The Texas Observer

Faith Leaders Pledge to Offer Sanctuary to Immigrants Facing Deportation

Faith Leaders Pledge to Offer Sanctuary to Immigrants Facing Deportation

Pastor Jim Rigby of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church — one of 15 Austin congregations that has agreed to serve as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants fighting deportation.  St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin, had a cough he couldn’t shake during a recent phone interview. He hadn’t stopped working since Election Day and he was exhausted. “My mind won’t stop but I think physically I’m just about run out.”

Rigby’s church is one of 15 in Austin that has agreed to serve as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants fighting deportation. His church recently hosted a Guatemalan woman, Hilda Ramirez, and her 11-year-old son after their asylum case was denied. The two lived at the church for eight months before Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) granted them a one-year reprieve in October.

Hosting Ramirez was a trial run for Rigby’s church, which joined the New Sanctuary Movement this year — a multi-denominational network of congregations, including synagogues and mosques, that have pledged to shelter immigrants who fear persecution in their home countries if they are deported.

The effort took off in 2014 in Tucson, Arizona, during the height of the Obama administration’s record deportations. That’s when faith leaders decided it was time to revive the sanctuary movement, which developed in the ’80s as the Reagan administration began deporting thousands of Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. Many of the refugees were detained, then sent back to their countries in the midst of civil wars, in which the U.S. government played a role.

Since Trump was elected, Rigby said congregations from other parts of Texas have called him to ask how they can get involved. Currently, 15 congregations in Austin, including Rigby’s, are willing to host immigrants, while churches in Waco, Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley are in talks with movement leaders.

“We’re going to see a whole panoply of lives in danger if Trump follows through on his promises,” Rigby said. “But it’s also a real opportunity to reclaim the core message of the church and it’s a liberation message.”

Hilda Ramirez with son, Ivan, and Alejandro Caceres of Grassroots Leadership during an Oct. 26 press conference at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Austin.  Gus Bova

Texas isn’t the only state joining the movement. The president-elect’s promise to carry out mass deportations, Muslim registries and immigration raids, among other threats, has galvanized the religious community across the country, said Rev. Alison Harrington of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, a leader within the sanctuary movement.

Since Trump was elected, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing at her office, said Harrington. In the last month, the number of congregations offering to provide shelter to immigrants has more than doubled across the country to 450.

“It’s hard to know what to expect,” said Harrington of Trump’s presidency. “But right now we are taking him at his word.”

The fact that Trump has enlisted anti-immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, as an adviser signals that the president-elect intends to follow through, Harrington said. “We’ve had a lot of experience already with Kobach, who was behind SB 1070 in Arizona and targeting immigrants.”

Harrington said the coming years will be a test for religious leaders. Harrington is well aware of the sacrifices made by her predecessor at the church, Rev. John Fife, who was a co-founder of the original movement. The U.S. government indicted Fife and 17 others in Texas and Arizona in the mid-’80s for helping Central American refugees. After a lengthy court battle, Fife and the others were given probation, but one member of the movement from Brownsville, Stacey Lynn Merkt, served six months in a federal prison in Fort Worth.

“I think a lot of the faithful in the coming years are going to be compelled to follow the mandates of their faith rather than the law of the land,” she said.

In Austin at St. Andrew’s, Rigby said he would go to jail if it meant protecting immigrant families in harm’s way. “What’s happening right now reminds me of growing up in Dallas. It’s 1950 all over again and the KKK never went away,” he said. “When it’s obvious that whatever safety net we have is gone, we’re going to have to think outside the powers that be. So whatever it takes, I’m prepared.”