SARATOGA SPRINGS – A boombox sits on the sill next to a soccer ball. The board games Monopoly and Yahtzee await nearby. A pair of cots recline beneath a ceiling fan in the 500 square-foot room bookended by a quartet of glass windows that look out to the city’s east side.
Outdoors, beneath a sign heralding the Presbyterian New England Congregational Church (PNECC) is an announcement that reads: All Welcome. Upstairs, the Rev. Annie Reilly and Terry Diggory spend the afternoon re-purposing the room into a space where undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation may seek sanctuary.
“I think it’s an excellent opportunity for the church to put its money where its mouth is,” Reilly says. “We talk about welcoming strangers. What better way than to welcome sanctuary seekers.”
Churches as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants were prevalent in the southwestern part of the country during the 1980s when Central American residents fleeing political repression and violence in their homeland sought asylum in the U.S. More recently, churches vowing to offer sanctuary to immigrants have begun to dot the national landscape, coast-to-coast.
In Saratoga Springs, two churches have stepped forward with a sanctuary pledge for undocumented immigrants who are targets of deportation.
“We’re in the midst of an immigration crisis, and it’s not just a matter of region. People all over are affected,” says Diggory, who coordinates PNECC’s Welcoming Immigrants task force. “And this is not just immigrants but for the community as a whole, to encompass the spirit of ‘welcome’ and not just fear.”
The sanctuary policy was affirmed by the church Governing Board on June 5, joining with the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Saratoga Springs, who in April made a formal statement in support of sanctuary for immigrants.
“We’re excited the two churches are working together - partnering to support those of us under the threat of deportation, or who feel threatened by it – whether they’re here legally or not,” says the Rev. Joseph Cleveland, minister at UUC. “I hope it emboldens other congregations to take this step. These are people who are a part of our community - and I’m not talking about the track - people living here year-round, people who are now afraid to go to the doctor if they’re sick for fear of getting picked up.”
The two churches’ public commitment comes one week after special agents and officers with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations and Enforcement and Removal Operations arrested 16 men in Saratoga Springs with alleged administrative immigration violations. Nine of those men are facing potential federal felony charges for re-entry after deportation, or visa fraud.
The concept of “sanctuary,” as more commonly aligned in the context of sanctuary cities or sanctuary college campuses, is not a legal designation but is more an amorphous entity with no set definition or rules to follow, says Brendan Venter, associate attorney and immigration specialist with the Whiteman Osterman & Hanna firm in Albany.
“Sanctuary is a concept more than anything else that covers a range of different policies or guidelines that these entities can choose to follow, or not follow, on a case-by-case basis,” Venter says. “A college campus for example can label itself a sanctuary campus and institute policies that are protective of foreign nationals or individuals regardless of immigration status, but there is also a wide spectrum of policies they can implement.”
One such policy to be implemented at PNECC would be the refusal to hand over information about individuals’ immigration status to federal authorities without a warrant, or some legal compulsion to do so. “If an ICE agent showed up with a judicial warrant we would need to (honor that) warrant, but until you show that warrant we are not permitting contact with that person,” Diggory says.
“Designating oneself as a ‘sanctuary’ doesn’t mean that people without immigration status are immune from federal law. Federal law still applies to them,” Venter says. “The concept of sanctuary more applies to how much that entity – whether it be a city, a town, a college campus, or a church is willing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities or enforce federal immigration law beyond what’s absolutely necessary or required of them.”
“We would accept a person in sanctuary only if that person has a good case for some sort of appeal to ICE authorities for administrative relief,” says Diggory, explaining that there can be a punitive lag in between the time a person in special circumstances can apply for a visa.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operates under guidelines that recognize places like churches and schools as “sensitive locations” where agents would not normally carry out enforcement actions.
Should a person seek sanctuary, the church will not operate in secrecy, Diggory said. Rather the church is, and will remain, publicly forthcoming in order to raise public awareness of the immigration crisis. He knows there can be no guarantees, however. “Those guidelines are entirely up to ICE. If they decide not to follow those guidelines… we cannot say this is going to absolutely protect you from being taken into custody.”
“Traditionally places such as churches or courts have been places where ICE agents would not go to seek out, or detain people,” explains Venter. “But, if you read the news today, you’ll see all sorts of stories about people being picked up going to court dates, or at churches and other places of religious worship due to the heightened enforcement of all immigration laws we’ve seen over the past six months or so. “