How to Help Immigrants

Getting involved in the sanctuary movement

The current administration has cracked down hard on immigrants, and fear is rising. Raids have increased, and the priorities for deportation have greatly expanded. As a community, there are actions we can take at a local level that could do enormous good. One of those actions would be to urge our churches to offer sanctuary.

How We Can Help

According to Jeff Stewart, Coordinator of the Immigrant Worker Project in Canton, Ohio, ICE has historically refrained from entering churches and schools to apprehend immigrants. This means that anyone who is currently on the premises of a church could be temporarily protected. In the past, some churches have taken in families who are at risk of being deported, but who may be awaiting further appeals or other legal action. A Unitarian church in Denver, Colorado recently took a bold stand to do just that. I encourage anyone who is a church member to talk to their church leaders about taking in vulnerable families. Two important points about this:

  1. A church can decide whom and how many people it would allow to live on its premises.
  2. It is important it do so openly and in plain sight. This makes the charge of “harboring” more difficult. It “cloaks you with the protection of an open act of civil disobedience,” says Stewart. “We should always take the moral high road when committing civil disobedience.”

Another way churches have aided immigrants in the past is by serving as a gathering place to help transport people to safety, such as to Canada. Here in Ohio, churches could organize to transport people to Freedom House in Detroit, an organization that helps represent refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. and Canada. During the Bush years, Canadian and U.S. immigration laws were harmonized, but Canada is again becoming more welcoming for immigrants and refugees.

Why Would We Want to do This?

Because many immigrants are running for their lives. Many of those at risk of deportation would be in grave danger if forced to return to their home countries. Achieving refugee or asylum status is limited by current political definitions of what those words mean. In the mean time, many of those seeking refuge in the United States are fleeing gang violence, extortion, domestic abuse, and human trafficking.

Because immigrants help our communities. Immigrants build the Ohio economy. They pay taxes. They run businesses. They do hard jobs. They add vitality to an area that is losing population and skilled workers.

Because our immigration system is dysfunctional. Those who come to our country illegally would love to do so legally, but our current system is so convoluted and dysfunctional that they have no way to do so. The administration’s current actions are nowhere near an effective, comprehensive reform of our immigration system. They serve only to hurt and demonize the wrong people, and to damage our communities. Instead, we should pressure our leaders to make our immigration system more efficient and humane.

Because we can change the narrative. Those in power want to send false messages that immigrants are dangerous, are draining our system, are criminals, and are not wanted by our citizens. By helping immigrants out loud, we send an alternative message. We say, “We support and welcome immigrants. They are human beings, who are good, responsible, hard-working people and deserve to be treated with respect.” This message of love will diminish fear.

What Are the Risks?

In the 1980s, a movement that called itself the Overground Railroad organized to help immigrants from Central America. Because the United States was reluctant to grant asylum to people from Central America, this church and volunteer-based movement helped them seek asylum in Canada. Those who participated did expose themselves to risk, and sometimes suffered consequences. Some went to prison, for as long as 15 months to 3 years. There are serious risks to consider, and it’s imaginable that Trump could change laws and punishments to be far harsher.

Offering sanctuary and helping transport people to safety is a brave way to reflect our moral commitment to justice. The Immigrant Worker Project suggests that anyone interested in offering sanctuary begin talking it over with their religious organizations, creating guidelines for whom they might accept and how they would expect to house them. They suggest doing all planning openly, always assuming the FBI and ICE are watching and listening. People need sanctuary on a moment’s notice, so the more scenarios we can brainstorm and plan now, the easier a crisis would be to manage.

Any questions can be directed to:

Centro San Jose / Immigrant Worker Project
P.O. Box 57
Wooster, Ohio 44691
@ Centro San Jose, 701 Walnut Ave NE, Canton, Ohio 44702
Phone: 330–454–2220; Fax: 330–454–2255