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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, a group of religious congregations announced what they are calling a new sanctuary movement. They pledged to provide legal, emotional and financial help to immigrants facing deportation. And sometimes, they said, they'd even offer them physical sanctuary. The new campaign was announced at coordinated news conferences in cities around the country.

NPR's Margot Adler attended the one in New York and she has this report.

MARGOT ADLER: It started with a service at the Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul the Apostle with bells and words by Pastor Gil Martinez.

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. GIL MARTINEZ (Pastor, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church): As the ringing of the bell announces a new thing and breaks the silence, so, too, do we announce our new resolve to speak out about injustice, to no longer be silent and complicit in injustice, to welcome our brothers and sisters who are in this land with us, and to commit ourselves to welcome them in the name and the spirit of our common and diverse religious traditions.

ADLER: At least eight New York churches signed a pledge to take a moral public stand for immigrants' rights, and there were prayers from Christians, Muslims and Jews to honor the stranger like this one by Rabbi Michael Feinberg.

Rabbi MICHAEL FEINBERG (New York): For us, sanctuary is an act of radical hospitality, the welcoming of the stranger who is like ourselves, the stranger in our midst.

ADLER: Two families seeking aid appeared. One of them, Joe Liang, and his wife, Mei Xing, came with their two children. Liang, who is undocumented, said he had been put in detention and was facing deportation after driving with a relative who was pulled aside for speeding.

Mr. JOE LIANG (Illegal Immigrant): We do not want our family to be apart. And my wife and I have been here for more than 10 years already. We work and support our family together. Our children were born here, and we never commit any kind of crime.

ADLER: While the statements and prayers were strong, it was clear that many of the congregations here are just coming to terms with what they planned. Several made a distinction between the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, which helped political refugees from Central America flee persecution, and often housed them in churches. That movement was underground. It committed civil disobedience, and ultimately, eight church activists were convicted of criminal conspiracy.

David Rommereim, minister with the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn, said his congregation was just in the first steps of discussion as to what they would provide, but he didn't think it would be physical sanctuary. But when I asked about sanctuary...

There is no legal standing at this point. Is that correct?

Mr. DAVID ROMMEREIM (Minister, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Brooklyn): That's right. That's right. It's a moral stand not a physical. We can't protect them. We have to follow the law.

ADLER: But Donna Schaper, senior minister of the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, said providing physical sanctuary and civil disobedience could happen if the immigration authorities did - in her words - something stupid like arresting them.

Ms. DONNA SCHAPER (Senior Minister, Judson Memorial Church, Manhattan): At this point, it is the new sanctuary - moral, spiritual, sometimes material, sometimes legal assistance. So right now with these families, we are going to court with them, we are getting letters from people to them, we are telling their story.

ADLER: So it's clear that for the most part, this will be a legal movement. With the country split over immigration, this announcement comes as both sides in the debate are becoming more forceful - with some calling for finding a way to legalize the 12 million illegal immigrants and others calling for more deportations and stricter enforcement of immigration laws.

Here in New York, the emphasis was on families. Donna Schaper of Judson Church said that 200,000 immigrants have been deported from New York in the last year, an increase of 20 percent, with the irreparable destruction of once intact families. When reporters asked about the rule of law and the thousands of law-abiding immigrants who'd take the legal road, Pastor Martinez of St. Paul the Apostle said, we don't disregard the law but the law of God says, there are no borders.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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