San Antonio’s refugee legal-aid nonprofit, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES, was the first to shuttle the groggy, confused families to their short-term shelter, which quickly filled to capacity. When staff sent out a call for help online, the city’s faith community was the first to respond. Within hours, the San Antonio Mennonite Church had converted into a bustling shelter: Toddlers wrapped in warm blankets slept in a chapel lined with wall-to-wall mattresses, women stood in line for pancakes and eggs, dressed in donated sweaters and hats. Some children still wore their detention center IDs around their necks, laminated cards with their name and a tiny mugshot-like photo. Most of the women wore GPS monitors around their ankles – the feds’ guarantee they’d show up to their future asylum hearing in immigration court.
The small church library had become a triage room for RAICES staff and volunteers rushing to connect women with wired money, buy them plane and bus tickets to stay with family or friends, shuttle sick kids to the hospital, and find baby formula for newborn detainees.
Most of these refugees had traveled to the Texas border from Central America, fleeing raging violence in their home countries.
“The fact that they embark on this horribly dangerous journey through Mexico and into a detention center just to protect their children makes them heroes to me,” said Lenna Baxter, a member of University Presbyterian Church. “They should be treated as such.”
Baxter serves as co-chair of San Antonio’s Interfaith Welcome Coalition, a group of religious leaders who aim to help the local immigrant community, a group that helped recruit dozens of people from different local congregations to volunteer at the Mennonite church that December weekend. It’s a group that’s been bolstered by the anti-immigrant rhetoric from the White House and state, emboldening them to testify in front of state lawmakers and stand behind local politicians at press conferences.
But with the recent passage of a state bill that extends the reach of federal immigration enforcement to local law enforcement, the group has stepped up to play a bigger role in protecting San Antonio’s frightened immigrant communities. To do so, they’re taking back a traditionally religious term that’s recently been hijacked — and weaponized — by politics: Sanctuary.
The idea of making houses of worship a place of sanctuary goes back centuries. In the late Roman Empire, Christian churches provided sanctuary for people facing prosecution, and until the late 17th Century, English fugitives were legally immune to arrest once they entered a church. The sanctuary movement traveled to the United States during the Civil War, when churches became safe stops for slaves along the Underground Railroad. During the 1960s and ‘70s, some churches became sanctuaries for men resisting the draft, and by the ‘80s, refugees fleeing violent war in Central America were welcomed by churches across the Southwest when the feds asked them to leave.
The movement reignited in 2007, as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids intensified in neighborhoods and workplaces and deportations skyrocketed under President Barack Obama’s watch (earning him the nickname “deporter-in-chief”). In 2011, Homeland Security Director Jim Morton penned a memo forbidding ICE officers from entering “sensitive places,” which he defined as schools, places of worship, hospitals, funerals, and public demonstrations. It was largely seen as a symbolic gesture — but it was enough to keep the sanctuary movement afloat during an era of skyrocketing deportations.
The growing fears of immigrant advocates were confirmed when Donald Trump entered the White House — on the heels of a campaign rooted in the mass deportation of “Bad Hombres.” A month into his presidency, Trump issued large-scale immigration sweeps in major U.S. cities and announced a plan to hire 15,000 new Customers and Border Patrol and ICE agents. A few months later, the House passed a bill relaxing hiring standards for CBP agents, allowing certain new hires to skip a polygraph test in an effort to expedite the process (because so many new applicants fail this test). Critics worry that waiving this requirement will let dangerous agents slip though, for good reason — when CBP paused polygraph tests in the past, the agency unknowingly hired members of drug cartels, convicted rapists and kidnappers.
Then Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to pull funding from so-called “sanctuary” cities and counties that wouldn’t comply with ICE requests to detain undocumented immigrants charged with any level of crime. That threat became a bill, Senate Bill 4, which would penalize law enforcement for not cooperating with ICE and banned police departments from creating policies that prohibited officers from asking about immigration status.
Once Abbott gleefully signed SB4 into law, San Antonio’s faith community decided it was time to officially join the sanctuary movement.
Mary Grace Ketner had no idea who, if anyone, would show up to the Wednesday night meeting. She had invited a few speakers and made a Facebook invite for the May 24 event, but didn’t have time to do much else. By 7 p.m., however, San Antonio’s First Unitarian Universalist Church was brimming with nearly 100 people who’d come out for the inaugural San Antonio Sanctuary Network meeting. According to the sign-in sheet, Mennonite, Quaker, Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Methodist congregations (plus an official from the Mexican Consulate) were all represented in the meeting’s audience.
While it was hosted by the local Interfaith Welcome Coalition, a panel of religious leaders and immigration legal experts led the meeting, dissecting the needs of new immigrants and explaining the legality of becoming a “sanctuary congregation.” Ketner’s only disappointment is that no members from the Muslim community attended — she says she’d invited a few leaders beforehand.
Part of the meeting was to connect different congregations to create a coordinated safety net for refugees to rely on. If Travis Park United Methodist can’t find housing for a new immigrant in its community, maybe someone at Temple Beth-El can. Another part of the meeting, however, was to really define what “sanctuary” means in the context of a church, especially since the word had been mostly linked to conversations about law enforcement.
To Baxter, sanctuary means continuing to do the work local congregations are already doing — like writing letters to Congressmen opposing the border wall, or donating part of their weekly offerings to a legal aid fund for undocumented immigrants. What’s different is that these actions could be coordinated across congregations and go beyond the walls of a church. An example of that, Baxter said, would be working together to support both Bexar County and San Antonio City Council’s decision to join a lawsuit against Senate Bill 4.
