Rural Areas Face Large Immigration Removal Proceedings, Churches Offer Support

Churches face challenges in offering services from funding to sanctuary

Churches offering sanctuary to immigrants in removal proceedings need strong legal arguments. /LAW WEEK FILE

While immigration related challenges and deportations exist across the country, Immigration Court records have shown that rural counties face higher rates of immigrant removal proceedings than urban areas, highlighting some of the challenges that rural immigrant organizations face.The report comes from Immigration Court data obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, located at Syracuse University. The report states that a high rate of removal proceedings are present in rural counties around the U.S.

“In fact, of the top 100 U.S. counties with the highest rates of residents in removal proceedings, nearly six in ten (59%) are rural,” the report states. As a result, those facing deportation may find themselves in legal deserts with few qualified immigration attorneys, long court travel time and poverty rates very high.

And for many, the places they turn to for help in these small communities are where they feel safe, said Professor Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas. Smaller organizations face logistical challenges, finding attorneys to travel to rural areas on providing services but also the paper-based way of ICE legal proceedings.

“The church tends to be the gathering place of many immigrant families and is considered to be safe,” Gilman said. In the DACA application workshops Gilman is involved with, held in rural areas such as Lockhart, Texas, they go through the Catholic Church. She noted that the Jewish community has also been very supportive and believed the Muslim community would be as well if it were not for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The report notes how “striking” it is that counties in Southern California look typical when population is taken into account and that counties in the Great Plains from Minnesota to western Oklahoma “pop off the map” with higher percentages daily deportation proceedings.

“In these rural counties, residents may have a heightened sense that immigration enforcement is impacting their community,” the report states. “This, in fact, would be an entirely rational perception since the odds are indeed greater.”

Many religious organizations help immigrants in different capacities, and tend to partner with law schools or legal clinics to provide legal help, said Steven Collis, a clinical professor of law at UT Austin School of Law and founding director of the Law & Religion Clinic.

“And those aren’t always in big cities as people might assume, they often are in small churches,” Collis said. In Colorado, Collis pointed to Universalist churches in the Aspen area, which have provided services to immigrants.

Another reason for immigrants to turn to religious organizations for assistance is the hope they’ll provide sanctuary for those in danger of deportation.

A long-standing policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been that they will not go into certain areas, including churches, Collis said. When the current administration took power, there was a fear among churches that could change.

ICE defines sensitive locations as areas generally not focused on for enforcement action, including schools, medical and health facilities, religious or civil ceremonies or sites of public demonstrations such as rallies or marches and places of worship such as churches, mosques and synagogues. For religious locations specifically, a 2011 memo lists that institutions of worship and buildings rented for the purpose of religious services are also considered sensitive areas.

Enforcement actions covered by the policy include apprehensions, arrests, searches and interviews for the purposes of immigration enforcement only — surveillance. ICE will only take enforcement action at these locations if there are exigent circumstances, such as other law enforcement actions leading officers to the location and if “prior approval is obtained from a designated supervisory official.”

The idea of sanctuary in churches goes back hundreds of years and actually goes predates the birth of the country, Collis said. 

The issue faced with sanctuary is that nowhere is it written into federal law that ICE cannot go after a church, Collis said. Instead, a memo of understanding reaching back to the 1990s and lasting throughout the subsequent presidential administrations pointed to churches and other sensitive areas being left alone by immigration authorities or removal actions, Collis said.What would happen if the Trump administration decided to ignore that understanding? Collis said the church could bring forth a defense where if the government is burdening their religious exercise of offering sanctuary, then the government would need to show a compelling interested by the narrowest means on that particular person. 

“Nevertheless, the fear was there, with this administration, no one knows what they’re going to do next,” Collis said. 

Another challenge is what happens when an individual must turn in paperwork to ICE or be moved from one location to another. Gilman said that in some cases whole groups of church members will go along to the ICE facility to show congregational support for the individual. 

ICE does not currently consider courthouses sensitive areas.

Collis described one Colorado case where the person in sanctuary was transferred from one location to the next in a church van hoping that the sensitive location memo would remain in effect, and that no one wanted a video of ICE pulling over a marked church van on the evening news.

Many churches take steps to avoid even having a charge of harboring by being very open about who is staying where, Collis said. In some cases, informing ICE of who is in sanctuary so that no one can say the church is harboring.

“I know some are being a little bit more secretive, but many are open and are daring the Trump administration to come. And so far, they haven’t, as far as I’ve seen,” Collis said.

In 2017, there was a moment when going through the church did not feel safe, Gilman said. This was from a seeming intention by the current administration to target those, because immigrants are known to congregate within the Catholic Church and similar religious institutions.

She remembered times when people did not show up to the church, and efforts had to be doubled and meetings took place with multiple families in a home rather than the church.

“I feel like that has diminished somewhat,” she said, adding this was partly due to clashes against the idea of ICE going to religious communities or targeting them.

In his own experience, Collis believes some of that fear has backed off as the administration has been in place long enough that providing sanctuary is safe, at least in terms of government enforcement. However, the worry is still there, and steps must be taken to make sure that the religious freedom arguments are still robust in case the government decides to go after them, Collis explained. 

Gilman added there has been growth in the U.S. sanctuary movement since the 1980s, and noted that in some cases, nuns were successfully prosecuted.

Many of the people who support this president also support religious freedom, Collis said. The result was that when churches may be targeted for offering sanctuary were snuffed out quickly.

“The same defenses that those churches would have used against the federal government, had the federal government come after them, are the same arguments used across the board,” Collis said.

Gilman said that in her local area, actions were being taken to try to find congregation members willing to house individuals outside the church in order to provide a solid location for where the person would live to provide an alternative to detainment on church grounds.

“And it was working, even with some tougher judges,” she said.

—Avery Martinez

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