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Houses of Worship Sign Up to House Undocumented Immigrants During Raids

By Amy Zimmer | February 14, 2017 5:51pm
 The West Village Chorale performs the famous
The West Village Chorale performs the famous "Hallelujah" chorus from Handel's "Messiah" at the Judson Memorial Church in 2013.
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DNAinfo/Kayla Epstein

MANHATTAN — As fear grips the city’s immigrant communities after this weekend’s arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, many houses of worship across the boroughs are gearing up to provide refuge to undocumented New Yorkers in the event of future raids.

Interfaith networks focused on social justice issues, like the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York and Faith in New York, have seen a tremendous uptick in congregations reaching out to help since President Donald Trump took office and began issuing executive orders targeting immigrants.

Communities are figuring out how they can offer space to shelter someone at risk of detention and deportation — despite their status in the U.S. — whether it's overnight, for a week or for months, advocates said. Others are offering other assistance, like food for those staying at other churches or temples.

At least 14 congregations in New York City are currently providing refuge to undocumented immigrants, according to Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper, senior minister of Judson Memorial Church, which has since November been sheltering an undocumented man about to be deported and awaiting a court hearing in its historic building across from Washington Square Park.

“You can’t conceal or harbor people,” said Schaper, who is also a founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition, noting that her church hand-delivered a letter to ICE officials about what they’re doing. “The law has never been tested. When it is tested you want to be on firmest legal ground. When you commit civil disobedience, you let people know you’re doing it.”

Historically, federal agents have not raided houses of worship when pursuing individuals in connection with deportation proceedings. ICE formalized the policy in 2011, though many congregations are concerned this may change under the Trump administration.

The sanctuary movement has a long history in the U.S., with roots in the Underground Railroad, and in the 1980s with congregations taking in asylum seekers from civil wars in Central America.

Providing sanctuary is what churches do, added Schaper, noting that Judson has offered about half a dozen people sanctuary over the past 11 years.

“We’ve done it in the past," she said. "We’re prepared to do more of it.”

Inquiries from congregations from Jewish to Methodist that want to participate in the New Sanctuary Coalition has increased by about 300 percent recently.

“I’ve been surprised by the overall interest," Schaper said. “Every congregation that joins makes it safe for the rest of us. The more who are doing this the safer we all are since they can’t arrest us.”

Hundreds of people are also turning out each week for the clinics her group runs on training New Yorkers to accompany undocumented immigrants to ICE appointments at Federal Plaza, and the group is actively advocating in support of policies, like the de Blasio administration’s pledge to remain a sanctuary city where local enforcement refuse to cooperate with federal immigration agents on some deportations.

New York is home to an estimated 500,000 people living here without proper documentation, according to city officials.

Trump vowed to fast track the deportation of 2 to 3 million undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes.

There were 41 undocumented individuals arrested by ICE this weekend in the greater New York area — with seven confirmed cases from Staten Island, Bushwick and Elmhurst — 38 of whom had criminal convictions, according to ICE and immigrant activists. It was part of a national sweep in which 75 percent of those detained were convicted of crimes, including homicide, drug trafficking and assault, ICE officials said.

Federal officials also noted that fewer people were detained in New York last weekend than a sweep last August, under the Obama administration, in which 58 people with criminal convictions or gang history were detained.

A Trump executive order, however, gave broader authority to ICE, allowing agents to target undocumented immigrants who, for instance, are suspected of criminal activity, but not charged or those charged with misdemeanors.

Earlier this month, Rev. Schuyler Vogel from the Upper West Side’s Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York got a call from leaders with the Faith in New York network alerting them to the fears being felt by immigrant communities after Trump’s ban of travel from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Vogel contacted his congregation’s board, which immediately convened a meeting to discuss how to enlist its services.

While the church doesn’t have the space to offer long-term sanctuary, members agreed to provide short-term refuge, if needed, and are working out the logistics on how to do so. They are discussing other ways to help, like offering meals on a regular basis to others in sanctuary, having doctors in the congregation provide services or hold toy drives for families.

“What does it mean to take care of human beings in a space that’s not set up to do so,” Vogel said. “On Sunday [Feb. 4], we had a special service, where as part of my sermon, I asked congregants to sign up for a rapid response list, whether it’s a raid happening in Upper Manhattan or the JFK protest, to be able to show up. That’s how things change: it’s about being able to show up and be a voice for people.”

His church was packed — there were more than 135 people that Sunday, which is large for a congregation of about 110 members — when he made his plea, and he got about 70 members to sign up.

“For us to be faithful, while everything is happening, we need to get organized,” Vogel said in his sermon. “If you are frustrated and scared, if you feel alone or angry, this congregation is with you. We say, we understand and hear you.”

Greg Halzen, a community organizer with Faith in New York, hopes that families living in fear of deportation will reach out to clergy.

This past weekend at a “know your rights” seminar his group was conducting with the help of the Legal Aid Society at a church in Flatbush, attendance was sparse because members were too afraid even to venture to the church, he said.

“People are scared about where they’re going. I think that staying in touch and connecting and sharing concerns and what they’re experiencing with trusted individuals is important,” Hazlan said. “Being isolated is not helpful.”