The number of churches and other houses of worship that have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants has doubled to an estimated 800 over the past year, according to leaders of the loosely-knit movement.
The current church sanctuary movement in the U.S. began to take shape about 10 years ago, inspired by a 1980s effort that provided shelter to thousands fleeing to the U.S. from civil war in Central American countries, said movement co-founder Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor and an immigration-rights activist.
Under President Barack Obama, ICE pursued a more aggressive deportation policy than any previous president, returning more than 400,000 illegal immigrants to their native countries at the height of his administration's raids in 2012. Public outcry prompted Obama to prioritize convicted criminals in his second term. But by then, in 2011, former ICE director John Morton already had instructed employees to avoid "sensitive locations," including churches, schools and hospitals.
Despite the aggressive enforcement under Obama, movement leaders viewed immigration reform as a viable goal. And so in the early days of the modern sanctuary movement, activists ultimately attempted to change policies, simultaneously seeking reform while honoring some church members' concerns for increased border security. At the time, the movement consisted primarily of churches with mostly white congregations and struggled to get immigrant involvement, according to Grace Yukich, a sociologist at Quinnipiac University who has studied the early days of the movement.
Then Congress failed to pass reform measures. "Even though they didn't achieve some of the goals they had at the time, those social networks enabled what's happening now," Yukich said.
Over the past three years, the sanctuary movement has grown greatly. In 2014, it had attracted 250 congregations, including synagogues. Following raids in January 2016, the number climbed to 400 congregations, according to Rev. Noel Anderson of the World Church Movement, which works with and tracks the U.S. sanctuary movement. By November, the number of churches involved had doubled to roughly 800 congregations, Anderson said.
Denver case makes headlines
The number of undocumented immigrants in sanctuary is unknown, in part because of the desire of undocumented immigrants and houses of worship to keep the cases private.
A handful of cases have been well-publicized, however, including in Philadelphia, Chicago, Texas, Arizona and now Denver, where Jeanette Vizguerra, 45, is one of two staying in houses of worship. Vizguerra made headlines last month when she sought sanctuary at First Unitarian Society of Denver after she was denied a stay of her deportation.
Legally, sanctuary churches are not likely protected under the First Amendment, said Charles Haynes, vice president of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum, since the government likely would claim a compelling state interest.
Courts, he said, have varied in their interpretations over whether the act of providing sanctuary should be considered harboring or concealment. In 1986 a group of activists tied to a church in Arizona were tried and convicted of conspiracy in a case involving smuggling undocumented immigrants. Criticisms of the movement range from people who consider sanctuary a costly and ultimately ineffective way to help undocumented immigrants to those who say the religious leaders are encouraging illegal activity.
Haynes noted that civil disobedience, especially among religious people, has been the key to success of almost every significant social movement in American history from abolition to suffrage to civil rights.
"For many religious people, protecting undocumented people is a matter of conscience - and they are willing to go to jail to live out this conviction," he said.
Even so, the turn the movement will take feels very uncertain under President Donald Trump, Salvatierra said. The Department of Homeland Security still lists churches as sensitive locations on its website, but some worry whether ICE will adhere to the policy under Trump.
However morally compelling it might seem to some as a statement of civil disobedience, sheltering undocumented immigrants also can be costly, both financially and emotionally, especially if it is open-ended.
"When we started, we had hopes that the sanctuary movement would change hearts and minds and pass immigration reform," Salvatierra said. "We took people into sanctuary without an exit strategy because immigration reform was our exit strategy."
While still heeding the religious call to offer refuge, Salvatierra said churches might need to turn increasingly toward helping undocumented immigrants snared by ICE to pay for legal help.
Pastor welcomes legal challenge
Vizguerra herself was an early activist in the sanctuary movement in Denver through the Quaker-based American Friends Service Committee. When Vizguerra's first stay was about to expire in 2013, the First Unitarian Society of Denver was approached by the group to become a sanctuary church. The 400-member congregation voted overwhelmingly to do it, its pastor Rev. Mike Morran said.
After her deportation was stayed, Vizguerra helped the church prepare the room for an undocumented immigrant named Arturo Hernandez Garcia, who lived there for nine months until he received a stay in 2015. Now it's Vizguerra's turn.
Because the church has made a practice of publicly announcing to ICE its intentions to host an undocumented immigrant, Morran said he was told by a consulting lawyer that the church is not acting against the law.
Morran, who has been pastor of the church for 15 years, said that he welcomes the possible opportunity to be challenged under the law.
"Of course we can't house 11 million people, but we can articulate this as a pastoral necessity for the health of our larger communities," he said. "We are called as people of faith to welcome strangers. We are called to oppose the systems that oppress people."