U.S. churches offer refuge to Central Americans targeted for deportation by Obama administration

Immigrants who have been caught crossing the border illegally are housed inside the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas, in this file photo taken July 15, 2014.Reuters

Churches in the United States have offered their facilities as sanctuary for Central American undocumented immigrants who are being targeted by the Obama administration for deportation.

The Washington Post reported that the U.S. government is set hold large-scale raids to deport hundreds of undocumented families as early as January.

The plan by the Department of Homeland Security to remove Central American immigrants has drawn fire from Democratic presidential candidates and human rights groups.

Leaders of the church-based Sanctuary Movement, which sheltered at least 10 immigrants facing deportation in the last 18 months, said Friday that they are open to all who seek refuge like Mary and Joseph in the Bible.

"As pastors we know that each and every family is a holy family," said the Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, according to Reuters. "We open our doors to today's Josephs and Marys. The gift we have to offer on Christmas Day is the gift of sanctuary."

The Movement, which has about 50 congregations in U.S. cities, was in the spotlight last January when it provided refuge in Philadelphia to a Honduran women whose two children were born in the U.S. She eventually earned a two-year reprieve from deportation.

According to Rev. Noel Anderson, a coordinator for the affiliated Church World Service, there are about 300 congregations that support sanctuary in more than 20 states in the U.S.

Since 2014, thousands of immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have been entering the U.S. from Mexico. Many of them were unaccompanied minors and families. They fled from extreme poverty, gangs and drug violence in their home countries.

Most of them were detained after they sought asylum at the border and were released to surrounding communities.

A U.S. law in 2008 prohibits sending back undocumented Central American children.

Anonymous sources in the U.S. government were quoted as saying that new campaign by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is an expansion from individual targets to families with undocumented members who have already been ordered to leave.

A spokesperson said the deportation targets individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security, "whether alone or with family members."

Republican U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson said the move would help "eliminate the incentive that results from allowing 95.6 percent of these illegal immigrants to stay."