SAFE HARBOR

Undocumented immigrants are among the culture war’s invisible victims. Asylum seekers risk everything to escape dangers in their homeland only to come here and face possible arrest, detainment and deportation. Application of illegal alien policies and laws vary by agents and judges. Defendants are at the mercy of capricious political winds.


Against this uncertain backdrop, some concerned citizens have formed the Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as part of a national safe haven movement. Based on refuge models in places like Austin, Texas, churches here would serve as sanctuary spaces for targets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other perceived injustice threats. Current custom and policy prevent ICE agents from going into “sensitive locations.” When arrest is eminent, the network would enact sanctuary. The affected person or persons would remain in sanctuary until their limbo status is resolved.


Recently, the Omaha group mobilized in response to a potential sanctuary situation, despite not yet having a church prepared to fill that role, said Lawrence Jensen, who helped launch the network. He said members volunteered their own homes before the case turned out to be a false alarm. The scenario proved a dry run for the group’s willingness to take action.


Jensen, a Union Pacific retiree, is a member of First United Methodist Church in Omaha, which has hosted network meetings. He attended an earlier event there in which two Guatemalan women who were in Austin sanctuary shared their stories.


“It was really moving to hear the things they had to go through and what was done for them because they were in sanctuary,” Jensen said. “Both of them felt they probably wouldn’t have survived if they went back to Guatemala. They needed a way to stay here.”


He said after the presentation he and others “decided we should try and do something similar,” adding, “It’s a faith issue more than anything to get involved where we see injustices and things that need to be acted on.”


Rev. Cyndi Simpson, a minister at Second Unitarian Church of Omaha, said, “This is absolutely a moral issue, a justice issue and a spiritual issue.” She said it’s “great there are other congregations and religious organizations interested in sanctuary because this will work best if we’re all woking together in a coalition.”


Simpson and Jensen know the network treadis on “tenuous” legal ground.


“There is no legal protection for the church,” Jensen said. “It’s just this policy, which so far has been respected. It could change just by an (executive) order.”


Technically, federal immigration law makes it a violation “for any person to conceal, harbor or shield from detection in any place … any alien who is in the United States in violation of law.”


“It’s not definite a church giving sanctuary would fall under that law, but it’s possible,” Jensen said. “It’s indefinite because it’s never been tested in the current climate.”


Though University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin- Alvarado feels sanctuary churches are morally right, he cautions against them.


“The wide latitude granted ICE to ferret out ‘illegals’ would … put churches in the line of fire,” he said. “If schools, courts and government offices have already been deemed fair ground for the apprehension of individuals in violation of deportation orders, churches should take note. It has not happened yet, but if faced with the perception of ‘losing the war’ on immigration … churches may no longer be sacrosanct. An immigration raid on a church would be traumatic and potentially devastating for a church community.”


Simpson’s unswayed, saying, “To me, this is the work we’re called to do. So, let the consequences be what the consequences are. This is civil disobedience and that’s how change happens.”


Sanctuary’s been practiced before in America, Simpson is a veteran of the 1980s movement that took in political refugees fleeing Guatemalan civil war persecution.


“It’s very interesting to be here again,” she said.


Hosting someone in sanctuary means a commitment of resources for perhaps a year or more.


“During that time they’ve got to be fed and clothed, you have to see to their health needs, offer moral support. It may mean finding legal representation and accompanying them to court dates,” Jensen said,


Simpson said the Omaha network’s agreed to support family members when the main breadwinner’s imprisoned, deported or in sanctuary.


No one organization can do it alone.


“You can lessen the impact on the individual church by having lots of people sharing the work,” Jensen said.


The snag, thus far, is finding churches with a dedicated, facilities-ready physical space.


Simpson said the network’s expanded its search to include other kinds of religious organizations.


Network members say they’re also committed to conducting call campaigns and holding demonstrations to prod ICE to give up the chase and grant deferred action or freedom. When tipped off a raid will happen, activists plan doing “sanctuary in the streets” by notifying media and engaging in nonviolent disruption.


“ICE doesn’t like the publicity that comes with taking someone while the cameras are rolling,” Jensen said. “They’re liable to back off.”


Earlier this year, Jensen attended a sanctuary network conference in Denver. “There was a lot of discussion about exactly these kinds of things,” he said.


The network’s seeking what Jensen calls “natural allies” among groups like the Nebraska Democratic Party, Omaha Together One Community and Indivisible groups dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda.


Gauging who might step forward to offer sanctuary is difficult. As for his church, Jensen said, “It’s not at all certain the church as a whole would approve it, which is something that would have to happen. Most are progressive religiously and politically and socially, but there are some who would be concerned with the legality issues – so there would be some opposition. How it would play out, I’m not sure.”


El Perico story on Omaha Area Sanctuary Network


Sources: Interviewed Lawrence Jensen, Cyndi Simpson and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado


Photo contacts: lpjensen@abbnebraska.com; revsimpson@2uomaha.org; jalvarado@unomaha.edu

Leo Adam Biga

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