Religious groups and activists vowed Wednesday to offer refuge to illegal immigrants who are the targets of ongoing federal raids meant to combat a new wave of border-crossing from Central America.
The announcement recalled the sanctuary movement of the 1980s that provided safe haven to several thousand people fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, with churches in Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities sometimes filled with people seeking asylum in the United States.
During a news conference via telephone, a national network of immigrant groups said they are prepared to defy federal authorities who are seeking to apprehend illegal Central American immigrants. Advocates said those immigrants again are fleeing violence in their homelands, this time perpetrated by gangs engaged in drug trafficking and other crimes.
“We feel we are once again living through a nightmare,” said Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. “Once again, human lives are at stake.”
More than 100,000 Central American adults and children, including unaccompanied minors, have made the journey across the U.S.-Mexico border since 2014, federal authorities have said.
At the start of the year, the Obama administration launched a large-scale effort targeting those who have already been ordered to leave the country. About 120 adults and children have been apprehended in raids in several states.
The effort, which is expected to include several hundred more apprehensions, has drawn sharp criticism from those who advocate for undocumented immigrants. They argue that Central Americans who are entering the country illegally should be offered the same protections extended to Syrian refugees.
Instead, Central Americans are being processed for deportation rapidly, sometimes without legal representation, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the Los Angeles-based National Immigration Law Center.
“There is basically a hemispheric bias in our refugee system,” Hincapié said. “These families that are also fleeing violence — the same way as other refugees coming from around the world — are not being welcomed to our country. Instead, we are at risk of deporting them back to their persecutors, deporting them back to their death, deporting them back to rape and sexual assault.”
The advocates described cases during the past few days in which U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents entered the homes of terrified immigrant families, grabbing whichever people couldn’t prove they were in the United States legally.
During one early morning raid in Georgia, ICE agents gained entry into a family’s house by saying they were looking for help identifying an African American suspected of a crime, said Adelina Nicholls, director of the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, in Atlanta.
The agents took a mother and her 9-year-old son into custody, transporting them to a federal detention center in Texas, Nicholls said.
Noel Andersen, grass-roots coordinator with the Church World Service group for refugees, said his organization has been working to build a network of sanctuaries for the Central Americans being targeted by ICE.
“Every day, we’re hearing more from congregations wanting to do something about this,” Andersen said.