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Shore Episcopal churches consider sanctuary status
New Jersey Immigration Lawyer Helps Sanctuary Cities
INDYSTAR –“Sanctuary” was never supposed to have a political connotation, said the Rev. Ted Foley of Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River. Somewhere between biblical times and the 2016 presidential election, he said, that changed.
“What we are asking people to do is rise above the politics and go back to the original meaning of this word,” says Foley, who serves one of 23 Episcopal churches in Monmouth and Ocean counties. “Sanctuary is really a holy place.”
Foley says that was the goal when he, the Rev. Juan Monge-Santiago of All Saints Church in Lakewood and other religious leaders introduced a resolution on sanctuary at the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey’s annual convention March 4.
The diocese’s guidelines suggests various forms of sanctuary: offering food assistance; hosting “know your rights” workshops with lawyers; and, in the most extreme, providing shelter for refugees and undocumented immigrants who fear deportation.
The diocese adopted the resolution, joining churches of various denominations nationwide that publicly declared their support of undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers who fear deportation under President Donald Trump’s promised crackdown on the undocumented.
But each church must decide whether to adopt a sanctuary policy and what that would look like.
Foley says he plans to discuss adopting a sanctuary policy with his congregation of 250, which includes 40 native Spanish speakers.
While local Episcopal leaders say the resolution isn’t a political statement, it passed as Democratic mayors of self-proclaimed sanctuary cities vow to defend their undocumented populations in the face of Trump’s threats to punish communities that refuse to cooperate with enforcement, including stripping them of federal funds.
These local leaders say they don’t foresee that risk in Monmouth and Ocean counties, as their churches are nonprofits that don’t rely on federal funding.
“It’s not that we see ourselves above the law,” says the Rev. Michael Way of Trinity Church in Asbury Park, who supports the diocese’s sanctuary resolution. “We are obviously restricted in the way that any law-abiding (institution) should be, but we’ll do our utmost to support our community, including our refugee community.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are directed to avoid operations at “sensitive locations” such as churches, hospitals or schools, unless they have approval from a supervisor or have “exigent circumstances,” according to a statement from the agency.
Donald Kerwin, executive director of the New York-based think tank the Center for Migration Studies, said ICE agents occasionally cross the line by going into schools or they wait in church parking lots for people to leave the building.
That “creates a disincentive for people to go to church, for people to take their children to school, for people to get basic shelter for the night,” he said.
But he says sanctuary churches have to be careful as they may toe the line when providing assistance. Offering food and referrals to attorneys may not violate the law, but harboring an undocumented immigrant — especially one targeted by authorities — could have legal implications, he said.
“The legal issues are that you’re conceivably harboring people in violation of federal law or concealing them are federal crimes, so it’s conceivable that people do risk federal prosecution,” he said. It just hasn’t been enforced at this point.
During the “Sanctuary Movement” of the 1980s, some religious leaders went so far as to smuggle people from Latin America who said they were fleeing political oppression; the federal government argued they only faced economic oppression.
Jack Elder, a Catholic lay worker, and Stacey Lynn Merkt, a Methodist, were convicted of conspiracy and transporting illegal aliens into the country, according to a UPI report in February 1985.
That’s not what Episcopal church officials are talking about when they refer to sanctuary status.
To local leaders, sanctuary means a range of assistance, including but not limited to shelter. Even churches that offer shelter don’t work “in secret,” according to a document from the diocese. “The purpose of sanctuary is to shelter or provide resources to the individual or family while all legal channels are being pursued.”
“We’re gonna abide by the law,” Foley said. “It’s really what the sanctuary does. It gives that person the opportunity to make sure that the legal system runs its course.”
Still, Foley said, he doesn’t see his church dealing with many, if any, undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary. His congregation still has to discuss if its members want to adopt a sanctuary policy individually and what that would look like.
Andre Mejer, an immigration attorney based in Red Bank, says that if churches are going to shelter undocumented immigrants, he hopes they do so without outing them to the public and law enforcement, which churches have been careful not to do in the past.
Churches, like towns, may have an easier time helping those without declaring themselves sanctuaries, given the politically charged times.
“(Sanctuary status) should be a concern for any organization that wants to keep 501c(3) status with a nonprofit, but I would look at this as more of the bullying that we are seeing on every level from this administration. So a church like a town has to decide how are we going to protect our members.”
Sanctuary at the Shore
Weeks after the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey pledged to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants, parishes along the Shore are trying to figure out what that should mean.
The Rev. Dirk Reinken says many of the practices at St. Peter’s Church in Freehold already mirror those of sanctuary churches. The church holds a soup kitchen and tutors kids, many of whom have immigrant parents, though he doesn’t know what legal status.
The church also has an emergency shelter for up to 12 people during the winter. They don’t ask about legal status. Reinken says the church hasn’t had an undocumented immigrant approach them seeking refuge.
He said is “something we would feel our way through that.”
“Our commitment is to make sure that anyone who is at St. Peters and participates in any kind of ministry at St. Peters is fully valued as a person,” he adds, “and the documented status has no bearing on any way that we see them.”
But the church plans to discuss sanctuary status more in-depth with its congregation over the following months. Foley hopes that discussion will help dispel some misconceptions about illegal immigration and help answer questions about what the church would do differently if it adopted a sanctuary policy.
The Rev. Agostino Rivolta says St. James in Eatontown has a small but diverse congregation. The church has a service in Portuguese for its Brazilian members, some of whom perhaps could benefit from a sanctuary policy.
But he says the church likely would be too small to offer shelter or other resources that are characteristic of a sanctuary church.
Trinity Church in Matawan won’t start to deliberate on whether to adopt a sanctuary policy until they find a new priest, says a representative who answered the phone.
Monge-Santiago of All Saints in Lakewood wasn’t available for comment, nor was the Rev. Jose Louis Memba of St. Thomas’ in Red Bank. Several officials of churches in Monmouth and Ocean counties did not immediately respond to phone and email inquiries.
In Asbury Park, Way says he plans to discuss sanctuary status with his congregation over the next week. He says his church already provides several resources with its food pantry and information sessions with immigration lawyers.
Sanctuary status is one of several topics church leaders will bring up with its congregation of 450 as they determine the best use for the building. He doesn’t expect to shelter asylum seekers or undocumented immigrants at the shore — the building isn’t equipped to shelter people — but he says the community recognizes a general need for a shelter in addition to the one on Memorial Drive to help the homeless.
“In some ways, sanctuary status is really just a declaration of our commitment to people who are often in the most marginalized areas,” he said. “It’s just about loving our neighbor.”
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