Openly flaunting ICE, community organizers seek to build expanded networks of sanctuary beyond houses of faith

It isn’t legal for a house of worship in NYC to offer sanctuary to an immigrant facing deportation. They are doing it anyway, but NYC’s status as a “Sanctuary City” doesn’t protect these spaces. Nor do the courts.

What keeps ICE from challenging the churches and synagogues ends up being a tangle of law, administrative policy and public relations that may or may not protect people, especially as organizations attempt to expand sanctuary into businesses and private homes.

Rev. Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of NY, knows of a handful of locations that have publicly declared themselves to be sanctuaries.

“Union Theological Seminary, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Riverside Church, the Unitarian Universalist Church that had the Nazi symbols carved on the door recently, Judson, St. Peters in the Citicorp complex, and a Hindu temple in Queens, those are some of the ones that have declared it,” she says. “Trinity Church on Wall Street may be investigating it.”

But the risk is there, she adds. ICE lists on their website types of locations they deem to be “sensitive” and where they will not be making arrests. Those include houses of worship, schools, medical treatment facilities, and public demonstrations.

“It’s rather tenuous,” she says. “A procedure they’ve decided on. A flimsy basis where they’re not marching straight into a church and demanding they give people up.”

One church she knows of has put a sign on the front door stating that the church will not voluntarily cooperate with any federal employees and will require they present a warrant and to first contact the rector so she can review it.

The issue of warrants has been thorny for ICE. Typically they show up at a person’s door with what’s known as an administrative warrant — a document signed by a supervisor at ICE. That document doesn’t allow them to enter a person’s home but that doesn’t always stop ICE, and an immigrant may not understand their right to not let ICE in.

Janice Hossein’s husband, Ramesh, has been placed in immigration detention twice since 2015.

“The last time they came into the house saying that they had a warrant for his arrest,” she says. “He asked to see a warrant and they had no warrant. They just showed a picture of him, told him to take off his wedding band and told me to give him $20.”

A judicial warrant, on the other hand, requires ICE go before a judge and show cause for someone’s arrest. It is time- and resource-consuming. Where ICE hoped to cut corners was by requiring NYPD to hold an immigrant who doesn’t have proper documentation until ICE can pick that person up. By declaring itself a “Sanctuary City,” NYPD has said it will not detain people for ICE, but that’s about all the protection NYPD offers.

“As a matter of law, if ICE has a [judicial] warrant to enter the church, nothing is going to stop them,” says Allan Wernick, an immigration attorney who has written a column on immigration for the New York Daily News for over 20 years.

In order to search a location, ICE, like NYPD or any agency, must have a search warrant issued by a judge.

“I’m a big fan of sanctuary,” says Wernick. “If you’re going to put the person in your space.”

He’s concerned that churches are careful not to hide a murderer or drug dealer, but says that if they’re hiding a family, they should be ok.

US Immigration has always had some discretion in deportation, Wernick says. This became public in the 1970’s when Nixon was trying to get John Lennon deported. His attorney filed an FOIA on a hunch that the government was picking and choosing who deport because they didn’t have the resources to deport every person living illegally in the country.

Grace & St. Paul Lutheran Church on West 71st Street is preparing to offer sanctuary.

“We don’t have too many immigrant people living in the newly fashionable Upper West Side,” says Rev. Martin Hauser, minister at Grace & St. Paul.

“But we have a lot of people working in the newly fashionable Upper West Side. The Roman Catholic Church across the street has its main service in Spanish with a Spanish-speaking priest. So there are a lot of people around and a lot of them could get carried off in the event of a sweep.”

But he adds, there is no law that will protect him or his church.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” he says. “I remember the middle of the night in Marsh Chapel in Boston University. There were many many hundreds of us surrounding a guy who had deserted the war and become an anti-war activist. Finally the Federal marshals came in and there was nothing we could do except go limp and be thrown off to the side. No way we could fight back because there are no laws protecting churches.”

Hauser is working with the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC to be part of the network that hopes to protect immigrants.

“There are different levels of sanctuary,” says Ravi Ragbir, executive director of New Sanctuary Coalition. Ragbir has been organizing community support for undocumented immigrants since 2006 when he was convicted of a felony and served two and a half years in detention fighting his case. He came out and says it felt natural to continue fighting on behalf of others.

“I understood the process. I understood the trauma people face because I lived it,” he says.

He’s also interested in the short-term sanctuary that locations might offer.

“There is a short-term sanctuary where people can find safety, take refuge, if they are afraid,” he says. “And we’re not only talking about immigration, we’re talking about someone who has been harassed on the subway because of their religion, because of what they’re wearing, right?”

“You need a space to just decompress, de-stress. We want to open our houses of worship to do this,” he adds. “We have volunteers who are working to build that network up and volunteers who are willing to strengthen that and we’re looking to also broaden the scope of what it means to be a sanctuary.”

Juan Carlos Ruiz is the co-founder of New Sanctuary Coalition. At a community meeting in Sunset Park he spoke with neighbors about having sanctuary spaces on every block.

“So we wanted to basically expand this notion and push the limits of sanctuary,” he says. “Beyond schools, beyond churches, beyond hospitals, we want to have a space on every block of the city that can open the doors in case of an emergency and say ‘come on in.’”

“We need to educate because every business, every homeowner has rights that cannot be violated,” he adds. “It’s just a basic step of asking ‘let me see the warrant.’”

“And businesses can do this in the case of an emergency and lock their doors and let their friends come in, their clients, if they are worth their salt, they will let their clients come in.”

Judson Church, a protestant congregation on the south side of Washington Square Park in Manhattan, houses the New Sanctuary Coalition and supports their organizing efforts. Judson is also currently sheltering a family from deportation. Rev. Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson says she is not concerned about ICE.

“The head of ICE has told us directly that he’ll not be invading any churches so I’m not worried,” she says. “They understand them as what they call ‘sensitive locations.’”

But, like Ragbir, Rev. Schaper would like to see the concept of sanctuary expanded.

“Our new project — we believe that every place ought to be a sanctuary. A sanctuary city. A sanctuary congregation. Sanctuary in the subway. Sanctuary at ICE,” she says. “No one should be scared anywhere in this country.”

Wernick is concerned that neighborhood businesses and homes could run afoul of the laws against harboring.

“I’m not a criminal defense lawyer,” he says. But adds that there are statutes against people harboring criminals.

“ICE is unlikely to do things that would put the immigration service in a bad light,” he says. “Busting down a church door? It’s going to put people in a bad light.”

But if an employer, for instance, is found to have organized a plan to protect their workers from ICE, they could be found guilty of harboring, Wernick says.

The better approach, he says, is to say ‘we’re protecting these people and we think it’s wrong that you’re coming after them.’

“Let’s go all out and say what we’re doing, and challenge the authorities to knock down the doors,” says Wernick.

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