As immigration crackdown intensifies, churches embrace refugees

AUSTIN, Tex. — Hilda Ramirez and her son, Ivan, illegally crossed the border two and a half years ago in a small inflatable raft that began to take on water almost as soon as it hit the Rio Grande. They had come hundreds of miles, fleeing an unimaginable life of violence in their native Guatemala, where Ramirez — who had given birth after being raped — was escaping death threats from her assailant’s father, a man she said had murdered his own wife and now wanted custody of her child.

The two nearly drowned on their way across the river, but risking death to escape near-certain death was worth it to Ramirez, who saw the United States as their only chance at salvation. Eventually plucked from the water by the Border Patrol, she and Ivan were sent to a South Texas detention center along with hundreds of other Central American women who had crossed into the U.S. illegally to escape intolerable violence — and who, like her, were seeking asylum. (Ramirez’s account, like those told by many who cross into the U.S., could not be independently verified.)

Ramirez was released from the immigration facility after nearly a year with an ankle monitor on her right leg. But a few months later, while living in a safe house in Austin, she and her son lost their bids for asylum. Under the threat of being deported back to Guatemala, they took shelter here last spring at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church on the city’s north side, where the congregation had installed bunk beds in the Sunday school teacher’s tiny office and offered them sanctuary.

It is here that Ramirez, 29, and Ivan, who is now 10, spend most of their days. Though the mother and son received a stay in their cases last November, erasing the imminent threat of deportation, they are scared to venture far, worried that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers — who know exactly where Ramirez is because of her ankle monitor — could still take them away. Ivan’s only time outside of the church is when he goes to school, which is considered a safe place. He is not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities or hang out with friends because of fears he could be detained.

Ramirez’s situation is not directly affected by the administration’s temporary ban on travel to the U.S. from some majority-Muslim countries — originally imposed in January, stayed by a federal court, and reinstated in a new form Monday. But Trump’s hard line on immigration has mobilized many church groups that oppose it — opposition that also takes the form of offering sanctuary to refugees like Ramirez and her son.

“Hilda and her son aren’t even 5 feet tall, yet President Trump has made people afraid of them, calling them criminals when they are just trying to escape violence,” said Jim Rigby, the longtime pastor of St. Andrew’s. “And when you are helping someone who is considered a criminal, giving them shelter, you can be charged. …There’s a risk here, but we won’t turn them away. To me, you can’t call yourself a church if you don’t open your doors when there is a need.”

Rigby and his church staff have taken greater precautions in recent weeks to keep Ramirez and her son safe. Members of the church, which sits at a major intersection just off Interstate 35, have covered its back fence with a tarp to prevent people from seeing into the back windows of the sanctuary where the mother and her son live.

Under the Obama administration, churches were considered a safe place for undocumented immigrants because official policy said immigration agents would not arrest people there. But it’s unclear whether that directive is still in place under the more aggressive policy pursued by the agency under Trump.

Local police cars are often parked in the church’s parking lot, with officers watching for speeding motorists. But now Rigby eyes them with suspicion, worried they could be there for other reasons. He has trained his staff what to do if ICE agents were to show up, including how to form a human chain to try to stop agents if they attempt to take Ramirez or her son away.

St. Andrew’s is one of a growing number of churches in Austin and around the country that are forming so-called sanctuary networks to shelter undocumented immigrants as the administration prepares to deliver on Trump’s campaign pledge to deport people who are in the country illegally. As many as a dozen churches here are now exploring ways to give refuge to undocumented immigrants — especially those like Ramirez, who fled their countries to escape violence.

The churches are part of a national movement that began in response to immigration enforcement under President Barack Obama, who deported more undocumented immigrants than any of his predecessors. But the enforcement has intensified under Trump. According to the Church World Service — a religious ministry that helps refugees and immigrants — before last year’s election, about 400 churches around the country had indicated their members were willing to offer sanctuary. After November, that number doubled to 800 and is still growing.

