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Churches promise 'radical welcome' for migrants with revived Sanctuary movement

19 Southern Arizona faith groups 'pledge to resist' Trump immigration policies

With the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump just days away, religious leaders from 19 congregations in Tucson announced Wednesday that they were committed to "radical welcome," as part of a reborn Sanctuary movement determined to shelter refugees and unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

Nearly 100 people filled benches in the kiva-style sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church and listened as church pastor Rev. Allison Harrington announced that the church would join "Sanctuary Rising," a movement involving 700 religious congregations nationwide whose members agreed to buck several of Trump's proposed policies, including the immediate deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants.

Church members agreed to work against the incoming Trump administration's plan to create a "special deportation force" and quickly deport 2-3 million illegal aliens.

"As people of faith and people of conscience, we pledge to resist the newly elected administration's policy proposals to target and deport millions of undocumented immigrants and discriminate against marginalized communities," Harrington said, reading the pledge. "Tonight we come together in this new historical moment," she said. "And we commit ourselves to love and justice, and radical welcome."

Over windows behind her hung two banners that were created and hung outside the Tucson church in March 1982, when Southside Presbyterian and four other churches declared that they were sanctuaries for refugees fleeing the civil wars of Central America. Launched by Rev. John Fife and others, the Sanctuary movement grew to more than 500 churches nationwide and effectively challenged the U.S. policies toward undocumented immigrants from El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Churches have been able to protect immigrants largely because past presidential administrations have been unwilling to take on religious institutions.

In 2011, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement John Morton issued a memo to the agency's field offices telling them not to conduct "enforcement actions" at "sensitive locations," including hospitals, schools, as well as churches, synagogues, and mosques. However, there's no guarantee that an incoming Trump administration would follow this policy, nor the policies created in November by President Barack Obama, which set up a three-tiered set of enforcement priorities designed to target "criminal aliens" while leaving other undocumented immigrants as far lower priorities for federal enforcement.

While ICE offices were directed to target people who recently crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and people who committed major felonies, information obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University, showed immigration offenses factored into 52 percent of all federal criminal prosecutions, and that all but three of the top 10 crimes pursued by federal officials were related to immigration.

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"We stand in a long line of people of faith who have lived out that faith in powerful and prophetic ways, even in the darkest of times, even at great personal risk to themselves and their families," Harrington said Wednesday.

Harrington said that the sanctuary movement was more than "just opening up our houses of worship," it must be about working together to creating "communities that are sanctuary spaces."

"The safe havens are the ones that we create ourselves," Harrington said. 

Rev. Taylor Burgoyne, the pastor of Eastside Covenant Church, linked the sanctuary movement to civil rights movement, and noted that on Monday the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.

"Eastside Covenant Church is a place of radical welcome and radical hospitality," Burgoyne said. "We reject the marginalization and demonization that has become increasingly prevalent in our society, and we are ready to practice civil disobedience."

The church has also battled the Obama administration.

In May 2014, Southside Presbyterian protected Daniel Neyoy Ruiz from deportation proceedings and pressured U.S. immigration officials to give him a stay of removal, and in August, the church offered refuge to Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto. However, while Ruiz's sanctuary lasted only weeks, immigration officials dug in their heels and refused to give in, forcing Robles Loreto to stay in a small room on church grounds for 461 days, despite repeated assurances from ICE officials that she was "not a priority" for enforcement.

"We have been down this road before; we are veterans in this fight for justice," said Harrington.

Robles Loreto stood and spoke in Spanish, holding back tears after hearing a church hymnal about sanctuary.

"This community is willing to help and walk along our journey," she said, and that Trump and his administration "has let us know that he is not with us, but I know that this community has always offered sanctuary."

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Rev. Ailsa Guardiola González, the leader of First Christian Church in midtown Tucson, said that the decision to join the sanctuary movement was a serious discussion, but an easy decision. 

"We talked about what it meant. We don't want to react negatively to something immediately, but we want to be responsive to the community and its needs. We know what we need to do, " she said.

"We have our work cut out for us, so are you ready," Harrington asked. "Friday's going to come and so is Saturday, the sun will still rise and we will still stand together. We are sanctuary together. We will resist."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Rev. Allison Harrington blows out a candle as part of a ceremony marking the church's entry into a larger sanctuary movement that has pledged to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation by U.S. immigration authorities following the election of Donald Trump.

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