Editor’s note: Immigration has been a political boondoggle for at least two decades in the United States. Congress has yet to come up with a system that will successfully address the complexities, and President Trump has taken some decisions into his own hands. This is the second in a series of stories examining how real people are affected.
The plane tickets were bought, the bags packed and the goodbyes said.
But Vicky Chavez couldn’t do it.
Looking at her girls — ages 6 years and 8 months — the 31-year-old single mother knew she couldn’t take her children back to her native Honduras, where she had fled from domestic violence in 2014.
Upon arriving in the United States she was processed by ICE, which released her to pursue asylum, and she hired a lawyer within the year. Her asylum case, however, ultimately failed, and so on the night their flight was departing, Vicky and her girls left the airport and took sanctuary in the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, according to the Rev. Tom Goldsmith and Unidad Inmigrante team member Amy Dominguez.
Goldsmith, senior minister at the First Unitarian Church, said he had heard about a month earlier that a family might seek sanctuary at the church, and so he had already been assembling volunteers. Goldsmith said things happened so quickly that the church held a press conference just a half-hour after receiving the phone call that Vicky and her daughter were coming.
“It’s been a good experience under the circumstances,” Goldsmith said. “I don’t think we would’ve changed a thing.”
Though Vicky’s sanctuary situation may seem unusual, it’s one that may become increasingly common if no legislation is passed for DACA recipients, according to the Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, senior pastor at the Catalina United Methodist Church in Tucson, Arizona.
Since announcing in September 2017 that it planned to phase out DACA, the Trump administration has struggled with finding a permanent solution for nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and teenagers before mid-2007.
Signed as an executive order by President Barack Obama in 2012, the DACA program allowed this group to apply for work permits and protection from deportation under certain requirements, with renewals every two years, though it did not provide lawful immigration status.
President Donald Trump’s decision to end DACA spurred a series of federal injunctions that keeps DACA in place while Congress resolves the issue. Under one such decision, the Trump administration is not required to accept new DACA applications from eligible people who didn’t apply before Sept. 5.
However, since Congress didn’t pass legislation resolving DACA by Trump’s March 5 deadline, the program’s future is unclear. Trump has rejected a number of deals, most recently turning down $25 million in border wall funding from Senate Democrats that would’ve been given in exchange for permanent protections for DACA recipients.
“So if what happens is something that we can’t even imagine, where a bunch of young people are deported, then I bet you the churches will open up their doors at that time,” Escobedo-Frank said.
What is sanctuary?
Goldsmith said taking sanctuary dates back to biblical times and even to ancient Greece, with the Book of Numbers mentioning sanctuary cities that offered protection to travelers.
“And so the very concept of providing a haven is certainly not a new or revolutionary one, but man, it’s been around a long time,” Goldsmith said.
Today, being a sanctuary city isn’t a legal designation, but a social stance through which mayors or city council members declare their city to be a safe place for people without documents, said Escobedo-Frank, who said she’s been the pastor at Catalina United Methodist Church for more than 20 years.
“If they break the law … then of course, like everyone else, they go through that criminal process,” she said. “But if they are living here and they haven’t broken laws, they (police) don’t go after them because of their (lack of) paperwork.”
She also said sanctuary cities don’t use extra resources in helping immigrants; rather, being a sanctuary city helps focus resources where they’re most needed. For example, instead of trying to deport everyone without documents, police forces are focused on preventing criminal behavior.
Goldsmith said Salt Lake City police have been clear they aren’t ICE agents and won’t come to their church for Vicky, though he said Salt Lake City can’t quite be considered a sanctuary city.
“I briefly talked to our mayor (Jackie Biskupski) about this and I think her heart is there,” Goldsmith said.
However, Goldsmith said Biskupski told him a city can’t be a sanctuary city unless a jail is in the city limits. The Daily Universe was unable to verify that, and neither Biskupsi or Salt Lake City Councilwoman Amy Fowler have responded to requests for comment.
