we’re forced by a brutal regime to use it.”
Sanctuary churches across this country are living out their convictions because of their faith in a welcoming God. The government will, no doubt, enforce immigration law. The Church will live into the law of God . . .
When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
– Leviticus 19:33-34 New International Version (NIV)
The invitation from God’s people proclaims, “In the name of God, come! You are welcome in this holy place of refuge.”
(Information about Jeanette Vizguerra is from David Zalubowski/AP.)