A Seattle church has opened its doors to an undocumented man facing deportation and separation from his family, joining scores of other sanctuary places of worship offering shelter to the targets of the Trump administration's immigration enforcement. While there is no law prohibiting Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from entering churches, the department has historically avoided doing so.
Jaime Rubio Sulficio moved into the sanctuary facility at Seattle's Saint Mark's Episcopal Cathedral on Friday. Rubio Sulficio is a business owner whose wife and six-year-old son are United States citizens. His family is able to visit him in the daytime.
"It's difficult to be apart from my family," Rubio Sulficio writes. "I can't imagine not being able to see my son and wife. I will stay in sanctuary while we find a legal remedy for my situation."
Since an immigration judge ordered him deported in 2012, Rubio Sulficio had repeatedly applied to stay removal orders until late last year, when immigration authorities denied his request. An ICE official tells Pacific Standard that Rubio Sulficio had received five stays of removal. His sixth request was denied on November 28th, 2018.
"He was detained at the border after going to visit his mother" in Mexico in 2010, says Saint Mark's Dean and Rector Steven L. Thomason. "He's received stays [of removal] until recently. It was just an arbitrary decision not to continue those stays. He's become a victim of our current immigration policy, which is broken."
Immigration authorities have said, in correspondence with Rubio Sulficio, that the discretionary stays he had been receiving were intended to be temporary.
"They are totally able under the regulations to grant either consecutive stays or what's called deferred action, which we've also asked for, meaning an indefinite stay," explains Rubio Sulficio's attorney, Lori Walls. "But because of—I imagine anyway—a policy change, they've decided not to do this."
Rubio Sulficio is among the latest to become part of a growing number of undocumented immigrants seeking refuge at places of worship across the country. Pacific Standard has spoken to several such faith communities that are offering shelter to undocumented community members facing deportation.
ICE acknowledges the existence of a policy—not to be confused with a law—discouraging certain types of enforcement at "sensitive locations." The agency notes, however, that the policy is not binding. "Current ICE guidance directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances," the ICE official says. "The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship, and hospitals."
Father Bryan Pham, a Loyola Marymount University professor of theology and an attorney with the university's Immigrant Justice Clinic, says that the notion of so-called sensitive locations emerged in the 1980s in memoranda circulated among government officials. Federal policy does not preclude enforcement at those locations—it's more of a gentleman's agreement that instructs agents to avoid enforcement there.
"The avoidance is more from a [public relations] perspective. If you're dragging people out of hospitals or take kids out of school in handcuffs, that would look bad," Pham says. "Because it's not written down as a law, more like a guideline, it's up to the discretion of the local government or also local ICE office as to how they want to enforce it."
Estimates place the number of known cases of undocumented immigrants living at places of worship at around 50 nationwide, but experts, including Pham, say that there are likely many more.
Places of worship frequently choose not to disclose their sanctuary facilities to the public, mostly because there is no law protecting them from immigration enforcement, Pham explains: "It's more or less an unwritten policy that ICE follows that they would avoid sensitive locations—those would be hospitals, churches, schools. It's an understanding—it's a very broad policy. It's not a black-and-white law."
Pham says his immigration clinic tries to advise institutions offering sanctuary that "the word 'sanctuary' is a broad term" that requires clarification. Even in a so-called sanctuary space at a place of worship, the immigrant still faces the possibility of enforcement and the institution may face prosecution on a number of charges, from harboring a fugitive to improper zoning for a full-time residential occupant. "As an attorney, I suggest people go through the proper channels in the courts, but that might not be an option for some people," he says.
Indeed, ICE appears to have gone to great lengths to work around enforcement at churches. In December, Pacific Standard reported that a man who had been living at a North Carolina church had attended an appointment with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that he believed would result in legal residency status. ICE officers were waiting at the USCIS building, where they took the man into custody. Eventually he was deported, leaving behind a wife and son.
In the case of Rubio Sulficio, the ICE official says that he should be removed in accordance with the decision of the immigration court judge who ordered him deported in 2012, and decries the church's decision to offer him sanctuary. "Sanctuary policies not only provide a refuge for illegal aliens, but they also shield criminal aliens who prey on people in their own and other communities," the official says.
Walls explains that Rubio Sulficio's only "criminal history is a misdemeanor conviction for illegal entry." Still, he has no other real hope for recourse. "There's no way for him to legalize his status here under the current legal regime," she says, beyond immigration authorities reversing course and granting him continued discretionary stays. In other words, Rubio Sulficio's only hope for long-term relief is for a deeply divided Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Saint Mark's is committed to helping to keep Rubio Sulficio's family together as long as needed.
"Jaime is here in sanctuary on our campus and we're committed to supporting him until he is able to obtain a legal remedy that allows his family to remain together," Thomason says. "We believe that it is immoral to separate families in situations like this. We believe that he, as every human does, deserves respect and dignity. And our religious tradition mandates that we honor everyone with respect and dignity and that's why we're doing this."
Thomason is confident that his organization is on the right side of the law and of justice, more broadly. "We recognize that [the sensitive locations policy is] not law and could change," he says, "But we also recognize that there is a long-standing tradition of separation of church and state that provides for the church being able to do things out of an ethical leadership that the government should honor. We hope that will be the case in this situation."
Thomason hopes that other U.S. faith communities will respond to the need for a safe haven emerging around them and insists that it is "not a partisan action" to respond to that need. "I happen to believe it is a religious and a moral action," he says.
"We call on all people of this nation to say that we can and must do better," Thomason adds. "And it is out of that sense of a clarion call that we are acting in this way."