The backdrop for Rev. Noel Andersen's sermon last week wasn’t a church dais but the gates of the Governor’s Mansion in Austin. The unusual setting didn’t stop him from preaching about his disappointment in Gov. Greg Abbott for signing one of the most aggressive state-based immigration laws in the country the night before.
“Somebody told me once that the Bible was important here,” Andersen said, ginning up an already fiery crowd of opponents that have, since January, railed against Senate Bill 4.
Andersen is from Washington, D.C., where his nonprofit, Church World Service, is based. But he said he expects to spend much of the summer in Texas, working to reignite a movement of churches offering "sanctuary" to the undocumented, an effort that has taken on a new urgency since Abbott signed SB 4, which goes into effect Sept. 1.
“We do expect to see a greater need now as immigrants are being more targeted through SB 4 and through President Trump’s policies,” Andersen said. “[The goal is] helping stop a deportation order and creating space to create a legal campaign to be able to stop that deportation and keep those people with their families.”
The bill allows peace officers to question the immigration status of people they legally detain or arrest. It also punishes department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration agents. The governor and other supporters of the bill insist it’s needed to deter people who are already in the country illegally from committing more crimes.
But law enforcement agencies and faith-based organizations argue the law opens up the state to legalized racial profiling and threatens to undermine the trust immigrants place in local police officers. Some religious groups argue that those concerns have been largely ignored by Texas Republican leaders that have supported the bill. The governor’s office did not respond to an email requesting comment for this story.
But Andersen said there is a silver lining if the new law draws more attention to the decades-long practice of recognizing churches and other buildings as “sensitive locations” when it comes to immigration enforcement.
“Sanctuary congregations are committed to opening their congregations to undocumented people who are in need,” Andersen said. “Oftentimes, that includes someone facing a deportation order or an imminent deportation.”
Andersen's effort is just one example of how opponents of SB 4 are expected to mobilize over the summer across Texas ahead of the bill's Sept. 1 implementation date. Last week, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Maverick County and the city of El Cenizo sued Texas over the bill. More lawsuits are expected.
Faith-based groups have the wind at their backs in one respect: Immigration and Customs Enforcement have long recognized churches and other buildings as generally off limits, except under extreme circumstances.
“The policies provide that enforcement actions at or focused on sensitive locations such as schools, places of worship, and hospitals should generally be avoided, and that such actions may only take place when (a) prior approval is obtained from an appropriate supervisory official, or (b) there are exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action without supervisor approval,” an ICE memo states.
The “sensitive locations” policy predates Trump, but Andersen said he hasn’t heard the administration has plans to change it. In a memo released in March, the Department of Homeland Security confirmed the policy was still in effect.
“They could rescind that, but we believe even without that policy ... there is a certain symbolic protection that congregations and places of worship have,” he said.
The movement has been around since the 1980s, when a wave of Central American immigrants came to the United States seeking refuge. After a meeting between Presbyterians and a Quakers in Arizona, the two networks joined forces and began offering safe haven to Nicaraguans and El Salvadorans, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The movement eventually spread to Illinois, northern California and South Texas.
The movement has experienced a resurgence in the country since 2014 that included an Austin case involving a Central American undocumented immigrant. In June 2015, Sulma Franco, a gay woman from Guatemala, was taken in by the staff of First Unitarian Universalist Church after receiving a final deportation order. She said her sexual orientation made her a target in the violent Central American country and refused to report to ICE. The agency eventually relented, and Franco was granted a stay two months later.
To be sure, not all faith-based groups view themselves as sanctuary congregations, but some have a history of aiding undocumented people in other ways.
“Texas Baptist Convention has an immigration service center in San Antonio, but it doesn’t house anyone,” said Dr. Gus Reyes, the director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission. “But anyone who is here and has any possibility of receiving legal status or going from a green card visa to becoming a U.S. citizen, we try to help those folks.”
Last week, Andersen expressed hope that Austin would set the example and spread the sanctuary message across the state.
“We have a strong movement in Austin, and we have dedicated faith leaders that work with immigrants and refugees throughout Texas,” he said.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.