What Makes A Church A Sanctuary For Undocumented Immigrants?

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Photo: Jeanette Vizguerra in church (AP Photo)
Jeanette Vizguerra, a Mexican woman seeking to avoid deportation from the United States, center, speaks as she holds her 6-year-old daughter, Zuri, right, while Jennifer Piper, left, of the American Friends Service Committee, looks on during a news conference in a church in which Vizguerra and her children have taken refuge, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017, in Denver.

What makes a church a sanctuary?

That question came to the fore last week when Jeanette Vizguerra, a woman who came to Colorado from Mexico illegally 20 years ago, went into sanctuary last week at a Denver church. One other woman, Ingrid Encalada Latorre, from Peru, has been in sanctuary with a different Denver congregation, the Mountain View Friends Meeting, since November.

The answer, it turns out, is policy and tradition. A 2011 Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy defines churches, schools and hospitals as "sensitive places" where enforcement actions should be limited. And the tradition of sheltering those who need it goes back to the Middle Ages, said David Poundstone with the Mountain View Friends Meeting.

"[The Trump administration] can change that policy; we are wondering if [they] will," Poundstone told Colorado Matters' host Ryan Warner. "They would obviously risk very bad publicity to do something."

The Mountain View Friends Meeting and the First Unitarian Church that took Vizguerra in are part of a network of nine congregations offering sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. It started in 2014, during a time when President Barack Obama's administration was deporting a record number of people.

Jennifer Piper with the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition says the churches are not breaking laws against "harboring aliens" because they are open about which immigrants have been taken in, and where. Piper also says that since November's election, she has heard from Catholic, Evangelical and Protestant congregations in various parts of the state that are considering offering sanctuary spaces.

Interview Highlights With David Poundstone

On Why The Coalition Is Taking In Undocumented Immigrants Facing Deportation:

"We're not here for political motives. We're here to hold up a stop sign to our government saying ... 'our values need to dictate what our politics are. We do not want to separate families.' That's why we are doing this."

"One of the most frequent themes in the scriptures that we all share is taking care of the foreigner or sojourner in our midst. This is a mandate that must be close to God's heart."

On What Life Is Like For Those Taking Sanctuary In A Church:

"Our church building is an old sorority house near [the University of Denver]. We turned that over to Ingrid as her apartment. We have a kitchen downstairs on the main floor and a nursery in the basement that has lots of toys. It's great fun for the kids. So they have the run of the building during the day. People come to visit. We usually have somebody to come and spend the night just for security."

On What Would Prevent A Church From Offering Sanctuary:

"Something that would harm the physical safety of our community. We just had a pause on the summer when were challenged by the immigrant members of our coalition to say, 'Not everyone is perfect.' It made me realize that the badge of citizenship provides the rest of us great protection."

On How He Defends His Organization's Actions:

"I tend not to use the word 'illegal.' [Immigrants] are here without permission. We could give this person citizenship. We can change the law and give this person the piece of paper anytime we want. And if we were to fund our citizenship process to the same level that we would law enforcement, we could probably clean up a lot of pending applications for people."

On Why He Felt Compelled To Shelter Undocumented Immigrants:

"I would go to the day that we met Jeanette Vizguerra. When we launched the sanctuary coalition, I had never met her in person at that point. But that day we launched on the steps of the First Unitarian Church, and we watched her and her children and other mothers and their children on the steps. I was holding a sign that said, 'Keep families together.' And I said, 'This is the most obvious thing in the world.' There is no good that comes from separating families."

On Why More Undocumented Immigrants Aren't Seeking Sanctuary:

"There are many people who might. But it's a very difficult decision for the immigrant to decide to do this. They are putting a lot on the line. There is no guarantee. We are doing the best we can. But we can't guarantee how this comes out."