That includes New Season Christian Worship Center in Sacramento, Calif., headed by Pastor Sam Rodriguez Jr., who met with Trump several times during the campaign as part of an evangelical advisory group and who delivered an invocation at his inauguration ceremony in January. Rodriguez, who is also head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said Trump had told him he would pursue a compassionate approach to immigration enforcement, including not separating families. “What has taken place in the past two weeks does not respect the president’s promise,” Rodriguez told Time magazine last week as his church set up cots to protect undocumented immigrants who are scared of being detained.

On Monday, Trump signed a new executive order designed to withstand legal scrutiny — this one exempting people from Iraq and removing the ban on Syrian refugees, but still temporarily slowing the flow of arrivals from six Muslim-majority countries — which is likely to spur controversy. Unlike the previous order, this one exempts current green card holders and those who have already been granted asylum or refugee status. Other parts of the order remain firmly intact, including Trump’s decision to reduce the number of resettlements this year from the originally planned 110,000 to 50,000 — a detail that has sparked shock and anger among churches and religious groups that work to resettle refugees in the U.S.

Last Friday, the Church World Service and National Council of Churches, which represent nearly 40 Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations, launched a campaign to mobilize its collective 30 million American congregants to lobby Trump and members of Congress against the travel ban. Hundreds of evangelical pastors have signed letters opposing the ban, including one that ran as a full-page ad in the Washington Post.

In a briefing last month with members of Congress, Galen Carey, chief Washington lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals, acknowledged Trump’s concern about national security but pointed out that refugees are subject to strenuous vetting. “Like immigrants who come here voluntarily, refugees overwhelming express deep gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild their lives in peace and freedom,” he said. “Refugees have fled terror and violence. The last thing they would want to do is to perpetuate violence in their new homeland. They are our most patriotic citizens.”

But a recent Pew Research Center poll suggests there is a divide between church leadership and its congregants — and significant splits among different denominations — regarding Trump’s approach to refugees. While the survey found a majority of those polled (59 percent) disapproved of the ban, the survey found 76 percent of self-identified white evangelical Protestants supported the ban as it was originally presented.

A majority of Catholics (62 percent) disapproved of the ban, according to the poll. But broken down by race, the results told a different story: White Catholics were split (50 percent approve; 49 percent disapprove), while Hispanics and other ethnic minorities were overwhelmingly against the travel restrictions.

In Austin, a town that has been historically welcoming of undocumented immigrants and refugees, Trump’s crackdown has prompted anger and sadness at churches that have worked with both groups for years. Last month, the parishioners of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church welcomed a family of Syrian refugees — a man, his wife and their four daughters — who had been waiting for years to come to America from the war-torn country.

The family almost didn’t make it. Caught up in the turmoil of Trump’s original travel ban, the six were stuck in limbo for more than a week after being stopped from boarding their original flight to Texas from Jordan. Now, with the help of the church and a refugee assistance agency, they are starting new lives in America, learning English, enrolling the kids in school and eventually finding work.

“I think they were stunned to see all of us at the airport,” Rev. Sherry Vaughn Williams, a deacon at St. Michael’s who leads the church’s refugee ministry, said. “But we were so happy because we didn’t know if we would ever get them here.”

But it was also a bittersweet moment. Williams, who has spent 15 years working to resettle refugees in the U.S, is upset that Trump’s policies — especially limits on the number of refugees who enter the country — could potentially upend ministries aimed at helping those in need.

“It’s appalling. It’s just not who we are as a country,” she said. “A lot of us have faith that all people are worthy, and that we need to take care of one another. It just makes you sad and angry to think that people who have been through horrible things, that our country is turning away from them. It just doesn’t feel American.”

Meanwhile, Rigby does what he can to protect the mother and son in his care, but fears it may not be enough. Every time he says goodbye to Ramirez and Ivan, he worries it might be the last time — fear that has only increased in recent weeks. “You just don’t know what could happen when you walk out the door,” he said. “I worry about getting that phone call in the middle of the night that someone has come and taken these poor people away. Every single night, I worry.”

Texas officials have thought about ways to stop churches from doing what Rigby is doing — including stripping organizations of tax-exempt status or arresting pastors and parishioners who, they argue, are breaking federal law by harboring undocumented immigrants. But the longtime pastor says the risks are worth it.

“How can you call yourself a Christian if you don’t stand up for people who need help?” he asked.


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