Tuscon Church Provides Sanctuary to Immigrants

I certainly write enough criticism of churches and religious leaders when they do the wrong thing, so let me offer praise to a church in Tuscon, Arizona that is doing the right thing by providing sanctuary to a woman who faces a deportation that would tear from her family.

A Presbyterian church in Tuscon, Arizona is taking a bold stand in support of undocumented immigrants, announcing on Monday that, for the second time in three months, it will grant “sanctuary” to an undocumented immigrant currently facing deportation by federal officials.

Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto, an undocumented immigrant who is said to have a husband, two children (ages 9 and 11), a house, and no criminal history, is scheduled to be deported back to Mexico this Friday at the hands of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. But Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tuscon, said Monday that she and her congregation disagree with ICE’s position, and plan to pressure immigration agents into delaying or rescinding the deportation order by housing Loreto in their church.

“We seek to follow Christ who commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves and also to offer radical hospitality to those in need,” Harrington told ThinkProgress. “The scriptures tell us to care for the widow and the orphan, and our immigration system creates widows and orphans every day … So we are standing by undocumented families and not allowing them to be torn apart.”…

For Loreto, who came to Tucson in 1999, members of Southside Presbyterian plan on replicating the same comprehensive campaign they mustered in support of Ruiz earlier this year. They intend to keep a 24-hour presence with her at the church, advocate on her behalf to media outlets and political leaders such as Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, and send pastors to accompany her when she meets with ICE officials. The church will also continue to work closely with a group of local immigration law experts throughout the process, leaning on them for legal guidance. The group of lawyers meets regularly at the church, and advises the congregation on cases where immigrants might be assisted by sanctuary.

The effort in Tuscon addresses current immigration issues, but housing immigrants at Southside Presbyterian also has special historical significance. When a series of violent conflicts tore through Central America during the 1980s, thousands fled northward to the U.S.-Mexico border in search of asylum. But the U.S. federal government, which provided training and aid to several Central American regimes at the time, refused to grant most of these immigrants refugee status — many in the Ronald Reagan administration argued they were actually “economic migrants.” But a handful churches along the border — led by Southside Presbyterian, then pastored by Rev. John Fife — decided to take the immigrants in anyway, housing them in their rectories and on their pews and daring the government to raid their sanctuaries. Their efforts inspired other worship communities to follow suit, and an underground railroad-style network of hundreds of churches slowly emerged across the country to harbor immigrants. The interfaith campaign was eventually dubbed “The Sanctuary Movement,” and helped put pressure on President Reagan and Congress to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Bravo, Christians. Well done. And this sure puts the lie to those who claim to be “pro-family” while advocating that immigrant families be torn apart.

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  • Tuscon…Tuscon…Tuscon…Tuscon…Tucson…Tuscon

    Reminds me of that Meat Loaf song, One Out of Six Ain’t Bad

  • There was a story out yesterday that a California man was moved to take in five members of a family after his 5-year-old son asked why people were screaming at those people on the buses.

    For his good deed the fine fundigelicals are sending him death threats and trying to organize a boycott of his business.

  • parasiteboy

    I must be feeling a bit thorny today because one of my thoughts was “here’s another exception that religions get where they can harbor people from law enforcement”. Is “religious sanctuary” really even a thing in the eyes of the law?

    Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to see this church take a stand and I hope Loreta does not get deported and separated from her family. I also hope it gets a lot of national news coverage as this may help in starting to change peoples opinions.

  • busterggi


    So hard to find Christians acting the way they say they should.

  • The Sanctuary Movement began in Tucson in the early 80s as a wide coalition of congregations and synagogues worked to protect unregistered refugees from the civil wars and political turmoil in Central America. This is just a revival of those values.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Is “religious sanctuary” really even a thing in the eyes of the law?

    No, but raiding churches is bad PR so it works (sorta) anyway.

    The Masons might get away with it, but I doubt any other non-religious one would, and I’m not at all sure any non-Christian religious (e.g. Buddhist) would either.

  • Is “religious sanctuary” really even a thing in the eyes of the law?

    Not formally. The idea is, however, embedded in English Civil Law, which the United States inherited. As a result, there is a type of informal recognition: if the parson, lead rabbi or other senior cleric says that someone has been given sanctuary, law enforcement will usually work with the clergy in question to resolve the situation rather than charge in with guns blazing. Sanctuary is quite limited, however: if the person steps one foot out of the actual church building, they are subject to immediate arrest. Since house arrest is generally not a long-term solution, it is rare for sanctuary stand-offs to go on more than a couple of days.

    Many member congregations in the Sanctuary Movement of the 80s (see link in #5 above) were part of an underground railroad as a result, with refugees shuttled under cover of darkness north into Canada, which at the time was much less likely to send them back to be raped, tortured and disappeared. This allowed the clergy say, “Sorry, this person has claimed sanctuary” one day and then “Sorry, the person is no longer here” the next.

  • Atheist though I be, I sing in the fine choir of a local UCC church…very progressive. All are welcomed, even me, and LGBT people are in top leadership positions. They practice their Christianity by accepting and embracing all people; feeding and housing people, giving scholarships for college textbooks, providing free concerts; partnering with local food pantry, advocating for universal health care and other humane policies, etc. — all without evangelicizing. They are truly nice, thoughtful people. Deluded as to religious thinking, of course, but they choose to live as loving people.

    But Cuttlefish reminds us that other churches continue to act in remarkably un-Christian like ways:


  • parasiteboy

    D. C. Sessions@6

    The PR issues were my thought also. I remember seeing the picture of Elian Gonzalez crying as an armed police officer was trying to take him away.

    Gregory in Seattle@5 & 7

    Thanks for the information. Your link in #5 is giving me a 404 error.

  • zbeeblebrox

    Ummm.. Wouldn’t that be Tucson instead of Tuscon?