Can Immigrants Seek Asylum in a Church to Avoid Deportation?

More than ever, immigrants in the Los Angeles area worry that they may face deportation. Being removed or deported from the United States would have very serious consequences, breaking a person up from their friends, families and their home. Many people have turned to their churches as a potential sanctuary from potential deportation.

A Woman Takes Refuge in a Unitarian Church in Denver, Colorado

Earlier this year, The Denver Post reported on the story of Jeanette Vizguerra, a 46-year-old mother of four who spent nearly three months living in a makeshift bedroom in a Unitarian church after her request for a deportation stay was denied. On May 12, Mrs. Vizguerra finally received a two-year deportation stay, and was able to walk out of the doors of the church, and reunite with her family.

This case made national headlines, and beyond being reported in papers across the country, Jeanette Vizguerra was also named one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Influential People. In some ways, this was a heartwarming story: Mrs. Vizguerra was able to seek asylum in a Denver church, avoid deportation and eventually was granted a stay. On the other hand, the mere fact that she had to take refuge in the church in the first place is deeply alarming.

This case also provides an illuminating example for other undocumented immigrants who may be considering a church as a place to seek asylum. It shows the power that the church has as a potential sanctuary place, but at the same time, it also demonstrates the limits of the church.

Is a Church a Sanctuary Space? The Answer is Complicated

The Law

From a purely legal perspective, a church offers no more asylum to avoid deportation than does a grocery store. In fact, under United States immigration law, enforcement officials have the express power to arrest a person inside a house of worship. Further, it is a crime for church officials to knowingly provide refuge to undocumented immigrants. Still, the “law” as it is written does not tell the whole story.

The Social Factor

For social reasons, ICE is currently very reluctant to enter churches. Indeed, the agency has a policy on enforcement in sensitive locations. In general, ICE agents try to avoid taking any action in these places. To put it bluntly, the agency wants to avoid the bad publicity that comes with arresting and deporting a person who is inside a church.

The Answer

A church can provide real protection against deportation. Immigrants facing deportation may be able to effectively seek asylum in their house of worship. Still, it is important to recognize that the protection afforded by a church is not written into American law, and thus, the policy could change very quickly.

Contact Our Los Angeles Deportation Lawyer Today

At the Law Office of Joshua L. Goldstein, PC, we have extensive experience handling all aspects of deportation cases. If you find yourself facing deportation or removal, please call our firm today at (213) 514-8870 for immediate legal assistance. We represent immigrants throughout Southern California, including in El Monte, Burbank and Pasadena.