Members of First Parish, Unitarian Universalist gathered for a photograph after Sunday’s vote – Image (c) Bob Bass, 2017 all rights reserved – Click to view a larger image


By Eliza Rosenberry

Members of First Parish, Unitarian Universalist in Bedford voted Sunday, April 2 to offer physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants who are at risk of deportation.

“This is an act of civil disobedience, first and foremost,” Reverend John Gibbons told assembled parishioners. “We are saying that our religious values cause us to make this decision… We are making an ethical decision based on our principles.”

Representatives of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) church on the town common will work with local immigration and faith organizations to identify an individual in need of sanctuary and to support that person by providing living accommodations and other services in the church building.

More than a hundred parishioners attended the meeting, which began with a presentation from the First Parish Sanctuary Task Force and well over an hour of comments and questions from the congregation. Many attendees explained their position in favor of sanctuary by pointing to core church values, including empathy, respect, and “the inherent worth and dignity of every person,” which is one of the seven UU principles.

Churches do not provide legal protection from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but are generally considered to be “sensitive locations”—like schools and hospitals—where ICE agents tend to avoid enforcement.

Dozens of religious congregations across the country have declared themselves sanctuaries, including the First Unitarian Society Church in Denver, Colorado, where an immigrant mother is currently seeking shelter. Area churches like Harvard Square’s University Lutheran Church and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dorchester have similarly decided to offer sanctuary in recent months.

Task Force members explained that the First Parish sanctuary committee will work with immigration organizations to identify potential people for whom sanctuary at First Parish would be a good option. Such individuals must have access to legal counsel; must be at risk of deportation; and must be approved by the First Parish Board.

A person who seeks sanctuary at First Parish may have a criminal record. As some parishioners noted, in many cases, the person’s existence in this country is in itself a crime. Therefore, in determining whether an individual is the right fit for First Parish, the Board will likely not enforce a unilateral requirement of a clean criminal record; they will instead examine an individual’s personal history and the context of any such criminal violations.

In providing and publicizing sanctuary, the church would hope to convince ICE officials to drop deportation charges against the individual. Of the 18 church sanctuary cases since 2014, cited by Task Force members, all but one were successful in this regard. The eighteenth case is still pending.

The First Parish congregation plans to fundraise approximately $10,000 in order to convert an upstairs meeting room into a studio apartment and add a shower to one of the building’s bathrooms. Task Force members assured the congregation that costs associated with providing sanctuary will not come from the church’s annual budget. The space could likely accommodate one individual or, potentially, a parent and child.

If someone does seek sanctuary at the church, volunteers from First Parish and a regional interfaith network will coordinate groceries, errands, medical attention, entertainment and social activities, and other needs the person may have, as they will be at risk of deportation if they physically leave the building. Volunteers will likely also be asked to stay overnight at the church, to ensure that anyone sheltering in the building will not be left alone for any period of time. If ICE were to raid the church in the middle of the night, for example, there would be a witness.

It could be, Gibbons noted, that an appropriate individual is never identified and that no one seeks sanctuary at First Parish.

“It may never happen,” Gibbons said. “But if someone comes here, the very first thing that we do, is we send a letter to all authorities, to ICE, and say we have this person here. And we are providing that person with sanctuary. We are not harboring someone; there is no secrecy on this. We are doing this as an ethical obligation, upfront and transparent.”

Sanctuary churches use their positions of relative institutional privilege and security to broadcast the personal experiences of individuals in sanctuary, drawing attention to what they view as unjust immigration policies. The sanctuary movement began in the 1980s as a way for faith organizations to protect refugees fleeing conflicts in Latin America.

Some parishioners noted the need for a swift decision-making process once the sanctuary apartment is ready for occupancy, which could be within the next month. Numerous speakers referenced ICE arrests earlier this week in Lawrence, where five people were arrested when they showed up for scheduled appointments at a US Immigration Services office. At least three of them were there to begin the process of becoming legal citizens. WBUR reported that this circumstance represents a shift in federal immigration enforcement priorities.

An estimated 180,000 undocumented immigrants live in the Greater Boston area, according to the Pew Research Center.

Communities in Massachusetts including Boston and Cambridge have adopted sanctuary policies at the city level, which have no universal legal definition but often clarify circumstances in which local police will not enforce federal immigration laws. For example, in Somerville, local police will not detain undocumented immigrants who commit minor or civil offenses, though they will hold such individuals who are arrested for violent or felony crimes.

Gibbons said there is not a move at a town level to adopt sanctuary policies in Bedford, but said he has been in discussions with town officials regarding physical sanctuary at First Parish, including police, fire, and code enforcement, and explained they are well aware of the church’s efforts.

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