Sold on sanctuary: Most journalists giving decent coverage to grassroots movement


The drama surrounding President Donald Trump’s immigration policies hasn’t died down as thousands –- or millions -- of illegal immigrants figure out what to do next.

Like a phoenix out of ashes, the once obscure sanctuary movement has sprung back to life in churches and networks of religious activists.

Several publications have been visiting churches that have decided to host illegal immigrants in their basements, much like some were doing in the 1980s to asylum seekers from the killing fields of Guatemala or El Salvador. I first reported on the uptick in coverage in November.

The movement briefly stirred back to life in 2007 near the end of the George W. Bush years and I wrote about it in a four-part series for the Washington Times. A lot of the energy in the current movement seems centered on the West Coast. What I wrote about the movement in Seattle sounds eerily the same now that the Seattle Times is covering it 10 years later. As I read their recent piece, some of the same folks I interviewed a decade ago are still involved:

With President Donald Trump’s new policies prioritizing millions for deportation, people who entered the country illegally are feeling an urgent need to get their affairs in order. And their advocates want to help.
El Centro de la Raza (in Seattle’s Beacon Hill district), catering primarily to Latinos with services such as preschool and a food bank, is holding daily walk-in sessions like this one through March 4 to help people draw up emergency plans.
Houses of worship are also preparing to step in, readying their buildings as safe havens. In Los Angeles, religious leaders are going so far as to form an underground network of private homes to try to hide families. ...
The Church Council of Greater Seattle has been reaching out to its 320 member congregations, as well as to local synagogues and mosques, to explore ways to support immigrants and refugees. That could include providing “long-term hospitality,” said Executive Director Michael Ramos.
While those conversations are just beginning, he said, “The energy is high.”

One of the religious groups involved in the Seattle effort is the Episcopal Church, including St. Mark’s Cathedral, pictured with this article.

Saint Mark’s itself, a Capitol Hill landmark attracting some 800 people on a Sunday, is considering making some of its space available as a temporary home, complete with kitchen, laundry and showers, (Dean Steven) Thomason said.
He didn’t want to say exactly where that home would be, for fear of attracting immigration officials’ attention, despite the church’s status as a sensitive location.
“I have a concern about a variety of ways that this could get even darker and more wrongheaded,” he said. “That does not cause us to waver one bit in our resolve.”
In Auburn, Saint Matthew-San Mateo Episcopal Church, a founding member of the new sanctuary movement in 2007, also is gearing up to help.

Yep, San Mateo was one of the churches I visited in 2007.

CNN weighed in with a piece on an underground railroad of sorts where people are preparing to host immigrant families in their homes.

The story begins with a female pastor named Ada Valiente, although the story never says what church she affiliates with.

The goal is to offer another sanctuary beyond religious buildings or schools, ones that require federal authorities to obtain warrants before entering the homes.
"That's what we need to do as a community to keep families together," Valiente says.
At another Los Angeles neighborhood miles away, a Jewish man shows off a sparsely decorated spare bedroom in his home. White sheets on the bed and the clean, adjacent full bathroom bear all the markers of an impending visit. The man, who asked not to be identified, pictures an undocumented woman and her children who may find refuge in his home someday.

I’m glad they got the range of beliefs, but it seems odd that a movement would move out of churches into private homes that do not have the connotation of sanctuary that a church does. The network tries to explain the difference.

Under federal law, locations like churches and synagogues are technically public spaces that authorities could enter to conduct law enforcement actions. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security instituted a policy limiting ICE action at religious locations. The policy ordered ICE to not enter "sensitive locations" like schools and institutions of worship.
Religious leaders in Los Angeles that spoke to CNN are skeptical whether that policy will stand under a Trump presidency.
"There's a difference between someone knocking on your door at the church who's a federal agent and someone knocking on the door of your home, where, if they don't have a warrant, they shouldn't be entering," Hoover says.
In the hours after Trump's initial executive order on immigration, calls between religious organizers picked up, and the network rapidly grew. Hoover estimates the underground network could hide 100 undocumented people today. Soon, he believes, they could hide thousands.

The article then morphes into a discussion of “God’s law versus Trump’s law,” returning to Valiente and the Jewish interviewee as to why they think what they’re doing is God’s work. Waaaaay down near the end of the piece, an opposing view is given two paragraphs:

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, says the law is clear about what these groups are intending to do.
"They're committing a felony. Harboring is a felony," Krikorian says. "Regular folks hiding people in a basement face jail time because it is ultimately a smuggling conspiracy."

I think he’s onto something. A church isn’t going to suffer the consequences of sheltering illegal immigrants the same way an individual would. The article’s premise is pretty shaky and I think the legal protections that Valiente is counting on are false.

Time magazine found out that one of the pastors who gave a prayer at Trump’s inauguration is hosting illegals. What’s gratifying about this piece is how the writer explains how the sanctuary issue is being handled differently by evangelicals than by mainstream Protestants.

The Sacramento church of an evangelical pastor who led a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration is offering beds for congregants who need a safe haven from immigration raids or domestic violence.
Pastors at New Season Christian Worship Center set up thirty cots in two large rooms just days after the President issued his January executive order that expanded federal deportation policy. Congregants spread the word that they were available for anyone who was afraid of the immigration policies’ potential effect. Half a dozen families showed up in the past month. Most stayed just a couple of days. About half came with fears over immigration and half with fears of domestic abuse, according to church officials.
New Season Christian Worship Center is led by Sam Rodriguez Jr., the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January.
New Season’s safe haven program is different from the sanctuary church movement, which seeks to protect immigrants facing deportation from federal officials. Some 800 mostly liberal Christian and interfaith congregations have signed up to be sanctuary churches and most come from non-evangelical denominations including Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Disciples of Christ churches.

Take especial note of this paragraph:

Theologically conservative churches face different challenges from their liberal counterparts. Many evangelical churches have members who are strong Trump supporters as well as immigrants who are both legal and undocumented. NHCLC is a largely conservative network of evangelical Hispanic churches, and Latino evangelical congregations have been growing quickly in the U.S. Nearly a quarter of Assemblies of God churches, for example, are Latino, and much of the new growth has come from Hispanic communities. “This is a community that is not completely hostile to him,” Rodriguez says. “It was the conservative evangelical community that played a dominant role in the election of our president.”

I think the Time piece had by far the freshest angle, but I’m glad that other publications are running with this story and giving religious groups lots of credit. Even Mother Jones, not known as a bastion of religion coverage, has gotten into the act

I hope that journalists give both sides of this story and resist making their articles simple PR for the sanctuary movement with minimal quotes from the other side.

Find out from churches about the strain that staying within these buildings’ four walls has on an immigrant. What’s it costing these congregations to have people in their basements? And how many synagogues, mosques, Mormon-owned facilities, Baha’i, Hindu and Buddhist temples are involved? Go beyond the usual suspects. Because if the movement stays within the parameter of liberal Protestant churches, that’s one thing. But if it morphs into a bigger movement involving more religious persuasions, that’s completely another. 

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