The Spectacle Blog

What Happens to Illegal Immigrants Who Seek Sanctuary in Churches?

By on 5.15.14 | 3:54PM

An illegal immigrant on the run from federal immigration agents has taken up residence in Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. The congregation welcomed Daniel Nyoy Ruiz and his family on Tuesday, according to Tucson News Now:

Pastor Alison Harrington said the church hasn't given someone sanctuary since the 1980's. She said Daniel can live here with his family for as long as he needs. 

"We think he's very safe. There  hasn't been very many cases of immigration officials entering onto church property to get someone. So we feel that he is safe here," Harrington said. 

Not surprisingly, immigration officials were not thrilled that the family, instead of reporting to their office for voluntary deportion, went to church:

"Churches don't have the legal right or the moral authority to impact removal orders that have been handed down by the courts," Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, told Reuters. 

Putting aside for a moment the obvious public relations disaster that would ensue if police broke down the doors of the local church to make an arrest, what, if any, is the precedent for those who prefer the mercy of God to the justice of man? 

The idea of a suspect running to the local church to claim sanctuary from the law is seen in Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fleeing to churches was once part of the justice system in European and English common law, although it has never really been legal in the United States.

An unofficial tradition of civil disobedience seems to exist at Southside Presbyterian Church, however.

The Tucson church was the first of many nationwide churches of various denominations that sheltered illegal aliens from war-torn Latin America in the 1980s, according to the New York Times. Government officials at the time objected, but they did little besides threaten fines and deportation.

In 2006, illegal immigrant Elvira Arallano took up residence in the "spirit of sanctuary" in a Chicago church to protest deportations in the area. It must have worked, as she was deported only after she left the house of worship a year later, according to the Chicago Tribune. In 2008 another woman took shelter in the same church, where she stayed for almost two years before leaving voluntarily. 

Churches seem to hold a certain amount of de facto power to protest controversial policies by harboring illegal immigrants, but American citizens on the run are held to a different standard. A few churches served as sanctuaries for soldiers resisting service during the Vietnam War, including a group of soldiers in Honolulu in 1969. After a few weeks, the police did indeed break the doors down to arrest the men.

Religious leaders who see themselves as accountable to God first probably won't have much luck harboring criminals, but they seem to get a little clemency for those involved with the controversial issue of illegal immigration.

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