President Trump has repeatedly marketed himself as a champion of religious freedom. But that same freedom could undermine the authority of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) where so-called Sanctuary Churches — along with other places of worship — are concerned.
Roughly two weeks ago, Gisella Collazo and her two children took refuge inside the South Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Boston Globe reports. Collazo emigrated from Peru in 2001 and married a US citizen in 2005. Her two children were born in the United States, but during a January check-in with immigration officials, she was told to return to Peru at the end of March. Instead, she went to the church.
According to the Globe, the city’s mayor was not happy — and threatened to strip the church of its tax-exempt status. He added that officials would “not stand for harboring and protecting” immigrants facing deportation.
The Springfield City Council disagreed, and unanimously voted Monday to bar city officials from “interfering with the religious freedoms” of churches and other places of worship, the paper reports.
“We’re really here because of the executive branch’s overreach in this subject,” Councilor Michael A. Fenton reportedly said. “No mayor passes any edict telling any church what to do, particularly as it relates to sanctuary.”
The mayor’s challenge — and the council’s unequivocal blow-back — don’t constitute a legal precedent. But they could become a reference point as more places of worship take to shielding immigrants.
Churches in Detroit and Phoenix, synagogues in New York and a mosque in Cincinnati have all made headlines in recent months for announcing their intentions to shelter immigrants from deportation. The idea is to be a more direct-action version of a sanctuary city — unlike a local police department, they don’t have data to withhold, but they can offer literal shelter. And while ICE agents technically can come into these religious spaces and arrest people, they usually won’t because of a “sensitive locations” policy created by former president Barack Obama in 2011.
And places of worship aren’t the only institutions offering sanctuary. As Next City has covered, a high school, LGBT center, salon and restaurant, among other facilities, recently painted their doors gold in a symbol of support toward local immigrant communities in Sacramento ahead of a visit to the city by Attorney General Sessions. Organizers of the Golden Doors Project provide supporters with kits showing them how to document and report ICE raids, learn about search and seizure laws and offer in-person assistance, along with cans of gold spray paint.
“It’s about opening the doors for people to know where there are safe havens, safe spaces for people to go for resources and to feel like they’re part of this community,” Dreamer and human rights activist Irvis Orozco told Next City. “We want to bring that message.”
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.