Austin Church Network Offers Sanctuary for Undocumented Immigrants

(ESPAÑOL) There is growing fear in the immigrant community in Austin as President Donald Trump’s immigration and executive orders go into effect. And as more than 50 Austin area residents were detained in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation raids last month, a growing number of churches in the Austin Sanctuary Network are volunteering to offer physical shelter or support to churches that do.

The Austin Sanctuary Network has broadened in the last year from a handful of churches and advocates to more than two dozen congregations and religious groups, three labor unions, several nonprofit groups and dozens of individual volunteers. This mirrors the loosely organized national sanctuary movement that has grown to more than 800 churches and congregations, with a good portion of those joining since Trump was elected.

“It’s bewildering for people at this point. It’s like trying to repair furniture when the house is on fire,” said Pastor Jim Rigby, whose congregation at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin has provided sanctuary to Guatemalan immigrant Hilda Ramirez and her 10-year-old son, Ivan, for more than a year. “Opening our arms to our neighbors goes without question.”

The churches are relying on a 2011 ICE policy directive telling agents to avoid “sensitive areas” such as churches, hospitals and schools when conducting deportation actions under most circumstances. Federal immigration officials said that policy is still in effect, but recent immigration arrests around the U.S., including inside courthouses, are increasing fears.

Austin, a liberal enclave in a conservative state, has had a strong base of immigration activists for years in opposition to a previous sheriff, who cooperated with ICE requests to hold inmates for possible deportation. During the city’s involvement in the Secure Communities Program 7/87/8— a federal-local partnership on deportation ended in 2014 by the Obama administration — an average of 19 people were deported from Travis County each week. Trump has revived the program.