'Love thy neighbor and welcome the stranger': NC churches provide sanctuary for immigrants


The United Church of Chapel Hill hosted a workshop over the weekend introducing participants to ideas about the sanctuary movement and ways to help immigrants.

North Carolina churches are coming together to offer sanctuary to immigrants and families facing deportation.

The United Church of Chapel Hill hosted a workshop this past weekend introducing participants to ideas about the sanctuary movement and ways to help immigrants. Church leaders, American Civil Liberties Union members and other community members attended the workshop. 

Susan Steinberg, head of staff at UCCH, said she thought the most valuable part of the weekend was learning about the variety of ways congregations can support people facing deportation.

“I’m really curious to study that spectrum,” she said. “Hosting someone in our congregation is only one part of that spectrum, and there are a variety of other ways support can be provided.”

Jennie Belle, program director for farm worker and immigrant rights with the North Carolina Council of Churches, said churches are providing public sanctuary when they host immigrants and their families. Belle said the focus is to keep these people safe while they fight their deportation cases.

“(Providing sanctuary is) very public and focused on the media,” she said. “We’re highlighting the case and trying to draw support for these people.”

Belle said congregations usually provide sanctuary for one immigrant and their family at a time. They have to live inside the church 24/7, so good volunteers are needed to support them, she said.

Deborah Weissman, a UNC law professor specializing in immigration law, said an Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy dealing with sensitive locations advises ICE agents against conducting raids in places like churches and schools.

“The policy provides guidance to ICE officers, but it does not have binding legal authority,” she said. “It reaffirms policies that treat places of worship as sensitive locations and suggests conduct that should be displayed, but it does not offer absolute protection.”

The 2011 policy — called “Enforcement Actions at or Focused on Sensitive Locations” — restricts arrests, interviews, searches and surveillance in schools and churches, barring critical circumstances or prior approval.

Belle said the goal of providing sanctuary is to allow immigrants to stay in the United States while they argue their cases in court. 

“Many of these people have lived in North Carolina for a long time," she said. "They have jobs and families here, so we want them to be able to stay together."

Steinberg said the people of God are called by biblical mandate to protect strangers within their land. Immigrants in North Carolina have made many contributions to communities in many ways, and immigration policies must be measured against this biblical law, she said.

“The breadth of their contribution is so deep and wide, and yet the pathway for them to become full citizens is so narrow,” Steinberg said. “We must go back to that ancient law: What does it mean to love thy neighbor and welcome the stranger?”

UCCH is not currently providing sanctuary. Steinberg said they are still in the process of gathering information and determining the best way to help.

“We keep trying to pay attention to policy proposals and measure them against the law of love,” she said. “These policies are literally pulling families apart and forcing them to make heartbreaking choices.”



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