Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s, announced his church would offer sanctuary to immigrants seeking shelter. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

The pastors of two Buffalo churches said Friday their churches will  offer "sanctuary" for immigrants they say are victims of a new persecution by the federal government.

Gathering at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ on Richmond Avenue, about 30 people ‑ mostly ministers and a rabbi ‑  condemned President Trump’s executive order to deport “all removable aliens” as contrary to teachings of any great faith.

“This new alt-right, neo-Nazi, racist administration is trying to dehumanize individuals who simply want to provide for their families,” said Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s.

Gonzales and the Rev. Matt Lincoln, pastor of Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue, said their congregations  will shelter any refugees or undocumented immigrants seeking protection from the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Lincoln said the congregations have yet to “figure out” what action they will take against government efforts, but that they will stand with those seeking protection.

“Those foreigners among us, as the prophet Ezekiel said, are to be regarded as citizens,” he said.

Any church in America can declare itself a "sanctuary church" for people who have entered the country illegally, but that declaration provides no legal protection from arrests or deportation.

From a public relations standpoint, though, a sanctuary church can provide at least temporary protection, according to one of Buffalo's top immigration attorneys.

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Federal agents have been reluctant to go into churches, hospitals, schools or other "sensitive locations" to arrest undocumented immigrants, said Matthew L. Kolken, a Buffalo immigration lawyer who has represented immigrants over the past 20 years.

"From a legal standpoint, calling yourself a sanctuary church has no effect under the law," Kolken told The Buffalo News. "But it does have a practical effect. No federal agent wants to have a picture of himself dragging people out of a church plastered all over newspapers all over America...That's a public relations nightmare."

Since October 2011, agents from U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement have been under orders to avoid making arrests at "sensitive locations," including churches, schools and hospitals, Kolken noted.

Unless there are extreme circumstances that make an immediate arrest necessary, the order from ICE commanders in Washington directed agents to avoid making arrests at schools, universities, churches, synagogues, mosques, or at the sites of weddings, marches, rallies or public demonstrations.

While the order only pertains to ICE agents, Kolken said other federal agencies appear to abide by that rule.

The order was sent out during the Obama administration, but Kolken said he knows of no changes since President Trump took office last month.

"And I would be very surprised if President Trump did anything to change it," he said.

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Kolken said the U.S. government never has forgotten the public relations disaster that occurred in April 2000, when news media all over the world circulated photographs of heavily armed immigration agents forcibly removing a terrified 6-year-old boy, Elian Gonzalez, from his family's home in Miami.

As long as an undocumented immigrant remains inside the sanctuary church, he or she probably will avoid arrest, Kolken said.

But once that person leaves the church, to go to the store, to see a doctor, to attend a legal proceeding or for any other errand, "they're fair game for arrest," the attorney said.

The sanctuary church movement began in the 1980s, when some American churches began offering safe haven to people fleeing war-torn countries in Central America, according to immigration experts. In recent months, hundreds of churches throughout the nation have offered themselves as havens to people who fear being deported.

Although President Trump has been extremely vocal about plans to deport undocumented immigrants, President Barack Obama deported a historically huge number, according to Kolken.

"President Obama wanted the deportations, but not the publicity. President Trump wants the deportations and the publicity," Kolken said. "When all is said and done, I think we'll see 2.5 million to 3 million deportations over the next eight years -- pretty much the same numbers as we saw under President Obama."

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