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Faith groups announce nat'l coalition to support sanctuary movement

Even as Congress has failed to produce a comprehensive immigration bill and the White House has made the political calculus to bury executive action until after the November elections, a growing movement of churches and activists have taken matters into their own hands by offering sanctuary to people under formal deportation orders.

The sanctuary movement was revived in May when Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church offered refuge to Daniel Neyoy Ruiz. After nearly a month in sanctuary, immigration officials granted Neyoy Ruiz a one-year stay from deportation.

This month, Southside Presbyterian gave refuge to another family, followed by a church in Tempe, as well as a church in Chicago and a community of churches in Denver. Similar movements have begun in five more cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Berkeley, Akron, Portland.

The effort includes 24 congregations that have offered to give sanctuary and 60 congregations that say they will support sanctuary, said Rev. Noel Andersen, a coordinator with Church World Service.

"The number continues to click upward," said Andersen.

During a conference call Wednesday morning, church officials describe the need for sanctuary movements in their community, describing what Rev. Alison Harrington, the pastor for Southside Presbyterian, called a faith-based response to continued deportations and the failure of a policy solution to this issue.

Participating in the call, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva said the House's failure to vote on the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill was "cowardice" and criticized President Barack Obama's decision to hold back executive action.

"We have asked the president to take action, but we've had no response up to this point," said Grijalva.

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"This is a humane response to the suffering and the agonies of family separation," he said, "and shows the American people that the immigration system must be fixed. The humanity of the issue is forgotten in the political discourse. For the faith community to lead on this issue is critical," Grijalva said.

"We are compelled to stand arm and arm for the vulnerable and stand with those undocumented," said Rev. Julian DeShazier, a church pastor in Chicago. "Mass deportations and family separation is wrong and if the government won't take responsibility, we will."

"It's time for the president and country to catch up to our own community," said Rabbi Linda Holtzman, a leader of the new sanctuary movement in Philadelphia.

"We are calling for a national response," said Harrington. While Arizona was once the heart of the creation of anti-immigrant laws like SB 1070, the state was now changing the narrative and becoming the center of the faith-based movement, she said.

During the call, Rosa Robles Loreto, who is currently in sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian, spoke and said her goal was to stay with her husband and sons in the United States because they need her.

"I have lived here for 15 years working hard for my two sons to help them move forward and provide for them a better life," said Loreto Robles, translated from Spanish. "We have contributed. We only want to be exemplary citizens, where we can be safe and raise our children."

Harrington said that neither Rosa, nor the previous subject of sanctuary at the church, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, were priorities for deportation according to the Obama administration, and yet, both were subject to deportation ortders.

Numbers from the Department of Homeland Security show that around 1.8 million people have been removed from the United States by the Obama administration, at a pace of nearly 1,000 people per day.

An analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University, show that around 400,000 immigration cases are currently backlogged in the court system.

The movement hangs on a policy that immigration should not to invade churches and places considered "sensitive" locations as outlined in a 2011 memo.

Called the Morton memo for its author, former ICE Director John Morton, the memo limits enforcement at schools, hospitals and churches and requires agents to get prior approval before making arrests. Organizations that assist with children, pregnant women, victims of crime or abuse, or individuals with significant mental or physical disabilities should also be handled with particular care, the policy said.

Additionally, the policy outlined places that were considered "sensitive" including schools, hospitals and churches where immigration officials would not make arrests unless they had prior approval. The memo outlined some exceptions to this rule, namely national security, pursuit of a felon, destruction of evidence, or the possibility that someone could be harmed.

That policy was passed into law by Congress in 2013.

On Sept. 6, President Barack Obama said that he would wait to enact executive action on immigration until after the November elections, breaking a June promise to come up with some solution  for the nation's "broken immigration system" by the end of the summer, after Congress buried a 2013 immigration bill.

"I'm going to act because it's the right thing for the country," said Obama on Sunday's Meet the Press. "But it's going to be more sustainable and more effective if the public understands what the facts are on immigration, what we've done on unaccompanied children, and why it's necessary."

After 49 days in sanctuary, Robles Loreto is still waiting for a formal stay of her deportation order. Immigration officials denied her request for a stay of deportation earlier in the month, but they have said that the agency will not take immediate action on the case.

"After conducting a thorough review of Ms. Robles Loreto’s immigration case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has decided to exercise prosecutorial discretion by not taking immediate action on Ms. Robles Loreto’s removal order," said Lori K. Haley, a spokeswoman for ICE.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Faith leaders and congregation members of Southside Presbyterian Church engage in prayer with Rosa Robles Loreto and her family as she went into sanctuary in August.