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Churches Still Figuring Out How To Protect Immigrants And Themselves


We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about what's being called the new sanctuary movement. We're talking about churches, congregations across the country that are committed to supporting undocumented immigrants who are facing possible detainment or deportation. People like Jeanette Vizguerra. She's currently living in a sanctuary church in Colorado.

JEANETTE VIZGUERRA: (Through interpreter) Even though it's been eight long years up to this point, I know that this is not the point to give up, and my fight is going to continue.

MARTIN: And that was Jeanette speaking with the help of a translator at a press conference inside the First Unitarian Church in Denver. That was earlier this year. We'll hear more about her a little later. NPR reporter Adrian Florido spoke with her during his reporting on the new sanctuary movement for the Code Switch podcast, and he's with us now to tell us more.

Welcome, Adrian. Thanks so much for joining us.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So what exactly are we talking about here? Are we talking about congregations that are actually offering refuge to people like Jeanette or are we talking about something else? How many congregations are we talking about?

FLORIDO: So we're talking about hundreds of churches that have stepped up in the last few months to say that they're going to provide some kind of protection to immigrants living in the country illegally. In a lot of cases, that's just supporting them in ways like food or accompanying them to meetings that they have with immigration and customs enforcement where they feel they may be deported. In other instances, it's actually inviting immigrants to live in the four walls of the congregation as a way to protect them from immigration agents.

MARTIN: Can law enforcement officers go into churches to detain these refugees? Is there some legal impediment to doing that?

FLORIDO: So technically it can, but it hasn't because several years ago, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency adopted a policy that it doesn't make deportation arrests inside what it calls sensitive locations. So that's places like schools, places like churches, and that's what opens up the possibility for immigrants to come in and say I need to take refuge in this church. The idea is that they will be protected from deportation.

MARTIN: The other question I think that many people will be asking is can churches be prosecuted for harboring someone who is technically in violation of the law?

FLORIDO: So that's one of the big questions sort of looming over all of this work right now. The most recent time that it was a sort of a major movement in the United States was in the '80s when churches and other congregations stepped up to protect immigrants from Central America.

At that time, clergy members were prosecuted by the government successfully for doing this work. And so as churches and other congregations right now are beginning the process of learning how to become sanctuary churches, a big question that they have is will we be prosecuted? How do we protect ourselves against that?

MARTIN: So let's go back to Jeanette Vizguerra who's currently living in a church in Colorado, as we said. We heard a bit from her earlier. Why did she feel the need to take this step? I mean, she has three children who are all born in the United States. She's still kind of trying to raise them even though she's living in the church and they aren't. Why would she do something so drastic?

FLORIDO: So Jeanette Vizguerra's story's very interesting because she has lived in the U.S. illegally since the '90s. In 2009, she was convicted for using fake documents to get a job. That could have resulted in her deportation, and she did get a deportation order as a result. But through the years of the Obama administration, she was never actually deported because the government didn't consider her a priority for deportation. So she was allowed to stay as long as she regularly checked in with immigration agents.

Under the Trump administration because of his recent executive order that prioritizes a much larger category of immigrants for deportation, she was afraid that if she showed up for this scheduled ICE check-in, that she would be deported. She didn't want to take that risk, so she took sanctuary in this church.

MARTIN: I would imagine that there's a balancing act within congregations. People might say I don't want to be put in the position of breaking the law. Who is this person? Did that come up in your report?

FLORIDO: I mean, this is absolutely an internal balancing act as well. I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting that the board of a church was having where they were talking about how far are we willing to go to protect someone? Who are we willing to take in? If someone has a criminal record, is that OK? If it is OK, how serious of a criminal record, right? Because all these things become things that members of the congregation raise concerns about. It's very clear that as churches are gearing up to do this kind of work, they're wrestling with all this tricky messy stuff.

MARTIN: That's Code Switch reporter Adrian Florido. You can hear more of his work by going to npr.org/codeswitch. He was kind enough to join us here in our studios in Washington, D.C. Thanks, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.

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