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After ICE agents appear at a Sacramento church, pastor tries to calm his flock's deportation fears

A Sacramento pastor is pleading with his congregants to return to church this Sunday after a recent encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents sparked fears of deportations.

In a series of videos posted this week to the church’s Facebook account, Pastor Alex Vaiz sought to calm his parishioners worries.

“One of your rights is going to church,” he said. “Immigration cannot in any way enter a church and disturb the peace in any way and arrest anyone .… Don’t be afraid to come and return again to your church. You have the right to be here.”

Whether his flock shows up to the Vida Church Sacramento this weekend remains to be seen. But until then, Vaiz is demanding that immigration officials stay off the church’s property.

The sight of immigration officials on May 14 triggered concerns among worshipers who had gathered for a Mother’s Day service at the small Vida Church Sacramento on Del Paso Boulevard.

According to Vaiz, a congregant spotted ICE agents in a parking lot used by the church and notified church leaders. The agents “were very armed with three vehicles wanting to intimidate the community, specifically immigrant parishioners of the church,” he said in the video.

After seeing the vehicles, Vaiz approached the ICE agents to explain that he was a pastor and that they were parked in a church parking lot. Vaiz’s actions seemed to help defuse the situation, because the agents left. But they later returned and remained outside the church for a while.

Vaiz told KTXL-TV that 60% of his congregation does not have legal immigration status.

James Schwab, a spokesman for ICE in San Francisco, said officers with the agency’s Enforcement Removal Operations were conducting surveillance that day “in conjunction with a targeted enforcement action.”

“The officers, who were parked in a lot marked by a sign for a major bank, were unaware the property is used by a congregation that holds Sunday services in an office building across the street,” he said in a statement.

Enforcement actions at sensitive locations such as schools and churches require prior approval from a supervisory official, or can be made under “exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action,” Schwab said. Otherwise, schools and churches should generally be avoided, he said.

The Department of Homeland Security is “committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation,” Schwab said.

In his recorded appeal to parishioners, Vaiz insisted that the church did not give the agents permission to use the parking lot. “We had nothing to do with them,” he said.

“I know that some of you were worried and possibly some were very frightened about what they might have planned to do,” he said.

But the pastor urged his congregants to not be afraid.

“This is a time that we should demonstrate our valiance,” he said. “No one can take away or rob our faith.”

His church has been working with Sacramento Area Congregations Together, or Sacramento ACT, to train its security team and parking attendants. He has also been calling his district’s congressional representatives, local consular offices and ICE officials. A video with advice for immigrants on what to do if ICE agents visit in their neighborhoods was also posted on the church’s Facebook account.

“We want to assure you that we are doing everything because of what happened last Sunday,” he said. “They are not going to return to our parking lot.”

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