Home Of Sanctuary Movement Revives Strategy To Stop Deportation

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In Tucson, Ariz., a man set to be deported has taken sanctuary in a church. Immigrant rights activists are hailing the move as a new way to fight the Obama administration's deportation policies.


A church in Tucson is reviving an old approach to fight the Obama administration's deportation policy. Back in the 1980s, Southside Presbyterian Church founded what became the Sanctuary Movement. It protected Central American refugees from removal. Last night, the congregation welcomed a 36-year-old Mexican man who is facing deportation. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.


TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Southside Presbyterian Church was filled with people welcoming Daniel Neyoy as he entered with his wife, Karla, and his son, Carlos.


ROBBINS: Pastor Alison Harrington tried to reassure the family, just hours before a formal deportation order took effect.

ALISON HARRINGTON: Welcome into sanctuary. Leave worry behind and enter into this place with faith, for we are with you.

ROBBINS: Daniel Neyoy then told the congregation through an interpreter that he was grateful for the sanctuary easing his fear.

DANIEL NEYOY: (Through translator) The fear of being separated from my family.

ROBBINS: President Obama has repeatedly said he does not want to separate law-abiding families with roots in the U.S. Neyoy's lawyer, Margo Cowan, says that sure seems to describe this case.

MARGO COWAN: He's been here for 14 years, has a U.S. citizen child, has paid taxes for 10, he is a supervisor of maintenance in an apartment building, is a volunteer with the police department. He's active in his church and sings in the choir.

ROBBINS: Under a three-year-old Obama administration policy, ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, officers are supposed to focus on removing criminals, people who are threats to national security and those who illegally came to the U.S. recently. It's called prosecutorial discretion and Cowan says Daniel Neyoy is a good candidate for it.

COWAN: He's an asset to our community. Close his case.

ROBBINS: Cowan says she's had success getting cases closed in Tucson. But there appears to be no uniformity across the country. Data from immigration courts shows rates of granting prosecutorial discretion vary widely from city to city. ICE sent us a written statement this morning saying Daniel Neyoy's case is now under review. In the meantime, officers could arrest him, though they've been told not to go into what former ICE director John Morton called sensitive locations. And let's face it, it would be a public relations nightmare to arrest someone inside a church, especially this church.

HARRINGTON: We will be united together. We will commit ourselves to work together, to pray together, to sing together, to struggle together until not one more father is taken from his family. (Spanish spoken)

CONGREGATION: (Spanish spoken)

ROBBINS: In 1982, Southside Presbyterian Church became the first of about 500 churches nationwide to declare themselves sanctuaries for Central Americans fleeing from war. Eight leaders were eventually convicted of alien smuggling. Pastor Alison Harrington says this is a different situation. Those refugees were new to the U.S. People like Daniel Neyoy have homes and families here. Harrington says the church doesn't intend to start another sanctuary movement. But there are thousands of others like Daniel Neyoy across the U.S.

HARRINGTON: Maybe if we don't have immigration reform in the next foreseeable future, maybe churches will begin to do actions like this more and more out of sheer necessity.

ROBBINS: Harrington says the congregation is willing to face whatever consequences may come from providing sanctuary to Daniel Neyoy. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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