New immigrant sanctuary movement calls for 'prophetic hospitality'

New immigrant sanctuary movement calls for 'prophetic hospitality'

Unitarian Universalist Association joins movement supporting undocumented immigrants facing deportation.
Donald E. Skinner


The Unitarian Universalist Association has joined the “New Sanctuary Movement,” an interfaith coalition that includes 14 faith traditions, to protect undocumented immigrants from arrest, detention, and deportation while Congress works to create a path to citizenship for those who are here illegally. The UUA was the first religious denomination to sign on nationally.

The movement, organized by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice California, Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice, and the New York Sanctuary Coalition, is inviting congregations of many faiths to protect undocumented families from unjust arrest, detention, and deportation by sheltering them in church buildings if necessary. Churches can also choose not to house families, but to provide support to congregations that do.

The New Sanctuary Movement coalition announced the program at news conferences May 9 in five cities—Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago, and New York—where there are large immigrant communities and interfaith coalitions. There are now coalitions in 31 cities and the movement plans to hold press conferences in a few of these cities every month on a rolling basis.

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles is providing legal help and support for families participating in the movement.

The sanctuary effort is similar but different from one in the 1980s. In the original sanctuary movement, Unitarian Universalists joined Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish congregations in providing sanctuary to Central American refugees who were fleeing wars and repression in their home countries. The sanctuary movement protected tens of thousands of individuals and families who were largely being denied asylum by the government.

Susan Leslie, the UUA’s director for Congregational Advocacy and Witness, said that thus far no UU congregations have pledged to house immigrants who are in danger of being deported, but several have agreed to serve in a supporting role to their families or to congregations housing immigrants. Dozens have requested information and written to say that they are considering participation.

The Board of Trustees of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles signed a New Sanctuary Movement pledge of support several months ago, said the Rev. Monica Cummings. Cummings participated in an interfaith service that launched the New Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles on May 9. She said church leaders are creating cards for members of First Church to pass out that list immigrants’ rights and the phone number of a local immigration attorney.

The UU Church of Long Beach, which housed an immigrant in the 1980s, passed a resolution unanimously on May 6, agreeing not to house someone this time, but to support congregations that do, according to President Phyllis Daniel. She noted that the congregation had done a lot of work on this issue before the vote was taken. The social action committee adopted immigration as its focus several months earlier. They were in the process of holding educational forums on immigration for the congregation when the vote was taken.

Daniel said, “I think the vote was unanimous because of our action in the 1980s, the knowledge that people within the congregation had been studying it carefully, and that the people who presented the resolution are very respected. There was lots of opportunity for people to discuss this issue before we voted on the resolution.”

The Rev. Jose Ballester said First UU Church of Houston will help support families that are broken up by arrests and deportation. “We’re also doing a lot of advocacy work with the Texas Legislature,” he said. “There are some pretty punitive measures being proposed for undocumented workers.” He said the congregation will attempt to monitor U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids whenever possible in the Houston area so that immigrant rights can be monitored and protected. He said the congregation will vote June 3 on specific measures it will take.

The UU Congregation of Danbury, Conn., is exploring involvement either in hosting immigrants or serving in a support role. Danbury has a large undocumented immigrant population and has been the site of ICE raids.

Leslie predicted that more UU congregations will get involved as the movement grows. Her office is coordinating a major outreach campaign in the next few weeks. She said she expects more UU congregations will opt to participate as allied communities of support rather than house families.

UUA President William G. Sinkford sent a statement that was read at the San Diego and Chicago interfaith events on May 9 introducing the New Sanctuary Movement.

“Grounded in the Unitarian Universalist affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” Sinkford wrote, “the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations endorses the New Sanctuary Movement, a movement of prophetic hospitality and public witness to bring about real change in the immigration policy of the United States. The UUA joins other people of faith and conscience in calling for the passage of just and comprehensive immigration reform and an immediate stop to federal raids that separate parents from their children and create a climate of fear and repression.”

A workshop called “Welcoming the Stranger: A Just Immigration Policy,” will be held at this year’s General Assembly in Portland, Ore., on June 22, as will a meeting on the New Sanctuary program and immigration reform. See General Assembly schedule for details.

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