After a spike of immigration from Central America, the Sanctuary Movement is coming back to Bay Area churches that helped to spread it nearly 50 years ago. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spoke with religious leaders promoting Sanctuary and the immigrants who say they desperately need it.
Rosa Robles Loreto had been living, working and paying taxes for 15 years in Tucson, Arizona when her life changed in an instant. The mother of two young boys was pulled over for a traffic violation. When authorities realized she was living in the US illegally, they ordered her deported.
“If they tell me I have to go and separate myself from my kids, I couldn’t take it,” said Loreto. “That’s what I fear.”
After two months of detention, she sought refuge at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.
“You have people of faith who are standing up saying ‘we’re not going to fail to act in this time,’” said Reverend Alison Harrington, Southside’s pastor.
Harrington offered to protect Loreto and defy the deportation order so that her family could stay together.
“This isn’t just about Rosa,” said Harrington, “This is about the thousands and thousands of families who are living in fear of being separated by our broken immigration system.”
Southside has a long history of providing sanctuary for some of those thousands. It is a history that stretches back to the civil war in El Salvador. Southside provided sanctuary to hundreds of people fleeing that violence.
Many churches in the San Francisco Bay Area share that history. Montclair Presbyterian Church of Oakland and St John’s Presbyterian Church of Berkeley are two of them.
“We’re very connected historically,” said Ben Daniel, current pastor of Montclair. “I think that when we provide sanctuary we are sheltering people from violence.”
Montclair began providing sanctuary to young men defying draft orders to fight in Vietnam.
Then, in the early 1980s, Montclair Presbyterian joined St. John’s Presbyterian and Southside Presbyterian in beginning a movement shelter people fleeing the civil war in El Salvador.
“The Reagan Administration, the INS, were saying that to harbor an illegal alien would be a felony,” said Reverend Marilyn Chilcote who, with her husband Bob McKenzie, was a pastor at St. John’s in the 1970s and 1980s. “Eventually the administration turned itself around and said ‘No, you were right all along.’ I mean, ‘what you were doing was the right thing to do.”
“I’m glad to see that the congregation have once again claimed this,” said McKenzie. “We’re miles ahead of where we were in the 80’s. There is an awareness of immediately what the situation is. We don’t have to [re]learn all that.”
The movement is spreading once again, reaching New York, Los Angeles, Portland, San Antonio, Denver and Chicago. Sanctuary leaders say the reason for its popularity is simply that the need is so large.
According to the US Border Patrol, 252,600 people not from Mexico were picked up at the US border with Mexico this year alone. Of them, federal agents say 51,705 of those refugees were children traveling without their parents.
Violence in Central American countries such as Honduras drives most of this growth. The Investigative Unit spoke to one of those Honduran families seeking sanctuary in a Bay Area Church.
“I felt they were going to kill us,” said a young woman who asked that she remain anonymous. “We had to defend our lives and above all, the lives of our children.”
In Honduras gang members raped the young woman and her mother in front of her father. After that, the entire family fled the country for their lives, traveling by train and bus to finally reach the Bay Area this past summer.
Speaking in Spanish, through a translator, the young woman’s mother said, “We abandoned everything. Thrown everywhere. The moment we decided to leave Honduras, we can’t ever to back to our home.”
All fear deportation. They say if the US government forces them to go back, it will be a death sentence.
“We are very scared,” said the young woman’s mother, “If we return to our country, wherever we seek refuge, these people find people to kill them.”
Reverend Max Lynn, who serves as the current pastor at St. John’s in Berkeley, compared the plight of these refugees to the Old Testament story of the prophet Moses, whose mother sent him floating down the Nile River to save his life.
“There are mothers who are pushing their kids across the river,” said Lynn, “It’s not the Nile in Egypt, it’s the Rio Grande here. Now what would we do if Moses floats up to us in a basket? What are we going to do? Are we going to push them back across the river? Are we going to murder them? Are we going to hate them? Or are we going to embrace a child whose mother was so desperate that she sent them across the river?” asked Reverend Lynn.
Lynn says his congregation knows how to answer that question.
“If [the courts] say ‘no, they’re just illegal aliens,’ then we’re willing to harbor to find a safe haven, to protect them from deportation,” said Lynn.
Not everyone embraces the Sanctuary Movement.
“When churches or any other organization take this approach: ‘we are going to become the heroes by protecting this lawless behavior’--I’m sorry but they’re wrong,” said Gabriela Saucedo Mercer of Tucson.
Mercer emigrated from Mexico in the 1980’s. She said that she and her husband followed the law and applied for citizenship. But some of her family members emigrated illegally and were later granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform policies.
Mercer ran as the Republican nominee to represent Tucson in Congress in 2012 and again in 2014. She lost both times to the Democrat incumbent.
She’s adamant that there is no room in the political debate for the ‘Sanctuary’ movement.
“They are breaking the law, simple as that,” said Mercer.
Sanctuary Movement supporters say the current reality of Central American immigration leaves them no choice but to provide refuge, even if that means defying the law.
“People are saying ‘we’re not going to stand by and watch moms and dads being taken from their kids,’” said Reverend Harrington.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything I could to save the lives of the family who have been given to us, have been entrusted to us,” said Reverend Ben Daniel, “I don’t want to be the kind of person to send someone back…to die.”
President Obama’s recent executive order doesn’t mean the end of this movement.
The executive order stays deportation for immigrants who have been in America for more than 5 years. Rosa Robles Loreto has lived and worked in the Tucson area for 15 years and may qualify for relief under the executive order. But some other families we spoke to have just arrived, and therefore will not receive relief under the President’s new order.
Representatives for those families say that they will likely remain in Sanctuary.