SPRINGFIELD – The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts has asked Mayor Domenic J. Sarno to reverse course and support South Congregational Church as a temporary sanctuary to undocumented immigrants whose deportation has become a priority under the Trump administration.
“I ask Mayor Sarno to reconsider his opposition to this compassionate initiative. I ask the Mayor to consider the impact the fear of deportation is having on our children, our neighborhoods, our businesses,” the Rev. Douglas J. Fisher in his statement released Saturday.
“If Springfield were to become a ‘sanctuary city,’ what harm could come from it? Our vulnerable neighbors would have no fear in calling the police or an ambulance. I know Mayor Sarno is a good man who has the responsibility of upholding the law. I ask the Mayor to give South Congregational its sacred space in this community, to allow the Church to be Church. I intend to support South Congregational as my office permits. I ask Mayor Sarno to do the same.”
Fear has spread in undocumented communities across the country as the Trump administration has issued directives aimed at stepping up deportations of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and not just those with serious criminal records.
The son of immigrants who became citizens, Sarno has said previously he is a “firm believer in legal immigration,” and that he would cooperate with federal officials looking for someone who has committed a crime and is here illegally.
He has rejected previous appeals from faith leaders, including Fisher, for an executive order limiting cooperation between federal authorities and local police.
Enforcing the country’s immigration laws is generally a matter for federal immigration police, and policies of a locality, in general, cannot interfere with their pursuit of someone wanted in connection with criminal charges.
On Friday, Sarno said he was “fit to be tied” after the Maple Street church offered sanctuary for those undocumented immigrants “who are oppressed by the fear of detention, separation from family, and even deportation from the place in which they have made their homes.”
It did so in conjunction with the Pioneer Valley Project that is based at the parish, and five other faith congregations.
In response, Sarno said that “anything under my jurisdiction,” meaning such city departments as police and fire, licensing and health, he wanted to “keep a very close eye on this” and added that “any appropriate actions” will be taken.
The Springfield Police Department has said previously its officers do not inquire about the immigration status of suspects, witnesses of victims.
While the Obama administration deported close to three million undocumented immigrants, the deportations concentrated on those with serious criminal records. The Trump administration is looking to expand the powers and numbers of immigration agents to broaden the numbers arrested.
Noting this, the organizations offering sanctuary at the Maple Street parish, have said food and shelter will be provided as needed.
The parish joins hundreds of places of worship across the country who have offered, in recent months, some form of sanctuary to individuals without immigration documentation, ranging from physical sanctuary to legal and other support.
Churches, in the United States, have offered sanctuary to slaves, to protesters during the Vietnam War and to Central American refugees during the 1980’s.
Generally, sanctuary today has come to loosely mean how much localities will cooperate with federal enforcement officials, though local, county and state practices enacted do not prevent police from pursuing those who have committed crimes.
In his statement, Fisher said his diocese “gives unqualified support” to the South Congregational parish coalition effort.
“People of faith are called to walk beside members of our community who fear being torn away from family, friends, work and Church because they have been unable – for whatever reason – to seek legal status,” Fisher’s statement said.
He referenced a diocesan document, “The Pilgrim Church: We Are All Strangers in a Strange Land,” and said, “In it we acknowledge that ‘Immigration and Customs Enforcement seem to have free rein to target and forcibly deport anyone, even those who are actively applying for citizenship.'”
“In this climate good people – of faith or no faith – are rising to stand peacefully between a vigorous wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and the persons who may be harmed,” Fisher said.
The Obama administration was more liberal in allowing localities to decide how much to cooperate with federal immigration officials, especially after a 2008 pilot program to track down individuals illegally in the country resulted in the detention of citizens who sued.
As a group, studies have show immigrants, including the undocumented, to have lower rates for violent crime than the native born. It is also argued those not living in fear of deportation are more likely to call police when crimes have been committed.
Sarno has cited pressure on the city’s housing, educational and other resources in his previous opposition to the resettlement of refugees in the city, and in January declared Springfield “is not a sanctuary city.”
His statement came a day after President Donald Trump issued an executive order Jan. 25, denying federal funding to localities who choose not to comply with federal laws regarding the deportation of individuals here illegally.
A United States District Court temporarily blocked that order in April, saying the administration had overstep its powers and that only Congress could limit such spending which amounts to billions of dollars in federal funds.
Immigration laws passed during the Clinton era and their impact on localities so-called sanctuary policies also resulted in court challenges to their constitutionality. Similar debate around the rights of states under the Tenth Amendment have risen again with the Trump administration’s threat of mass deportations.
Sanctuary localities in Massachusetts include Amherst and Northampton.
In January, after Trump’s series of immigration-related executive orders aimed at arresting more undocumented immigrants, state Senator Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton introduced additional legislation designed to limit state cooperation with Federal Immigration Enforcement Agencies.
The legislation would also bar the state’s data bases, including the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, from being used “by an entity for enforcement of any federal program requiring registration of persons on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or national or ethnic origin.”
Governor Charlie Baker has said that while he supports “Massachusetts’ status as a welcoming and a global community,” he is opposed to the commonwealth becoming a sanctuary state and that “these decisions are best made at a local level.”
At least five states and more than 600 counties nationwide have laws that limit how much local police can cooperate with federal immigration agents.
More than 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16 are said to have have obtained temporary relief from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a program Trump has said he would repeal.
In February, raids across the country the by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) led to more than 600 immigrant arrests, many with no criminal history.
There have been area, state and national protests of Trump’s enforcement of the nation’s laws on undocumented immigrants. He has given mixed signals on immigration reform, something the U.S. Congress has failed to agree on under two previous presidents, that would allow a pathway to some form of legal status for the undocumented.
The local faith communities joining the Pioneer Valley Project and South Congregational in supporting sanctuary are three Catholic parishes – Blessed Sacrament, Holy Cross, and Holy Name – the Unitarian Universalist Society, and the Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield.