The world’s leading faiths consistently teach us that we should strive for peace and justice for all. This rings true for leaders and members of both christian and non-christian religions. For many in California—where there are more than 16 million Christians of a wide range of different denominations—welcoming people is not just a political issue, it’s also a matter of faith. The Bible teaches that protecting and providing for those in need is a necessity:

Leviticus 19

[33] When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him.

[33] The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.

Matthew 22

[37] Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.

[38] This is the first and great commandment.

[39] And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.

[40] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

In practice, there are many things that churches and congregations can do to support immigrants. Of course, navigating immigration laws and the legal process can be confusing, even overwhelming. Here, our Los Angeles immigration law team offers an overview on how religious organizations can lend support to undocumented immigrants.

An Overview of the Legalities of Giving Sanctuary to Undocumented Immigrants In Churches

No Special Rules for Churches—But Federal Policy Limits ICE Raids

As a starting point, it is important to understand that there are no special laws or regulations in place to provide legal protection or immunity to churches who offer sanctuary to immigrants. In other words, as a matter of U.S. law, it is possible that a church or house of worship could be the target of an immigration raid.

There is good news: Federal immigration policy limits enforcement operations in churches. In fact, it is the official ICE policy to avoid enforcement raids in ‘sensitive areas’ (Policy Number: 10029.2). Under this policy directive, churches and other recognized places of worship are considered to be sensitive areas. Here is the relevant language from the policy:

  • “This policy is designed to ensure that these enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches unless (a) exigent circumstances exist (b) other law enforcement actions have led officers to a sensitive location …or (c) prior approval is obtained.”

To be clear, the language does give some discretion to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While raids of religious organizations are very rare and are generally avoided, actual statutory protection is lacking. 

Very Little History of Facing Charges for Harboring Undocumented Immigrants

Is your church considering protecting an undocumented immigrant from deportation? If so, you may be wondering whether or not a pastor, minister, or other church representative could face criminal charges for harboring an immigrant. Although it is a complicated question, there is very little history of such charges being brought.

As reported by CNN, there is one example of a minister being arrested and charged with a crime in connection with harboring—but it dates back to the 1980s. Further, the reverend in that case was also alleged to have helped undocumented immigrants enter the country. In the end, he did not serve any jail time. 

Many Churches Have Openly Offered Sanctuary to Immigrants

The number of congregations that have openly and willingly offered support and sanctuary to refugees and immigrants is truly heartwarming. As the Trump Administration has increasingly employed draconian enforcement measures, more and more churches have stepped up and become official sanctuaries.

According to a report from Voice of America, the number of sanctuary congregations has tripled since early 2017. This is a movement that spans the entire country—from Father Tom Carey of Southern California providing sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant at The Church of the Epiphany, North Hills to undocumented immigrants taking sanctuary in an African American church in Philadelphia. What these churches are doing matters.

To get a full sense of the incredible impact that providing sanctuary can have on the lives of a vulnerable people, we encourage you to watch a video of the story of Vicky Chavez, a victim of domestic abuse and an undocumented immigrant sheltered inside a church in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Will ICE Raid a Church? Typically No, But Enforcement Action Can Happen

You may have a lot of questions about what exactly federal agencies can do. Can churches provide sanctuary to immigrants without breaking the law? What have churches and organizations in California done to successfully support immigrants? Perhaps most importantly: Do ICE raids ever occur? 

Historically, ICE raids in churches are exceedingly rare. For example, at the current time, ICE has taken no action against Father Tom Carey’s congregation in North Hills. Additionally, many other churches that have openly supported immigrants have also avoided any raids.

That being said, there are no guarantees with the Trump Administration in power and without stronger statutory protections in place. In July of 2019, there were rumors spreading throughout Los Angeles that aggressive ICE raids were about to be conducted—potentially even ones targeted at churches. However, those raids never materialized. Although churches and places of worship are in a better position than most to offer sanctuary to vulnerable immigrants, they still need to be prepared for the worst. 

