A national movement of clergy in the Trump-era offering their churches as safe harbors for immigrants has taken hold in Colorado’s second largest city— and one of its more conservative ones.
On Monday, under the vaulted ceilings of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in a leafy downtown neighborhood of Colorado Springs, a new coalition of immigrants rights activists christened the place as the first sanctuary church in the area.
If an immigrant who is in the country illegally fears deportation, he or she now can seek refuge in the church in the hope that immigration officials won’t try to barge in.
While All Souls is the only church publicly offering a physical sanctuary in the Springs, three other congregations in the city have linked arms to support it. They are the First United Methodist Church, the First Congregational Church – United Church of Christ, and Colorado Springs Friends Meeting, a Quaker organization.
“We are troubled that the need for such a coalition even exists,” said Candace Datz, who directs a youth and adult ministry at the First Congregational Church. The coalition, she said, will be uncompromising in its commitment to immigrants and their families during a time of what she called “racist and exclusive immigration laws and policies.”
The coalition chose the day after Father’s Day to announce its plans as a nod to the idea of keeping families together. The move comes just days after President Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security announced it will keep an Obama-era program that protects some younger immigrants from deportation, but will scrap one that would have protected parents.
While immigrants used churches to block potential deportations under the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama in Colorado and elsewhere, their use as sanctuaries doubled following Trump’s election in November, according to a representative of Church World Service. About a week after his inauguration, Trump signed executive orders that expanded the power of immigration officials with the aim of ramping up deportations.
In the following weeks, Colorado became an early flashpoint in the Trump-era church-as-immigrant-sanctuary narrative.
In February, fearing deportation, Jeanette Vizguerra made national news when she sought refuge inside the First Unitarian Society in Denver— one of the first immigrants to do so since Trump’s election. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had denied her a stay of removal for the first time since she pleaded guilty to using a fake ID for work in 2009, so she felt at risk. In May, ICE granted her a stay for two years, and Vizguerra left the church.
In April of this year, Arturo Hernandez, a Mexican man who stayed for nine months in the basement of the same church in 2014 under threat of deportation by the Obama administration, was detained by ICE on his way to buy something for work. He was later granted a stay until 2019.
Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, it is improper for anyone to knowingly harbor an undocumented immigrant “in any place, including any building.”
But churches have become sanctuaries for immigrants who fear deportation because of a 2011 ICE policy that designated churches, schools and healthcare centers, among others, as “sensitive locations,” where agents are unlikely to make arrests.
But, “it’s policy, it’s not law,” said Alex McShiras, an immigration attorney at the Joseph Law firm in Colorado Springs.
“Basically, ICE has agreed not to carry out enforcement actions in those locations,” he said. “Now, could that change? Maybe. I guess it technically could.”
But McShiras also said he had personal assurances from the ICE field office director in Colorado that agency agents are respecting the current policy.
“Despite who is president, despite who is the head of DHS or the head of ICE in Washington, D.C., he is the field office director in Colorado that covers the entire area of Colorado,” McShiras said. “He says that that is still what they’re doing and they’re not going to change that.” (The ICE website confirms the policy is still in place.)
Nori Rost, the minister of the non-denominational All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, said her congregation is leading the effort in the Springs because Unitarians have a strong commitment to providing sanctuary. Two of its sister churches— one in Denver and one in Nevada— are also sanctuary congregations.
Ringed by five military installations and home to a network of religious nonprofits including Focus on the Family, where Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak later this week, the Colorado Springs area has earned a reputation as a conservative stronghold with a moderate-to-progressive city core. El Paso County went for Trump over Hillary Clinton by 65 percent to 34 percent.
Rost said turning her church into a sanctuary for immigrants is something she has considered for years. “But in light of this new administration and these policies that we are seeing coming down it took on a new urgency,” she said.
The Colorado Springs Sanctuary Coalition, a new group made up of the four churches, community members, lawyers, professors, nonprofits and others, will screen those requesting sanctuary in the church.
The group hadn’t yet had an official request on its first day, but a 10-year-old girl who only gave her first name, Karina, said she is “always nervous” her parents might not come home from work.
“I don’t know if I can trust people in authority like the police or my school,” she told a small crowd in the Unitarian church Monday. “I don’t trust anyone who shows up at my doorstep.” Beyond that, she said she enjoys living in the Springs.
“The immigrants in our community are hard working, like my parents,” she said. “They came here to give their children, like me, a chance at a better life. I want people to know us and trust us. I don’t want to live in fear. I want to go school, and play, and grow up to be a psychiatrist.”
Outside All Souls on Monday evening, 25-year-old Emily Starkey, who lives in a house across the street, was wondering about all the news trucks parked on her corner. She, for one, says she’s happy to hear about her neighbor’s new plans.
“I think it’s great to provide a safe place,” she said.