Rev. Fred Morris is familiar with violence in Latin America.
Morris, currently leading North Hills United Methodist Church, survived detention and torture at the hands of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1974.
That’s one reason Morris said he’s ready to defy Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and offer his place of worship as a refuge for Central Americans facing imminent deportation to a region with escalating violence.
“We are willing to fight this tooth and nail,” said Morris, 82. “If ICE wants to come get them, they’re going to have to break down the church door.”
Morris’ congregation is one of at least three in the Los Angeles area vowing in recent weeks to offer refuge to Central Americans with deportation orders — joining what advocates say is a growing number of pastors, preachers and nuns across the country in reviving the sanctuary movement.
The campaign comes after federal immigration raids last month swept up more than 100 people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who entered the country and stayed illegally.
The seizures motivated church leaders nationwide who say they feel compelled to offer physical protection on their premises even if it violates federal law.
The sanctuary movement gained momentum in 2007 but languished amid hope that comprehensive immigration reform would happen that year. Now, with an overhaul dead in Congress and escalating gang violence in Central America sparking an exodus, leaders see the movement reemerging.
The recent immigration raids were simply the “tipping point,” said Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor in Los Angeles who teaches and trains faith-rooted organizing across the country.
“It was basta — enough,” she said, summing up the general feeling toward the raids among some in the faith-based community in Southern California.
Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics and other Christian leaders across the country say they are outraged with the Obama administration’s actions, said Noel Andersen, a grass-roots coordinator with the Church World Service group for refugees. The group has built a network of sanctuaries for Central Americans targeted by ICE.
The group says immigration officials are violating human rights by using raids as a scare tactic against the immigrant community, and by deporting thousands of Central American refugees back to the gang violence they were escaping in the first place.
A year ago, 35 congregations across the nation promised to offer refuge in their places of worship. The recent raids sparked such an outcry that now at least 50 are onboard and prepared to offer physical refuge from ICE, Andersen said. Currently there are no churches publicly sheltering immigrants.
Since the raids began, he said, he has heard every day from congregation leaders who want to sign up to give refuge to an immigrant family.
“I’ve gotten at least a dozen requests just in the last three days,” Andersen said about a week after the raids. The modern movement began in the 1980s when hundreds of congregations provided refuge to thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing civil wars.
Momentum has grown in recent weeks partly because those at risk of deportation are often mothers and children fleeing gang violence, said Rev. John Fife, a former pastor at Southside Presbyterian in Tucson. He co-founded the 1980s sanctuary movement, which gave refuge mostly to adults.
“What would happen if a mother from Guatemala showed up at your church door with a little kid in her arms and said, ‘Can you help me?’” he said, repeating a question he’s recently posed to faith leaders across the nation.
Organizers are much stronger than in the 1980s, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the nonpartisan New York-based Migration Policy Institute.
“There is much more attention and much more organizing in the communities today. The kind of activism you see now just wasn’t at this level in the 1980s,” he said.
Though the offering of religious sanctuary dates back to ancient times, a church doesn’t offer real legal protection from federal immigration officials.
Instead, there has been an unofficial policy by ICE to avoid entering public schools, hospitals and churches to apprehend people who are in the country illegally.
Some religious leaders said that they realize they might violate federal immigration laws, but that their faith compels them to follow God’s teachings first. They cite biblical passages such as Leviticus 19:34, which says, “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.”
Since 2014, there have been 13 documented cases of U.S. congregations providing sanctuary, Andersen said. In 11 of those, the immigrants being sheltered won a stay of removal from the country, or other legal relief. The others await a decision from ICE administrators.
Critics of the sanctuary movement said they don’t expect the government to prosecute church leaders who take part, arguing that the Obama administration tends to cave in to immigrant rights advocacy groups.
“The more ICE lets people get away with thumbing their nose at immigration enforcement, the more people are going to defy the law,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank that advocates for restrictions on immigration.
The number of Central Americans crossing into the United States has surged in the last few years, largely because of escalating violence in places such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to human rights groups.
Each congregation has a different process for deciding whether to become a sanctuary church.
For instance, Unitarian churches must have a majority agreement from congregants to go forward, whereas other denominations need board approval. Some faith leaders just make the decision for their congregants.
Such was the case for Morris, who reopened the San Fernando Valley church two years ago and leads about 40 parishioners who are mostly Central American.
“If we had an emergency, we could take a family tomorrow.… We’d have no problem preparing a meal for a family here,” Morris said.
Hundreds of other churches have signed up to provide logistical support to congregations offering physical sanctuary. Some congregations pay for the family’s food. Others offer up legal counsel. A few provide spiritual guidance.
But one of the hardest, and perhaps the longest, processes is finding the right person or family for sanctuary.
“In choosing this family we need to choose a family that is in it for the long haul,” Morris said. “I want a family that will stick with it as long as it takes — until ICE gives up.”