Taking sanctuary in a church, however, means an illegal immigrant must live in the church to avoid deportation until the legal process changes or until they go through the legal steps to avoid deportation, Escobedo-Frank said.
“We have a history since the ’80s of churches actually providing safe houses for families who have a family member who’s going to be deported,” she said.
Escobedo-Frank said seeking church sanctuary is a last resort and not common, but she’s seen it work for several immigrants in neighboring churches, though she’s also seen people who are in the country illegally get deported anyway.
Even one immigrant taking sanctuary, though, can be difficult for the church involved.
“It takes a lot of work, a lot of volunteer hours, because a person has to be on-site all the time,” Escobedo-Frank said.
Not everyone has been so supportive. Goldsmith said they’ve received ugly phone calls and letters from “unenlightened individuals” angry that they’re helping Vicky and her daughters; however, he said the support from other houses of worship has been phenomenal.
“It (offering sanctuary) has actually strengthened not only our congregation in terms of rallying around something that we truly believe in that’s right and just, but it has also strengthened us in terms of our relationship to other houses of worship within the community,” Goldsmith said.
In the meantime, it’s unclear how long Chavez will be at First Unitarian. Goldsmith said he has spoken to several attorneys and is seeking to re-open her asylum case in Washington. He also said Chavez was poorly represented during her initial asylum hearing.
“The judge personally said, ‘I’m sorry, your legal representation has really botched this up,'” Goldsmith said. “There’s no doubt that she should’ve been granted asylum in the first place.”
A positive outcome in her case is expected.
Goldsmith said there’s an “overall tenor of denial” by the current administration that America is a nation of immigrants.
“I think there’s racist undertones to this and a tremendous fear of the ‘other,’ and so it appeals to a very low base of people who just can’t appreciate the richness of diversity and multiculturalism,” he said.
He also said what’s most misunderstood about his church’s situation is that they are not harboring immigrants — if they were, they’d keep it secret.
“What we’re doing is broadcasting,” he said. “We’re trying to change minds. We’re welcoming, not harboring.”
A nation of law
For some on the other side of the immigration debate, however, the issue is as simple as upholding the law.
“It (illegal immigration) is a violation of the law,” said radio talk show host Bob Lonsberry. “And a nation that doesn’t respect law is a nation that’s on the way to trouble.”
Lonsberry, who hosts the Bob Lonsberry Show on New York stations WHAM 180 and 570 WSYR, said arguing that people immigrate illegally because the legal system is too difficult to navigate isn’t any more convincing than saying people rob banks because earning money is too hard. He said laws are created to meet a variety of criteria, and convenience for immigrants may or may not be considered.
“I think that we have been foolish, from a policy standpoint, because we have made it extraordinarily easy to immigrate illegally and extraordinarily difficult to immigrate legally,” he said. “But that’s a policy matter.”
Lonsberry said if people want to change those policies, they can go through the constitutional system, “but to respond to a situation that you disagree with by, again, flouting the law, is unwise.”
Lonsberry calls Chavez’ sanctuary a public relations stunt.
“If any other fugitive seeks to hide there, the law of the land, of course, can retrieve the fugitive from there,” he said. “It’s not like we’re playing hide-and-go-seek and you can get home free if you walk into a church and say ‘I demand amnesty.’ … There is no such amnesty to grant.”
Though Lonsberry said there are legal ways to grant amnesty at certain times, he’s not swayed by the argument that it’s not humane or ethical to send DACA recipients to countries where they weren’t born and where they may not speak the language because “the law should be followed and obeyed.”
Some, like Jim Gilchrist, take an even harder stance against illegal immigration.
In 1989, Gilchrist was in a hit-and-run accident that took off the front of his car. According to Gilchrist, he was hit by people living in the country illegally. Later that year, his mother was denied government benefits she was legally entitled to, he said, because a $200 million pool had been drained by people in the country illegally who needed assistance.
