San Diego church opts to offer immigrants sanctuary

The congregation of the First Unitarian Universalist Church voted last week to become a sanctuary, and church leaders will officially announce the decision on Tuesday.


The First Unitarian Universalist Church, which has campuses in Hillcrest and Chula Vista, has voted to become a sanctuary for immigrants who are trying to fight their cases in court.

The decision came after a yearlong investigation by the church board, concerned about ramped up enforcement under President Donald Trump, into what it would mean to be a sanctuary. The board unanimously decided to bring the idea to the congregation for a final decision, and 93 percent voted in favor of the designation in late March.

“This isn’t a political decision,” said the Rev. Kathleen Owens, lead minister of the church. “This is a humanitarian crisis that we’ve created, and we need to be responding to it.”


Being a sanctuary church doesn’t mean anyone trying to avoid immigration enforcement can just show up and live there, Owens said.

People who have been ordered deported and still have attorneys fighting their cases can ask the church to take them in so that they are protected from spending that wait time in detention or being deported before they’ve finished appealing their cases.

A review group will decide who can live in the church’s sanctuary.

“Sanctuary is a tool that slows down the process of deportation,” Owens said. “Sanctuary is not harboring. Sanctuary is offering humanitarian aid to ensure that rights are respected.”

Because of a 2011 memo on “sensitive locations,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers generally don’t conduct arrests at churches.

“ICE’s sensitive locations policy, which remains in effect, provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations (schools, places of worship, hospitals, etc.) should generally be avoided,” said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for ICE. “These actions would require prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official and would typically involve exigent circumstances necessitating immediate action.”

At the end of March, The Washington Post tallied about 40 known cases of immigrants living in churches to avoid deportation.

The First Unitarian Universalist Church’s campus in Hillcrest has one room that an individual or family could live in, a roomy community space painted periwinkle with a Mother Teresa quote on the wall. A high school group normally meets in the room on Sundays, and when the teens heard about the church’s plans, they offered up the space.

People living in the room would have access to showers and a kitchen. Volunteers would help the individual or family get food or do laundry since they wouldn’t be able to leave the campus.

Some members of the congregation have worried that one individual or one family wouldn’t be enough to help. Owens has reassured them that it matters.

“When you save one life, who knows what the ripple effect will be?” Owens said. “It’s never just one person. You’re affecting families.”

Because of San Diego’s proximity to the border, Owens said, demand for the sanctuary may be limited. People who have already been ordered deported from San Diego to Mexico generally go quickly, often within a few hours’ notice. Most wouldn’t have a way to get to the church.

Regardless, Owens thinks the church’s decision is a powerful statement that could help sway Congress to take action on immigration reform.

Not all of the church’s members agreed with the vote. One left the church after it became a sanctuary, according to Owens.

“It’s not how they understood their expression of this faith, and that’s OK,” Owens said.

She’s not worried about being arrested or what the reaction from dissenters in the San Diego community might be — it will all make for good sermons, she said.

The church had voted twice in the past — once in the ‘60s and again in the ‘80s — about becoming a sanctuary, and the congregation voted against it both times.

Circumstances are different this time, Owens said. People began to perceive the issue of deportations on a more personal level after a member of the church returned to their home country rather than waiting in immigration detention to see if there was a way to stay.

The First Unitarian Universalist Church is based on seven principles, and the first two in particular are the “backbone” of why the church has become involved in the immigration debate, Owens said.

The first is that every person has worth and dignity, and church members are supposed to honor that. The second is to promote equity, justice and compassion in human relations.

“So close to Easter, we want to resurrect our values in this system that has dehumanized and criminalized people who migrate for a better life,” Owens said.

This isn’t the first time a San Diego church has become involved in protecting immigrants from enforcement. In the mid-’80s, faith leaders created a sanctuary network to help migrants from Central America. For Owens, the church’s tradition goes back much farther than that.

“It goes back as far as the Hebrew scriptures,” Owens said. “We’re talking millennia. Faith communities are called to offer shelter, aid and human compassion to those in need.”

She referenced Martha and Waitstill Sharp, Unitarians who helped Jews flee Germany during the Holocaust.

“We join them in this line of giving humanitarian aid and comfort to people in need,” Owens said. “That we get to be a part of it — what a blessing. What a tradition. What an opportunity to use all that we have in service of humanity. There’s just not much better than that.”

The church already has a social justice ministry that is involved with immigration issues. Volunteers visit immigrants in detention through a program called SOLACE, or Souls Offering Loving and Compassionate Ears, and some members have housed asylum seekers in need of sponsors.

Members have also volunteered for a rapid response network that formed over the last year in San Diego. It allows people to report immigration enforcement, and volunteers respond to support family members left behind and document any arrests to monitor any civil rights infringements.

Owens plans to announce the sanctuary designation on Tuesday morning, and she hopes the attention the church receives will highlight what she thinks is broken about the immigration system.

She expects Councilman Chris Ward and someone from Rep. Susan Davis’s office to attend Tuesday’s event along with leaders from a variety of faiths and community organizations across San Diego.

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