Alarmed by immigration raids on illegal workers, a coalition of U.S. religious groups is launching a sanctuary movement on Wednesday to harbour immigrant families who risk being torn apart.
Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim groups are opening churches and synagogues to shelter families who face deportation.
“This is a natural for the religious community,” said Kim Bobo, founder of the national Interfaith Worker Justice organisation and one of the “New Sanctuary Movement” coordinators.
“It is natural for us to find a much more public role, to stand up with the immigrants, to challenge the direction of the nation and suggest that we need a much more comprehensive immigration program,” Bobo told Reuters.
Since last May, U.S. immigration authorities have been cracking down on illegal immigrants who ignore deportation orders and some 18,149 people had been arrested by February 23 in a series of raids across the country. Many families were split with U.S. born children left behind without one or both parents.
Under the sanctuary plan, six to eight congregations in Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and San Diego will initially harbour one family each of immigrant families who have at least one member facing, or at risk of, deportation.
Organisers expect to expand quickly to some 28 U.S. cities. Families being offered sanctuary have worked in the United States for some years, paid U.S. taxes and have no criminal records. They have also agreed to be publicly identified.
Sanctuary, or the right to be safe from arrest in a house of worship, has no legal standing in the United States but is a widely cherished tradition.
Organisers say they believe they are within U.S. law because the names and cases of families are being revealed.
But they are braced for opposition from anti-immigration groups and have already received hate mail and threats.
The New Sanctuary Movement has its roots in the 1980s when U.S. inter-faith groups supported thousands of Central American refugees fleeing repression but denied political asylum in the United States.
According to the Pew Hispanic Centre research group, some 2 million families in the United States have some undocumented members. Many of their 4 million children are U.S.-born, and thus U.S. citizens.