The pastors of two Buffalo churches said Friday their congregations will offer “sanctuary” for immigrants they say are victims of a new persecution by the federal government.
But they acknowledge that what sanctuary means, what level of protection they can offer and how federal authorities will react remain unanswered questions.
"We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” said the Rev. Kirk Laubenstein, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice.
The Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, pastor of Pilgrim-St. Luke’s, and the Rev. Matt Lincoln, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church on Delaware Avenue, said their congregations will shelter undocumented immigrants seeking protection from the Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Declaration of a "sanctuary church" provides no legal protection from arrests or deportation.
But 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.”
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 from Trump's executive order to deport "all removable aliens."
“Those foreigners among us, as the prophet Ezekiel said, are to be regarded as citizens,” he said.
For now, sanctuary means offering their churches as safe havens against increasing immigration enforcement.
"This past week, we have seen an increase in enforcement locally,” said Meghan Maloney de Zaldivar of the New York Immigration Project.
The arrest of 32 undocumented immigrants in Hamburg and Grand Island stemmed from anonymous tips that she feared resulted from racial profiling. One of those arrested on Grand Island was a convicted sex offender who had been deported once before, authorities said.
“What is crystal clear is that fear and terror are gripping all our communities as a result,” she added.
Gathering at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ on Richmond Avenue, about 30 people ‑ mostly ministers and a rabbi ‑ condemned Trump’s order to deport as contrary to the 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,” Gonzalez said.
Agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement have been under orders since October 2011, to avoid making arrests at “sensitive locations,” immigration attorney 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, hospitals, 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 during the Obama administration, but Kolken said he knows of no changes since Trump took office last month.
“And I would be very surprised if President Trump did anything to change it,” he said.
Now, those gathered Friday at Pilgrim-St. Luke’s appear ready to test the ancient concept of sanctuary, in which fugitives could be immune from arrest under English law formerly recognized for centuries.
Lincoln said the duty of “all great faiths” to protect the vulnerable stems from Scripture. And while he said law enforcement is a “good thing,” he sees a duty to resist when appropriate.
“When it turns into a threat to the whole community, we have to say we will stand with the vulnerable,” he said.
Jose Antonio Ramos, one of the “Buffalo 25” arrested by immigration officials last October at several Buffalo area Mexican restaurants, said he does not “understand this new president” and his executive order that instills “fear walking the streets.”
“We will stand proudly and act as a people of justice,” he said.
Outside the U.S. Courthouse downtown Friday,about 15 area lawyers gathered to protest Trump’s executive order.
Holding signs that said “Human Rights over Property Rights,” they marched in a circle and spoke of the need for the legal community, most notably the courts, to oppose Trump’s “racist, white supremacist” agenda.
“We’re calling on the federal judiciary to fill the role it held during the civil rights movement,” said Buffalo attorney John N. Lipsitz.
The protest, sponsored by the Buffalo chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, was part of a nationwide day of action by the organization. The group, which traces its history to 1937, was formed as an alternative to the American Bar Association and its then exclusionary membership policies.
“We’ve always been against everything he stands for,” Benjamin L. Nelson, a Buffalo attorney and Guild member, said of Trump.
Anna Marie Richmond, a civil rights lawyer, said she came to protest Trump’s attack on the country’s most basic rights and protections.
“We’re here as supporters of the Constitution,” she said.