What Churches Do To Help Undocumented Immigrants

As noted, more than 1,100 congregations across the country have actively declared themselves to be places of sanctuary. Many more churches and places of worship offer informal sanctuary or support in other ways. Notably, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become an official sanctuary denomination—meaning that it has publicly declared that standing up for and supporting immigrants and refugees is core to its faith. As a Church Body, you can help offer institutional or organizational support to undocumented immigrants through the following: 

  1. Vision: Create a workable vision for how exactly your church wants to offer sanctuary and support. With a clear plan, organizations can be far more effective.
  2. Cooperation: Help to join and build a movement. Get other churches to join in coalition to offer sanctuary. We are stronger when we work together.
  3. Taskforce: To carry out a vision, it is often best to create a hosting task force within your congregation. The members can volunteer their time to host those that are seeking physical sanctuary in the church.
  4. Safety and Comfort: Create a safe living space for those that are seeking physical sanctuary in a house of worship. A taskforce can seek donations for financial support, beds, clothing, food, and other essentials.
  5. Allyship and Community: Be an ally to immigrants seeking a better life. By creating community connections with a sanctuary seeker, you can help them live a better quality of life and you can support them in the immigration process.

For more detailed information on how to turn your church or place of worship into a true, reliable sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, we encourage you to refer to the Sanctuary Movement. Made up of more than 1,100 faith-based communities, the Sanctuary Movement is committed to doing what the administration and other lawmakers have refused to do: Provide protection to undocumented immigrants and their loved ones. They have put together resources for how to build a sanctuary coalition in your community.

Churches and Volunteers: How to Prepare for the Possibility of an Immigration Raid

As was mentioned previously, churches and other places of worship have been designated as sensitive areas by federal immigration enforcement agencies. That being said, it is still imperative that every sanctuary community is prepared for the possibility of a raid or immigration enforcement action at or in the immediate vicinity of a place of worship. Here are five steps that religious organizations and volunteer taskforce members can take to prepare for an ICE raid, should one occur: 

  1. Stay involved in the community and work with other groups offering sanctuary—there is strength in numbers.
  2. Establish ongoing communication with other groups and members of the immigrant community to ensure that relevant information is exchanged should anyone see a raid happening.
  3. Create a viable action plan. Consider your organization’s specific circumstances and be ready to take proactive steps to protect people should a raid occur.
  4. Know your legal rights. Unfortunately, ICE agents are unlikely to explain your rights. They may even mislead you or try to intimidate you. Know what you are allowed to do.
  5. Record any incident. If an immigration raid occurs, document as much information as you possibly can.

How Individuals Can Help Support Immigrants

In the current political and social environment, immigrants face some difficult challenges. Even if your church or religious organization is not in a position to offer institutional support at the current time, there are still many ways you can help undocumented immigrants in California. The efforts of individuals are appreciated and your friends and neighbors need your support. You can help support immigrants directly by: 

  1. Getting involved and being an ally to immigrants;
  2. Becoming friends with immigrants who are seeking sanctuary;
  3. Donating time or money to a charity or pro-immigrant organization; and
  4. Sponsoring an immediate family member (e.g., spouse, child under age of 21, parents).

If you’re a U.S. citizen or permanent resident and have an immediate family member who needs immigration help, we can help. Call (213) 262-2000 to schedule an appointment with immigration expert Joshua Goldstein.

Available Attorneys for Pro Bono Immigration Legal Work In Los Angeles

If you, someone you know, or your organization needs free legal guidance or services, there are some options available in Southern California. Here is a list of immigration attorneys and organizations providing pro bono legal services in Los Angeles. Some of the notable groups and non-profit organizations offering free or cost-reduced legal aid or pro bono services to support immigrants include:

Get Help From Our Los Angeles Immigration Lawyer Today

At Goldstein Immigration Lawyers, we are committed to advocating for the rights and interests of immigrants. With more than 15 years of experience, our attorneys have the skills and legal experience to comprehensively examine your case and help you determine the best path forward. We serve communities throughout Southern California, including in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana, Riverside, Irvine, San Bernardino, Oxnard, Fontana, and Glendale.