Los Angeles churches revive sanctuary movement for Central American refugees

“I’m very much afraid,” refugee Jacinta said in Spanish. She asked not to use her last name because everyday she lives in fear of deportation back to her home country El Salvador.

Three years ago she fled the region, which has seen a dramatic increase in gang violence. Her two sons followed her afterwards, but her oldest remains in a Pennsylvania holding cell awaiting a decision about refugee status.

“If I go to El Salvador they will kill me,” Jacinta said.

She said gangs have already killed her brother-in-law and harmed her father and sister. 

Jacinta’s pastor, Revered Fred Morris at North Hills United Methodist Church is helping translate her story. It’s a similar story to thousands of Central American refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

Morris’ church is now offering families refuge if they face immediate deportation from ICE back to violent regions.

“I’m just embarrassed to be an American doing this to people who need help,” Morris said.

His church is one of three in the Los Angeles reviving what’s called the sanctuary movement although the other churches are not ready to go public.

The Methodist church is equipped with a full kitchen and living quarters to hide out a family as they wait behind locked gates for their court case.

“It would be very bad for the Obama administration if ICE came into a church and hauled people off violently,” Morris said.

In January, ICE raids in an Atlanta neighborhood targeted mothers and children.

Morris said if it happens here, he has a plan for that too.

“If they start to round up these unaccompanied children we will put them in our gym and we will lock the door and they will have to break the door down,” Morris said.

Jacinta’s children will likely qualify for refugee status, but she’s still waiting on a court’s decision.

“If they deport me I’ll have to go,” she said. “But my boys will not have to go if they get refugee status.”

Morris doesn’t have a sanctuary family just yet, but he expects one in the coming days.

“Once we have a family they will be inside our church property and they have to understand when they come that they will not get out at all until we appeal their case and win it,” he said.

The Department of Homeland Security released as statement that reads, “Immigration enforcement efforts are focused on individuals who pose a threat to public safety and national security, including convicted felons, gang members, and illegal entrants apprehended at the border.”

The agency also states that its has very detailed guidance for officers regarding enforcement actions in or around so-called "sensitive" locations, including schools and places of worship, but that doesn’t condone violations of federal law.

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