A Riverside church plans to open its doors as shelter for undocumented immigrants at risk of being deported.
First Congregational Church of Riverside, located downtown near the Mission Inn, is doing so even if the move puts the parish at odds with federal law as President Donald Trump ramps up deportation efforts.
For some churches, offering sanctuary is in line with their faith tradition of confronting what they see as unjust laws.
“Sanctuary is a way to be in solidarity with the undocumented community,” said the Rev. Hannah Cranbury of First Congregational. “We feel in our particular congregation that the sanctuary movement allows us to enact and embody that commitment to justice.”
But those who oppose illegal immigration say churches should not be harboring those who’ve broken the law.
“Churches are not exempt from violating the law,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for better border security and an end to illegal immigration.
“If they’re going to be offering sanctuary, that is harboring,” Mehlman said. “They’re opening themselves to the potential of having legal action taken against them.”
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 preventing immigration arrests in a church.
Recently released data show that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, made 35 percent more arrests nationwide in roughly the first three months under Trump compared to the same period last year, though arrests were down 23 percent since 2014.
While ICE’s focus is still on those who pose a threat to public safety, today “anyone who is in this country in violation of immigration law is subject to possible arrest,” said Virginia Kice, the agency’s western regional spokeswoman.
This is why churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are contemplatingoffering this ancient, literal version of sanctuary to undocumented people who might be arrested.
Some houses of worship offering sanctuary plan to house immigrants in their church. Others sponsor workshops offering information on immigrants’ rights and how to respond if one is arrested by immigration agents.
It’s unclear how many Inland churches plan to offer sanctuary, but First Congregational appears to be one of the few that has gone public with its intent. The Diocese of San Bernardino won’t declare itself a sanctuary system but is letting its Catholic churches decide for themselves.
First Congregational’s sanctuary offer involves food, shelter, and protection.
The way the Rev. Jane Quandt sees it, the move maintains a “legacy to which we are accountable.”
The church has a history of making what she called controversial decisions.
It shared its space with a Japanese congregation during World War II. In 1995 it became an “open and affirming” congregation, meaning it welcomed people of all races and sexual orientations. Recently, a Black Lives Matter banner has been displayed outside the church.
“We have always been willing to do some things that might create some controversy in the community,” Quandt said. “The legacy of this church is to stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable.”
Church members Sunday, April 30, voted 79-7, in favor of physically providing sanctuary. The church is going further by making its decision public. It’s doing so not to just help one family, but to make “a public statement that this is wrong,” Quandt said.
The parish plans to work with immigration attorneys, who will refer them to clients risking deportation. Church leaders will then decide who to take in. It will likely be one person or a family, Quandt said. The church isn’t housing anyone yet.
“This person has to have a lot of courage to be willing to be a part of this,” Quandt added.
‘Sign of hope?’
Faith leaders and immigrant rights advocates call it a bold move, especially in the Inland area, where many oppose illegal immigration.
In 2014, for example, a number of anti-illegal immigration protesters made national news when they stopped buses filled with Central American migrant families from entering the Murrieta Border Patrol station. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Fontana temporarily housed a number of those migrants while they contacted relatives across the U.S.
Sergio Luna, a community organizer with Inland Congregations United for Change, said that in Los Angeles, churches are preparing private homes and creating modern underground railroads to hide immigrants and save them from deportation. He called what First Congregational is doing in the Inland area a step in the right direction.
“This is a sign of hope that not everyone here in the region feels the same way about immigrants,” Luna said.
In February, Riverside was in the spotlight when city leaders discussed a resident’s suggestion that Riverside become a sanctuary city. People spoke on both sides of the issue.
Ben Clymer Jr., a local business owner, opposed the idea, saying Riverside couldn’t afford to lose federal dollars that could be withheld if it became a sanctuary city.
However, he has no issue with a church offering sanctuary.
“I don’t need to agree with that church decision, but I support their right to engage in public disobedience as long as they don’t ask for public funding,” Clymer said.
A number of Inland churches have expressed support for immigrants in other ways.
The Diocese of San Bernardino, which serves Riverside and San Bernardino counties, has hosted forums to teach immigrants about their constitutional rights. Church members are also comforting and praying with immigrants. The diocese hosts forums to address church teaching on the issue.
While Bishop Gerald Barnes is allowing individual churches to make their own decision on the issue, diocese spokesman John Andrews said he doesn’t know of any that have declared they’ll offer sanctuary.
Elizabeth Ayala, a new member of First Congregational, applauded the vote.
“I joined the church because of its long-standing commitment to living our faith in public,” Ayala said.
Before making their decision, church members met with immigration rights activists and lawyers such as Hadley Bajramovic, an attorney serving the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates.
On the day church members voted, Bajramovic shared cases of her clients who would benefit from sanctuary. The decision could “turn the tide,” she said.
“We can successfully protect a family here in Riverside and draw attention to it and talk about the family, and the people that are separated, and why people are here,” she said. “And start to give real identities to people that are in the news and called ‘illegal aliens.’”