“I don’t think it’s rocket science,” she said. “We just have to organize.”
That’s where RAICES steps in. The nonprofit has a long history of providing sanctuary to San Antonio’s undocumented community — that’s why they’re often the one organization ICE (sometimes) calls before dropping off hundreds of released detainees. In fact, RAICES was founded in 1986 by activists involved in the 1980s sanctuary movement in Texas. Jenny Hixon, RAICES’ director of education and outreach, said that history is why the organization is so intimately involved in the sanctuary campaign.
“Sanctuary is not a policy or a law, it’s a day-to-day support network,” Hixon told the Current. “We’re sending the message that if political leaders won’t keep us safe, we will have to keep ourselves safe.”
According to Hixon, RAICES has a minimum of five requirements that a group (in this case, a congregation) must agree to do before officially becoming a sanctuary: The building must have a sign that says ICE is not welcome inside, staff must be trained on basic legal protections (like that ICE cannot enter a building without a signed warrant), the organization must inform ICE it cannot use their parking lot for surveilling the community, it must offer a “know your rights” training, and it must start some kind of deportation legal defense fund.
So far, First Unitarian Universalist is the only official “sanctuary congregation” in the city, but many at the May meeting talked about bringing the idea back to their congregations for a vote.
All of RAICES' sanctuary rules are legal. But Hixon’s not afraid to make exceptions.
“We have a duty to protect the oppressed members of our community, especially those of us who are privileged enough to not have to deal with these issues,” she said. “Is the role of the faith community to follow the law or to follow what’s right?”
According to an American Civil Liberties Union brief, sanctuary congregations could run into at least two federal criminal laws: one that prohibits “concealing, harboring, or shielding” undocumented immigrants, and another that prohibits transporting or moving an undocumented immigrant from one place to another.
But, the ACLU reminds: “Federal courts across the country have approached convicting a person of harboring in different ways, and have applied different standards.”
Not all congregations are eager to toe this legal line. Temple Beth-El’s Rabbi Mara Nathan said that while her congregation is committed to helping vulnerable people, the temple can’t commit to becoming a sanctuary.
“We can’t be involved in civil disobedience and breaking the law,” she said. “People of the Jewish faith stand up for people who don’t have a voice, but at the same time, we have to respect the rule of law.”
The temple’s diverse congregation is a contributing factor to her decision, she said. “We have to be sensitive to the more conservative members of our community,” Nathan said.
Other congregations are more open to taking this risk. That's because they feel anti-immigrant laws directly clash with the core beliefs of their religion: Helping the needy.
It’s found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible — the Old Testament for Christians — in the book of Leviticus: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
And in the Quran An-Nisaa chapter: “Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler.”
“We’re called on to do this,” Baxter said. “We’re called on to welcome the stranger. We’re called on to help the disenfranchised. For people of faith, this is critical work.”
Hilda Ramirez and her 10-year-old son Ivan have been living in the Sunday School room at Austin’s St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church since early 2016. The pair arrived in Texas in 2014, fleeing death threats and domestic violence abuse in Guatemala. Ramirez and her son were placed in a prison-like South Texas detention center for eleven months. When finally released, her Austin neighborhood was hit with an ICE raid. Both Ramirez and her son were ordered to be deported — until St. Andrew’s took them in.
“We wanted to support any immigrant facing injustice from their government — or ours,” said Rev. Babs Miller, a minister at the St. Andrew’s. “They are fleeing messes that we created.”
Miller is a member of the Austin Sanctuary Network, a sanctuary congregation coalition just over a year old. Through the network, Miller called on other members of the city’s faith community to help cobble together a plan to keep the frightened Ramirez family in the United States (living in the church is not the end goal for either party). Congregates dropped off clothes and books, volunteers helped turn the Sunday School room into a sort-of apartment, and others helped tutor the mother and son in English. Some even drove Ramirez to her appointments with ICE and helped her file the right court paperwork to appeal her deportation.
Last October, Miller rallied a group of supporters to take a bus down to the ICE headquarters in San Antonio and protest for Ramirez’ asylum. Miller claims that ICE officials caved when they caught wind of the planned protest. Ramirez and her son’s deportations were paused for one year.
“There’s always more work to be done,” Miller said. “But now we’re helping other churches get prepared.”
Miller sat on the panel at the San Antonio Sanctuary Network’s May meeting to explain the logistics of Austin’s model — and prove that it works. So far, ICE hasn’t interfered with any of the Austin network’s projects, let alone stepped foot inside a local church. “But it’s hard to say if that’s certain.”
ICE issued a new memo on its “sensitive locations” policy in March. To the relief of sanctuary advocates, it only informed the public that its original 2011 policy remains intact — despite the entry of a new administration. But, as Texas has already seen, those rules can be bent. In February, an undocumented woman from El Salvador awaiting an emergency brain tumor operation at a Fort Worth hospital — a so-called “sensitive location” — was bound to a wheelchair and escorted out by ICE agents, who then dropped the fatally ill woman off at a detention center. At the same time, rumors of ICE vehicles parked at Austin elementary schools spread across social media networks.
And even if ICE chose to follow the 2011 agreement, Trump or a cabinet member can issue a new memo whenever they please.
That’s a risk San Antonio’s faith community is gearing up to take, said Ketner.
“ICE likes to operate in the dark. They don’t like the light shone on them,” she said. If the feds cross into the faith community, they will surely be dragged into the spotlight, Ketner said.
“But part of declaring what you’re willing to do is declaring what you’re willing to find out.”