ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
American churches are again defying federal immigration authorities. Across the country, a handful of congregations are opening their doors to offer safe haven to undocumented Central American immigrants who are under deportation orders. The new sanctuary movement echoes an earlier civil disobedience campaign by churches in the 1980s. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The newest church in America to openly challenge federal immigration laws is St. Andrew's Presbyterian in Austin. Ten days ago, the congregation took in a Guatemalan mother and her 9-year-old son - Hilda and Ivonne Ramirez.
HILDA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "I'm really afraid that they'll deport me. That's why I came here," she says, sitting at a table in the parish hall sipping coffee. "I don't think immigration agents will break down the door and take me away. Here, I feel safe." The mother and son's new residence inside the church in a middle-class suburb in north Austin is a safe gamble.
A 2011 memo from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement states that agents will avoid arresting anyone at churches, schools and hospitals - that is unless the person is a terror suspect or a dangerous felon, which really doesn't describe Hilda Ramirez. She's a tiny, 28-year-old Maya who says she fled an abusive father-in-law, violent crime and a bleak economy 19 months ago. The government denied her and Ivonne's asylum request last year. Ever since, she has feared an arrest by ICE agents. They know where she is because she wears an electronic ankle monitor. Reverend Jim Rigby, pastor of St. Andrew's, says they are searching for a lawyer who will request a stay for the mother and son from the Board of Immigration appeals. But no one knows how long that will take.
JIM RIGBY: We're trying to make it feel like home as best we can. And I think that'll maybe work for a little while. But at some point, it's going to feel like a jail with a lot of people that like you.
BURNETT: ICE touched off a furor among immigrant advocates and applause from immigration hawks earlier this year when it began rounding up recently arrived Central Americans who'd fled gang violence but were turned down for asylum. Rigby says St. Andrew's is publicizing the case of Hilda Ramirez as a way to urge the government to back off and review her case.
RIGBY: We don't see ourselves so much violating the law as appealing to them to use their discernment to say this is a situation where sending somebody back to Guatemala could very well mean their death.
BURNETT: The new sanctuary movement is having some success. Church World Service reports that since the current ICE crackdown of 13 immigrants who have sought protection in churches, 11 have gotten stays of deportation after their cases were made public. It's still a movement with a little M. So far, 11 religious congregations across the country have harbored immigrants. This is a far cry from the 1980s when some 500 churches and synagogues declared themselves safe havens for Salvadorans and Guatemalans escaping civil war and political violence. Allison Harrington is minister of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, one of the founding sanctuary churches. She says their congregation has resumed sheltering asylum-seekers fleeing federal agents.
ALLISON HARRINGTON: And again, churches' congregations across the United States are standing up to say, this is not reflective of who we believe we are as a people and this is not reflective of our faith as Christians.
BURNETT: Back then, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service came after activist pastors. The government, for instance, infiltrated Southside Presbyterian in Tucson and convicted its minister, John Fife, of, quote, "smuggling and harboring illegal aliens." Today, if the government continues its controversial deportation policies, more churches are ready to step up. Church World Service says it knows of more than 300 congregations in 30 states anxious to support the new sanctuary movement. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.