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Dozens of churches declare themselves sanctuaries for immigrants

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JaNae Bates
JaNae Bates, a minister at United Church of Christ, said the role of a sanctuary congregation is to provide spiritual and moral advocacy. The group announced Tuesday an effort for churches to become sanctuary places for immigrants seeking refuge.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

Lutheran Minister Grant Stevensen acknowledges that many congregations haven't paid much attention to immigration. 

After all, Barack Obama has deported more people than any other president. 

It wasn't until they heard Donald Trump's immigration talk on the campaign trail that churches were pushed into action, Stevensen said.

Now, about 30 Minnesota congregations have joined an effort to either become or support sanctuary churches — meaning the places of worship will serve as a refuge for people in immediate danger. Some churches will provide other resources, including legal help.

"Many of us standing here have been asleep and we have been woken up by the terror and the fear that immigrants are feeling now because of the rhetoric that is being thrown around for the last year in this country," Stevensen said, "and we intend to stay awake."

ISAIAH, a faith-based group that advocates for racial and economic equality, is behind the effort to provide support to those who fear deportation. 

Almost 100 supporters joined Stevensen and several other pastors at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in St. Paul on Tuesday to declare their sanctuary status. With 45 days to go until Trump takes office, they say it's time to open their doors to immigrants living in fear of deportation.

The role of a sanctuary congregation will be to provide spiritual and moral advocacy, said JaNae Bates, a United Church of Christ minister and ISAIAH communications director. 

"As people of faith, we believe that every human being has sacred worth and is created in the image of God," Bates said. "The current situation in our nation where millions of immigrant families live in fear of separation, are vulnerable to abuse and unable to fully live out their God-given gifts is morally unacceptable."

Some clergy members are trying to find ways to present the effort in a non-partisan way.

They're also trying to answer legal questions: Congregations still don't know if they'd be breaking any laws by providing refuge. 

But the idea of sanctuary churches is nothing new. Some churches were founded by immigrants, and they continue to help people from Asian countries and most recently Sudan. 

Elected officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul are reaffirming their status as "sanctuary cities." They have ordinances that separate the work of their police officers from that of federal immigration officials. 

St. Paul City Council members are also set to vote on a resolution Wednesday that supports the resettlement of Syrian refugees. 

It's tough to predict how exactly what President-elect Trump will do about immigration.   

Even if he moves to deport large numbers of people, federal officials still need to follow the law, said Bruce Nestor, an immigration attorney in Minneapolis.

"It's simply impossible to deport 3 or 4 million people and follow any rule of law whatsoever," Nestor said. "They have a right to see an immigration judge, they have the right to go to court, they have the right to hire an attorney to argue on their behalf."