Local church votes to become sanctuary for undocumented immigrants

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After over a year-long community and congregational discussion, the First Congregational Church (FCC) of Ithaca has declared itself a sanctuary church pledging to shelter undocumented immigrants while their legal challenges to deportation are in process.


The church still needs to create a space for a guest to live in the church and are still in the process of deciding where that space will be and making the necessary changes. There is not currently money in the budget for this endeavor, so the church stressed at its press conference announcement on May 9 that it would be looking for the financial support of the community to make it happen. Members of the church leadership said they would be relying heavily on local partnerships and alliances to find not only the financial support, but volunteer, legal, and other support necessary to embrace its role as a sanctuary church.


In March of last year, a coalition, the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, was formed by Ithaca-area congregations (including the FCC), organizations, and residents to stand in solidarity with undocumented immigrants and those at risk of deportation. Members of the alliance pledged to educate themselves about immigration-related issues, advocate for justice and comprehensive humane immigration reform, and accompany and support immigrants and their families when facing immigration-related hearings or meetings, or as guests in sanctuary.


Before the alliance was formed, the FCC decided to start exploring the idea of becoming a sanctuary church by speaking with local organizers, members of other churches that had declared themselves sanctuary churches, and other involved and knowledgeable parties. On May 5 the congregation held a vote and decided to become a sanctuary church, offering help where it can to those who seek it.


“We have no illusions that by making this public declaration we will fix a broken immigration system,” said FCC Senior Minister David Kaden, after telling the story of a church in Connecticut who hosted Malik Naveed bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf in sanctuary while they navigated an immigration system glitch that would have deported them. “But we just might add a little bit of good cheer, make a little bit of difference in the lives of people like Malik and Zahida, fellow human beings and children of God, and in this way, we can follow the example of Christ.”


By making the declaration, Kaden said, the church was leaning into one of the core principles of its denomination, the United Church of Christ, the principle of Extravagant Welcome: No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in the church.


By making the declaration, Kaden said the FCC was the first public sanctuary in Tompkins County. But the declaration doesn’t come without some guidelines. Potential sanctuary guests must not have been charged with any serious legal offense, must be at immediate risk of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and either have or be in the process of seeking legal representation. At the FCC, a member of the church who is an immigration lawyer has agreed to help in this area.


The FCC cannot guarantee the safety of its sanctuary guests. There is no law preventing immigration authorities from entering the church, but currently, it is customary for ICE to refrain from taking people from churches. While the church cannot prevent the execution of a legal warrant it has promised to “stand in witness and resistance to it.” It must be understood by the individual that once all legal challenges have been exhausted they will no longer be able to stay in the church, but other areas of support will be available.


To stay in the church under sanctuary the FCC makes it a provision that sanctuary is accompanied by a public announcement, “In this way, we are being open and not hiding what is happening. Without a public notification, the receiving community would be considered to be ‘harboring’ an undocumented person and thus be open to legal liability.


“We’re seeing the increased need for this,” said Patricia Rodriguez, steering committee member of the Tompkins County Immigrant’s Rights Coalition, of the sanctuary declaration. “It hasn’t gone away. It won’t go away anytime soon, I think.”


The sanctuary declaration is part of building relationships beyond what is required, Rodriguez said and deepens relationships with people we don’t know. She offered the support of the Immigrant’s Rights Coalition to the church in this endeavor.


The current member organizations of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance are: St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church in Ithaca, Congregation Tikkun v’Or Ithaca Reform Temple, First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Forest Home Methodist Church, Ithaca Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Living Hope Fellowship, and First Congregational Church of Ithaca (United Church of Christ).

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