When houses of prayer become places of shelter (The Economist)

THE GETHSEMANE Lutheran Church, a plain six-storey building in downtown Seattle whose dark red exterior is adorned by a simple cross, offers something more than worship and community gatherings. It also houses one of more than 1,100 religious communities across the United States which are actively committed to succouring vulnerable immigrants who fear deportation.

For a place of worship to join the Sanctuary movement (whose supporters are mostly Christian churches but also include some synagogues and mosques) can mean helping with legal advice or simply providing a space to drop by. In a few cases, churches provide longer-term physical security for people who might otherwise be arrested and expelled.

Gethsemane, for example, has served as a home for the past few months to José Robles, a 43-year-old man from Mexico who trekked across the desert into the United States 18 years ago. Facing a deportation order, he took refuge in the premises with the hope of biding the time needed to secure a U-Visa, a status he claims on the basis of having been the victim of a violent robbery.

Places of worship are regarded by the American Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) as so-called sensitive locations, where they would avoid making arrests.

In the United States, the Sanctuary campaign gathered pace in the 1980s, when civilians fled north from civil wars in Central America. In some cases, after they were sent back home they were murdered by right-wing death squads.

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