Churches around the U.S. are defying federal immigration authorities and are offering safe havens to Central American immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally and who have been ordered to be deported.
In the middle of a new wave of deportations, churches are one of the few institutions where immigrants are protected from arrest according to a 2011 memo from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, NPR reports. Others include schools, hospitals and public demonstrations.
In the 1980s, around 500 churches and synagogues throughout the U.S. engaged in a similar action and shielded immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who were fleeing political violence and war.
The current "movement" has only seen 12 congregations open their doors to immigrants, although Church World Service says it knows of more than 300 congregations in 30 states that want to show support, according to NPR.
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Despite the smaller scale of church action on immigration today compared to the 1980s, the new sanctuary movement has so far seen some limited successes. For example, after their cases were made public, 11 out of 13 immigrants have received stays of deportation after they sought refuge in churches.
Alison Harrington, a minister of one of the movement's founding sanctuary churches in Arizona, explained the impetus behind the movement:
"And again churches and congregations across the United States are standing up to say, this is not reflective of who we believe we are as a people and this is not reflective of our faith as Christians."
The Rev. Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, says that publicizing individual cases of immigrants who have fled to churches is a way of pressuring the government to review these cases and many times, to ultimately back off.
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"We don't see ourselves so much violating the law as appealing to them to use their discernment. To say this is a situation where sending somebody back to Guatemala could very well mean their death."