“I said, ‘Well my mom is a World War II veteran. Why would she be deprived of this and not (be put) ahead of illegal aliens?'” Gilchrist recalled.
Without benefits, Gilchrist had to move his mother to a veterans’ home, where she died three days later of a heart attack, which he believes resulted from the trauma the move caused her.
These events, along with years of increasing concern over immigration enforcement, led Gilchrist to start the Minuteman Project in 2004. The project has been “active on the U.S./Mexican border, running volunteer scout patrols and offering assistance to the great folks who serve in the U.S. Border Patrol,” according to its website.
“That antagonism just made me more determined to bring about a debate about this issue of ‘Are we a nation of law or are we not?'” Gilchrist said. “And if we are not … (then) we are now a nation of anarchy where the rule of law is whatever you as an individual decide it’s going to be today.”
Gilchrist said all people living in the country illegally should be sent back to their homelands, where they can apply for legal re-entry, with first priority given to DACA recipients.
“We separate our own citizens from their families for breaking our laws every day,” he said, “and if we’re going to ignore the fact that we have laws just so we don’t separate the families of illegal aliens, then for equitable reasons we should let all the prisoners out of all the prisons so that they, too, can rejoin their families, regardless of their crimes.”
“We are a society of mayhem when laws are made to break,” Gilchrist said.
However, there’s always room for compassion, according to Utah Republican Party Chairman Rob Anderson.
Anderson said he thinks a majority of Republicans recognize that Dreamers grew up here, speak English and likely won’t be accepted if deported to their parents’ country of origin.
“I don’t think the Republican Party hates immigration at all,” he said. “I think we’re willing to control it, to get our arms around it.”
This means creating an immigration system that works, including a defined, effective border, whether a wall or a physical presence.
Anderson also recognized people immigrate for a variety of reasons, including economic benefit and political persecution, and that immigrants provide many essential services, such as seasonal labor. However, others immigrate to smuggle drugs or engage in other illegal activity, which is why secure borders are important, Anderson said.
Even though the United States is currently tightening immigration laws, Anderson said it is still easier to legally immigrate to the U.S. than many other countries.
Goldsmith believes it’s the responsibility of religions to take up this cause, and he hopes immigrants taking sanctuary in churches will become more common.
Goldsmith recently met with six clergy members from other local churches to discuss when they might be available to offer sanctuary, and the First Unitarian Church will offer them training sessions on “how to serve families in sanctuary.”
The training will cover everything from having doctors and dentists on call to having volunteers in the building 24/7, he said. People can also donate to Chavez and her family through the First Unitarian Church website.
“I think this will no longer be the novelty,” he said, citing support from Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and people of the Jewish faith and “moral support” from the LDS Church.
He also said the First Unitarian Church will take in immigrants on a case-by-case basis.
Escobedo-Frank said from a Christian standpoint, the concept of sanctuary has been controversial because of two conflicting scriptures.
One, in the Old Testament, says to treat the foreigner among you like a citizen; the other, in the New Testament, says people should obey the laws of the land.
She added that people tend to land on different sides of the issue based on personality, with natural rule keepers upholding the law and social justice believers fighting for change.
But Escobedo-Frank said no matter what a person believes about immigration, “we need to remember that we are country of immigrants.”
“Rounding up and sending people away… is extreme and that is not who America is or has ever been, and I think it’s time for us to remember our roots and remember our core values of caring for each other as Americans,” Escobedo-Frank said.
Lonsberry, however, feels both Republicans and Democrats are “played for political advantage” when it comes to immigration issues, with Democrats presenting it as a fight against bigotry and Republicans presenting it as a fight against invasion.
“I believe that both parties are benefited by continued frustration and failure to act on the issue,” he said. “It’s a big vote getter. … That’s why nothing ever gets done.”
Lonsberry said both parties need to work together to fix immigration issues.
“Find middle ground,” he said. “We’re able to make compromises and deals in a system like ours, and in this, they simply ought to.”