In the run up to what the Trump administration said would be widespread immigration enforcement raids Sunday, countless places of worship across the country declared themselves sanctuary spaces for immigrants. Those places of worship joined what experts have characterized as a growing movement of religious communities opening their doors to non-citizens in order to prevent family separations that they say run counter to their faiths. But with white Evangelical Christian Americans still overwhelmingly backing the Trump administration, the sudden outpouring of support for immigrants also revealed the growing fissures between American faith communities wrought by the White House’s immigration policy.
President Donald Trump said on Monday that the immigration raids slated for Sunday were “very successful,” but immigration advocates have suggested that there were few signs of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in the administration’s 10 target cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
In the United States, there is no law barring ICE from enforcing at churches; instead the agency has established guidance for agents suggesting that they “avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances,” an ICE official told Pacific Standard in April. “The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship, and hospitals.”
When church and other faith communities welcome strangers, they are banking on the administration avoiding what some say would amount to a public relations disaster. ICE’s guidance exists “largely because ICE does not want the bad press of a family—almost always a family with a very sympathetic story—being handcuffed in front of a crucifix or a baptistery,” explains Matthew Soerens, U.S. Director of Church Mobilization & Advocacy for World Relief and co-author of a book called Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate. “The sanctuary movement is basically insisting that if ICE is going to execute deportations that they do not believe are morally justified, they will have to do so in ways that capture the public’s attention, which organizers believe will prick the conscience of most Americans, most of whom—polls show—want a better way forward than deportations that divide families who haven’t committed serious criminal offenses.”