Churches and synagogues throughout Washtenaw County are teaming up to house undocumented immigrants facing threats of deportation.
The project, called the Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary, was formally announced earlier this month at the Church of the Good Shepherd as a collaboration between the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice and the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights. It has not yet received anyone, but is ready to provide shelter immediately for those who need it.
Becky Dean, a University alum and social worker, said the idea came in February after she was done tolerating President Donald Trump’s controversial rhetoric against immigrants, something that accelerated as immigration enforcement and raids increased across Washtenaw County.
“I think a lot of people in the community are concerned about (Trump’s rhetoric) and I wanted to do something,” Dean said. “And a lot of people from faith communities specifically felt called to do something about that and to go a step beyond welcoming our immigrant neighbors but actually being proactive and preventing their deportation, preventing families from being separated.”
Ruth Cassidy, an Ypsilanti Township resident who volunteers for WCS, said she was not able to wait for when President Donald Trump was elected, sensing imminent danger for the immigrant communities of the county.
“I was involved in the issue of immigrants’ rights for a while,” Cassidy said. “But after the election of Trump and a lot of his anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric, I felt more motivated to try to help in whatever way I can.”
Rabbi Josh Whinston of Temple Beth Emeth, whose congregation is not yet part of the project but is considering joining, said he supports the effort because the Trump administration’s hardline stance on undocumented immigrants seems inhumane to him, especially when it breaks apart families and communities.
“(The administration’s policy) is fundamentally contrary to my position as a religious leader,” Whinston said. “We should be welcoming this tide, we should be doing what we can to ensure that people are being taken care of regardless of where they’re from, in particular when they’ve become part of our community.”
The WCS is divided into three levels. Level 1 can function as a living space for undocumented families, Level 2 provides food and logistical support and Level 3 advocates for the organization.
The Church of the Good Shepherd, currently a Level 1 congregation, has already converted part of its building in a living space where a family seeking help can live. Dean said the living space includes a kitchen, bathroom, bedding and enough supplies that can last an undocumented family a year if they are willing to take the dangerous process of fighting to stay.
“It really is a big commitment on the family’s part,” she said.
The new effort came at a time of increased hostility against undocumented immigrants, criminal and noncriminal, from the White House. Just over the past few months, employees at Sava’s restaurant on State Street were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in May and Lourdes Salazar Bautista, a local mother of three, was deported in August despite fierce backlash by Ann Arbor residents.
Dean lamented that Bautista’s deportation could have been thwarted if sanctuary churches had existed in Ann Arbor at that time. Bautista decided to leave the country rather than fight due to fear of implications for the next time she crosses into the United States.
“Some people would argue (Bautista) had a strong case for sanctuary, that she could have fought her case and taken sanctuary and stay in the country,” Dean said. “So it is very important that every family makes the decision for themselves and decides what’s best. If there is a family that would make that decision, it’s risky but we think it’s worth and there’s so many community members and organizations that would be supportive.”
Ann Arbor has shown support for undocumented immigrants. In April, City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting police officers from asking residents about immigration status. And under federal policy, ICE refrains from detaining anyone in “sensitive locations” such as schools, hospitals and places of worship unless there is an explicit order from superiors or an immediate threat like violence and terrorism.
Yet concerns remain for WCS members. There have been instances in the past where pastors and parishioners have been arrested for sheltering undocumented immigrants since such actions are still technically illegal. The White House has also threatened repeatedly to cut off funding for “sanctuary cities” — a term considered legally unofficial — that shield these immigrants from ICE agents.
Some even view the churches’ actions as politically motivated and unnecessary. Whinston said political issues are oftentimes a matter of morality and parishioners should be free formulate their opinions based on their religious convictions.
“The Abrahamic tradition — Islam, Christianity, Judaism — if they’re functioning well, part of what they’re doing is helping us develop a moral compass,” Whinston said. “There is a fundamental misunderstanding of what religion is to claim that religious people should not invoke their religious beliefs when they stand up to particular policies.”
The Rev. Bob Roth, chaplain of the Wesley Foundation, a campus ministry, agreed, explaining that though his denomination does not endorse partisan candidates, advocating political and moral issues have always been a part of Methodism.
“If you go back to its beginning in the 18th century, John Wesley was against child labor laws, against slavery, against war,” Roth said. “So right from our beginnings we’ve been into social justice. We understand the teachings of Jesus to be very much for social justice, peace, human rights so that’s how we live out our faith.”