Local congregations mull protection for the undocumented in the age of Trump

About 150 people from more than two dozen congregations filled the basement of the Clifton Mosque Dec. 18 to hear more about sanctuary congregations from organizers, immigrants and veterans from Cincinnati’s 1980s sanctuary movement.

click to enlarge Sister Alice Gerdeman, a key member of Cincinnati’s 1980s-era sanctuary movement, speaks to a crowd of about 150 faith leaders at Clifton Mosque. - Photo: Nick Swartsell
Photo: Nick Swartsell
Sister Alice Gerdeman, a key member of Cincinnati’s 1980s-era sanctuary movement, speaks to a crowd of about 150 faith leaders at Clifton Mosque.
As a child 35 years ago, Salvador Leavitt-Alcantara stood with his brother just off a runway at the El Salvador International Airport, trying to glimpse their mother boarding a nearby plane and desperately imagining an earthquake that would keep her from flying away.

“The earthquake never came,” he says. “The airplane door closed, and it started to move. I remember running along with it down the platform, and then following it with my eyes full of tears.” 

With that flight, Alcantara’s mother fled poverty and violence associated with the Salvadoran civil war. She left her children with their grandmother, hoping to send money back and eventually get them to the U.S as well. They were reunited here seven years later, thanks in part to a 1980s-era movement in which U.S. faith leaders and community activists shielded undocumented people from deportation. 

Alcantara recounted his newly resonant story at a recent meeting in Clifton calling for the local return of those so-called sanctuary congregations. As president-elect Donald Trump repeats pledges to form “deportation squads” that will round up and kick out millions of undocumented residents, there are efforts across the country to reawaken the sanctuary movement, which was especially active in Cincinnati in the 1980s.

“I’m here to defend the right of parents who have taken the risk to leave their countries behind to escape poverty, to escape indignity, to escape civil war so they can provide a better life for their children,” Alcantara, who now lives in Cincinnati and attends Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, said at the meeting. 

The Dec. 18 event, coordinated by faith coalition the Amos Project, drew roughly 150 people from more than two dozen congregations practicing Islam, Judaism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Buddhism and other faith traditions. The crowd filled the basement of the Clifton Mosque to hear more about sanctuary congregations from organizers, immigrants such as Alcantara and veterans from Cincinnati’s 1980s sanctuary movement.

As rabbis shook hands with Buddhists, Muslim men in beards and kufis grabbed extra chairs for Unitarians and Evangelical Christians. 

“We were expecting about half this many people,” Rev. Troy Jackson of Amos said as more came in. “What we’re coming together to talk about is what it looks like to have a list of congregations that are ready and available to house someone who is in jeopardy — for a night, for a week, for a month.” 

Faith leaders in attendance said the need could become urgent as incoming President Trump ramps up talk about deporting undocumented immigrants, barring refugees from places like war-torn Syria and creating registries for Muslims. 

“What we are going to do is get the people that are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers,” Trump said Nov. 13. “We have a lot of these people, probably 2 million, it could be even 3 million. We are getting them out of our country.” 

Data from the Migration Policy Institute shows that about 820,000 undocumented immigrants have criminal records, and that the majority of them are related to violations of immigration law. Despite this, Trump has pledged to eventually deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents of the U.S.

Immigration enforcement spiked sharply under the Obama administration, which oversaw the arrest and deportation of more than 2.5 million undocumented people between 2008 and 2014 — more than any other president in U.S. history.  But Obama also stayed deportation for some 700,000 undocumented minors in 2012 with his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which Trump has vowed to overturn. 

Against this backdrop, those who have welcomed immigrants are bracing for the worst. As they do, they’re eyeing the possibility that places of worship could become unique points of refuge. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is the agency charged with finding, detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. However, ICE policy states that officers will not enter certain “sensitive locations” just to apprehend someone for their immigration status. 

All places of worship are to be avoided, according to a 2011 ICE policy directive, except in situations in which immigrants are wanted for specific violent crimes or are suspected of terrorist plots. 

But some at the meeting wondered if ICE’s policy would remain under the new administration.

 “If it gets really difficult, and the worst happens, we may need homes to be opened up,” Jackson said, citing earlier sanctuary practices in many cities in which families were moved among various congregants’ houses to elude authorities looking to deport them.

That tactic recalls an earlier American sanctuary movement — the Underground Railroad — which passed through Cincinnati. But the concept of sanctuary is much older than that, dating from the time of the Roman Empire and stretching across continents and creeds.

“When we think about acts that generate sanctuaries in our communities, these are sourced not just in one tradition, but in all faith traditions,” says Temple Sholom Rabbi Miriam Terlinchamp, who is president of Amos.

There are an estimated 400 sanctuary congregations across the country, according to faith-based resettlement agency Church World Service. That’s almost as many as the estimated 500 congregations that gave sanctuary during the 1980s movement’s heyday.

A small group of concerned churchgoers first came together in the Queen City in the spring of 1981, according to Sister Alice Gerdeman, who was heavily involved in the effort. Their aim was to help families fleeing civil war and oppressive regimes, often supported by the U.S. government, in countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. 

The group brought immigrant families to Cincinnati and sheltered them from Reagan administration deportation actions. The first family to come was a woman, her two children, her husband and his sister from El Salvador. Gerdeman says the family is still in Cincinnati, and that she still stays in touch with them. Their children are now grown up and have kids of their own.

“It’s very different now,” Gerdeman says. “But we have the same drive.”

Members of faith organizations left the meeting at Clifton Mosque in different positions. Some congregations, including the Mosque and Mount Auburn’s Church of Our Savior, are already sanctuaries. Others are moving toward that goal, which requires worship centers have a private place for a person or people to live, including shower and kitchen facilities. A number of organizations already have these facilities and are partnered with organizations like the Interfaith Hospitality Network to serve the homeless. Those churches are good candidates to become sanctuary congregations, organizers say.

Still others might not have facilities to host people, but are mulling becoming “solidarity congregations” that would raise funds and provide other support. 

Jackson says the goal is to get at least 10 congregations willing to be sanctuary sites in time for a public event Jan. 20, the day of Trump’s inauguration. Other public events and trainings will follow.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of hiding an individual or family from the federal government, the recent meeting was a place for soul-searching and renewed commitments to values.

Pastor William Eavenson, who started Anglican church The Mission Cincinnati in Evanston earlier this year, says attending was part of a larger personal spiritual journey. 

“I came here because Jesus was passionate about justice,” he says. “My background is Evangelical, but from a variety of sources. I’m troubled by so many of the church experiences I’ve been a part of that have been tied to cultural positions of privilege and have been so quick to demonize anything that is a movement toward authentically Biblical justice. I’m here to learn.”

When Cincinnati’s earlier sanctuary movement was starting, it wasn’t always easy convincing those involved in faith communities to go against federal authority, Gerdeman says. Many had fears about breaking the law, but faith won out in the end.

Attendees at the recent meeting echoed those sentiments.

“It was illegal to move slaves from south to north,” Clifton Mosque Imam Ismaeel Chartier says. “When our Jewish brothers and sisters were seeking refuge from the evil of the Nazis it was illegal to hide them. Some things are greater than the laws of the land.” ©