Sanctuary Churches Welcome Illegal Immigrants, Despite Possible Clash With Trump Administration

Jeanette Vizguerra, a Mexican woman seeking to avoid deportation from the United States, speaks Wednesday as she holds her 6-year-old daughter, Zuri, during a news conference in a Denver church in which Vizguerra and her children have taken refuge.
David Zalubowski/AP

Jeanette Vizguerra walked into a Colorado church on Wednesday — and into the forefront of a possible clash between Donald Trump and sanctuary churches across the country.

Vizguerra has lived in the U.S. since 1997. She has four children, three of them born here. Vizguerra was due to check in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Instead, she took sanctuary inside the First Unitarian Society of Denver.

“I did not make this decision lightly,” Vizguerra said through an interpreter during a news conference at the church. “I was thinking about it for weeks. But I think that I made the right decision in coming here, instead of going to the immigration office today.”

Vizguerra may be the first immigrant to seek sanctuary in a church since the Trump administration took office, but she likely won’t be the last. Across the country, dozens of churches and other faith communities say they’re preparing to offer sanctuary to immigrants who are in the country illegally.

Vizguerra pleaded guilty to using a fake ID in order to work in 2009. ICE officials say they’ve already granted her six stays of removal, and declined to issue another. That’s when Vizguerra sought refuge in the church rather than face deportation to Mexico.

“It is our position as a people of faith that this is sacred, and faithful work,” said the Rev. Mike Morran during the news conference at his church. “We know Jeanette. We know her to be an honorable human being.”

But critics say the church is violating law.

“It is illegal for anyone to deliberately and knowingly shield an illegal alien from detection by federal authorities,” says Jessica Vaughan, policy director at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit organization that favors less immigration.

“Potentially these church leaders could be placing their parish at risk for prosecution and fines,” Vaughan says. “I hope it won’t come to that.”

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Joel Rose