Important Information about the Immigration Sanctuary Proposal
Over the last two years our church has been studying the problems in our nation’s immigration system,
listening to voices from inside and outside our congregation about issues in our current system. Our own church’s study confirms the views of liberal voices like the Center for American Progress, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Amnesty International, moderate voices like the Brookings Institution and conservative voices like the US Chamber of Commerce, the Cato Institute and the George W Bush Presidential Center — that our antiquated system is in need of major and immediate repairs as it continues to destroy lives and break up families. The primary problem of our immigration system, which has not been revised since 1986, is that there are so few ways to become legal, forcing migrants underground and often separating families. We learned, too, that our United Methodist denomination encourages congregations to stand with migrants, affirming that “Welcoming the migrant is not only an act of mission; it is an opportunity to receive God’s grace.”
In response, our Immigration Team has presented a proposal that would allow our church to join a nationwide network of 800 other churches who offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, including those who are in the midst of their lawful immigration application but fear they will be put in detention and/or deported.
Obviously it’s a big decision for us. Here are some issues to understand as you consider your opinion:
Reform of Our Immigration System is a Very Important Local and National Issue, but Governmental Leaders Have Failed to Act
In comparison to other social problems immigration is one of the largest. Nationally it is estimated there are around 550,000 homeless people, while there are believed to be around 11 million undocumented residents, many of whom work, pay taxes and have family members who are US Citizens. Even so, Congress continues to be unable to pass immigration reform. We have participants in our church who are undocumented and are awaiting adjudication of their request to receive work permits and/or asylum in the US.
Immigration Sanctuary by Churches is a Practical and Symbolic Statement
Though one person or family per church is helped with shelter, the larger purpose of the immigration sanctuary movement is to encourage reform of our immigration system. Some 60 United Methodist Churches have taken this stand, and our United Methodist denomination urges churches to “support those churches that prayerfully choose to offer sanctuary to undocumented migrants facing deportation….” These churches are taking the lead as they interpret the need for immigration reform to their over 800 communities.
Sometimes Faith Communities Use Civil Disobedience to Raise Awareness of the Need for Social Change
Faith-based civil disobedience, in which churches seek to honor God’s will above human laws, has a long history in the US. Though it was illegal to shelter a runaway slave in the early 19th c, Harriett Tubman and her church helped former slaves escape to Canada through a network of churches. One of the best expressions of faith-based civil disobedience is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which the Civil Rights leader shared Biblical stories about civil disobedience while justifying its use against racist laws in the South. Churches took the lead, using acts of civil disobedience, in the Abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, and the civil rights movement.
The Risks to Our Church are Low, but Not Zero
Sanctuary churches enter a grey-area of the law in which they honor legal proscriptions against secretly “harboring” illegal residents by notifying local authorities of their presence at the church facility. Because authorities are aware and because it is the policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to enter religious facilities, none of the 800 sanctuary churches have been prosecuted nor has found its assets placed in jeopardy. This special status gives religious organizations a unique responsibility granted to no other organization in our nation. Sanctuary churches are encouraged to investigate purchasing an insurance rider to specifically cover this action. Also, sanctuary churches must extend to this program their “safe church” policies that protect children from potential abuse. A criminal background check would be required, and it is possible to do a background check without a Social Security number or driver license (pdf).
What are the logistics for a person living in the church building?
The current proposal calls for a single individual, in danger of being separated from his/her family, to be housed in the former Movie Theater room in the church’s ground floor, using shower facilities in the nearby bathroom and kitchen facilities in one of the church’s kitchens. Laundry would be done offsite. The church has a valid permit with City of Edmonds for overnight housing in the church building. An alternate proposal is emerging to house the person in a mobile home on our property.
We Are Being Called to Make a Spiritual Decision and to Listen for God’s Voice
All missional decisions by a church must be driven by responsiveness to God’s will. The question facing our congregation is a theological and spiritual question in which we ask ourselves, do we believe this particular strategy responds to God’s Biblical call of compassion to people in need, and will it be effective in helping meet that need?