Revived sanctuary movement growing nationwide

Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church is home to the newly revived Sanctuary Movement. (Photo by: Cole Malham / Arizona Sonoran News Service)
Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church is home to the newly revived Sanctuary Movement. Photo by: Cole Malham / Arizona Sonoran News.

Churches across the country are opening their doors to illegal immigrants facing deportation as the newly revived sanctuary movement gains more supporters.

According to the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, nearly 700,000 illegal immigrants attempt to cross the United States border illegally in hopes of achieving a better life.  The United States and Mexico share a border that stretches 1,989 miles long, and securing it continues to be a political hot-button issue.

Immigrants who want to live legally in the U.S. often have to wait as long as 15 years and navigate a complex and confusing legal process to get the legal documentation, according to reports. Even then, they are not guaranteed entry.

“They are looking for help. They want a better life,” said Thomas Samaha, a former U.S. customs agent who spent his career enforcing American laws that deported illegal entrants. “The laws right now are favoring them to come across illegally rather than legally. They can’t wait the [15 years] it takes do it legally.”

Hundreds of thousands of immigrants attempt to cross the U.S.-Mexico border each year and those who make it  blend into American society.

“It’s a no-win situation. The people who want to get across will get across. You want to catch them. Just like police or FBI, you are enforcing the laws. It’s your job. There is no personal satisfaction, but it’s your job,” Samaha said.

Churches in Tucson and around the state are opening their doors to illegal immigrants facing deportation and offering them sanctuary from law enforcement. Sanctuary proponents are looking to local politicians for support and have found an ally in Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías, District 5.

“The deportation and splitting up of families should never be the job of politics,” Elías said.

In early September, Elías and his colleagues voted to support Mexican citizen Rosa Robles Loreto’s fight to remain in the country. She has been illegally living in Tucson for nine years. Robles Loreto took refuge in Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church with her husband and two sons on Aug. 7.

Churches all over the country are following the Southside Presbyterian Church’s position and reviving the sanctuary movement, is now active in 24 congregations in 12 cities, according to Sanctuary 2014. Those include churches in Arizona, Oregon, Illinois, Washington, Colorado, California and Maine. Another 60 congregations have supported the sanctuary movement, Sanctuary 2014 reported.

Church sanctuaries are by no means exempt from the law. However, law enforcement typically respects their hospitality in these situations and generally stays away.

“[Illegal immigrants] are looking for help,” said Samaha. “I personally do not think that churches have the right to pretend like they are above the law, but they do have the right to help another human being. That is where it gets tough.”

Church sanctuaries join the volunteer Humane Borders program to offer assistance to those attempting to cross the border. Humane Borders deploys emergency water stations on common routes used by migrants crossing through the desert. Their goal is simple, “to take the death out of the immigration equation,” according to the group’s website.

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