US churches defy federal law and offer sanctuary to illegal immigrants

Churches across America are offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants facing deportation in the wake of recent federal immigration raids.

People hold signs as they gather outside a Federal Building while protesting against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on Central American refugees in LA, California January 26, 2016.Reuters

At least fifty churches in the country have vowed to provide shelter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to Noel Anderson from the Church World Service group for refugees.

This resurgence in the sanctuary movement comes after more than 100 people from Guatamala, El Salvador and Honduras who had entered the US and stayed illegally were detained following federal immigration raids run by ICE.

Increased gang violence in these Central American regions has led to increasing numbers of people crossing the border illegally and seeking sanctuary.

This has motivated church leaders to defy federal law and offer physical protection to immigrants on their premises.

"We are willing to fight this tooth and nail," Rev Fred Morris, who leads North Hills United Methodist Church, told the LA Times. "If ICE wants to come get them, they're going to have to break down the church door."

Morris survived detention and torture in Brazil during its military dictatorship in 1974 and knows firsthand the horrors of violence in Latin America.

His congregation is one among at least three churches in LA to offer refuge to Central Americans with deportation orders.

The latest immigration raids were the "tipping point", according to Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor based in LA.

"It was basta – enough," she said, summing up her community's feeling toward the raids.

According to the Church World Service group for refugees, these raids violate human rights when they are used as a scare tactic against the immigrant community and when they deport thousands of Central American refugees back to the gang violence they were escaping.

Anderson said he had received "at least a dozen requests" in the week following the raids.

The modern sanctuary movement began in the 1980s when churches across the US provided sanctuary for Guatamalans and Salvadorans fleeing civil war.

A church cannot legally offer sanctuary from federal immigration officials, however ICE has held an unofficial policy that it avoids entering public schools, hospitals and churches.