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A Church in Massachusetts Opened Its Doors to an Undocumented Woman. It Now Faces Threats of Retaliation From City Authorities.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno reportedly responded to the South Congregational's sanctuary project by calling for the city to look into whether the church's housing facility was up to code.
The South Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The South Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts.

A Massachusetts church opened its doors this week to an undocumented woman, joining dozens of other congregations nationwide that are responding to the Trump administration's immigration policy by offering undocumented people sanctuary. The church is doing so despite reported threats of retaliation by local authorities.

The undocumented woman, who church officials referred to only as Gisela, moved on Monday into the sanctuary at Springfield's South Congregational Church. Church officials describe her as having lived in the United States for 17 years, where she had two children with her husband. She is reportedly the only non-U.S.-citizen in her family. Gisela has no criminal record, the church officials say, and she has consistently paid taxes and attended regular check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At a recent check-in, ICE agents reportedly instructed her to purchase a ticket back to the country of her birth no later than Tuesday.

"She just moved in this morning," Reverend Tom Gerstenlauer says. "We feel this is an opportunity to [act on] what we claim—love for our stranger and extravagant hospitality for the stranger among us."

South Congregational Church is a member of the Pioneer Valley Project, a coalition of diverse faith and other community groups engaged in social justice causes. While PVP participants gear up to make sanctuary facilities available to more community members like Gisela, they are matched by about 50 other known operating sanctuaries in places of worship where undocumented people are taking refuge across the country, according to Gerstenlauer.

For Bill Toller, the deacon of Springfield's Holy Cross Catholic church, and a PVP board member, offering Gisela sanctuary is an expression of faith. "Pope Francis is a vision for who we are and where we're going," he says referring to how the pontiff has continually expressed the need to empathize with and offer refuge to migrants amid a global uptick in populist politics. For Toller, Pope Francis' sentiments on migrants are an epitomization of the New Testament passage, Matthew 25:36: "I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."

But even as they see their actions as firmly rooted in scripture, not everyone has supported Gerstenlauer and Toller's efforts to welcome the stranger. Last year, amid an uptick in what rights advocates call the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policy, South Congregational Church announced it was readying sanctuary facilities to assist people under threat of deportation. In response, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, a Democrat who has declared his city one that does not offer sanctuary protections barring collaborations with ICE, expressed staunch opposition to the development, reports. What's more, Sarno called on city officials to investigate whether the sanctuary met municipal safety standards, the report adds.

Sarno's staff did not respond to questions from Pacific Standard regarding speculation that the request for an investigation was intended to pressure the church into abandoning its pledge to undocumented community members.

Toller describes himself as having been "involved in some of the nitty gritty on" ensuring the sanctuary was up-to-code and maintains the structure skirts no regulations. He describes Sarno's reported suggestion that city officials target the church for inspections—particularly coupled with his vocal opposition to a sanctuary effort—as retaliatory pressure from Springfield's halls of power.

"I would consider that political bullying," he says.

Springfield wouldn't be the only municipality in the nation to face pressure from authorities over attempts to offer undocumented people sanctuary under the Trump administration. Federal officials have declared that heightened ICE enforcement raids, detentions, and deportations in California amount to a retaliatory response to the state's attempts to enact so-called sanctuary state laws barring state and local authorities from offering support to federal immigration agents. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced a lawsuit against California to halt those protections.

Reverend Tom Gerstenlauer.

Reverend Tom Gerstenlauer.

Finally, President Donald Trump suggested that he would pull ICE from California altogether in retaliation for its resistance to his immigration policy. "You would see crime like nobody has ever seen crime in this country," he said, apparently threatening the state with chaos for opposing his policies.

The Trump administration has even gone as far as to denounce individual officials for attempting to protect undocumented community members targeted by raids. In one instance early this month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions publicly scolded Oakland, California, Mayor Libby Schaaf for sending a tweet warning her community's undocumented residents of impending immigration raids. It remained unclear whether the Department of Justice would press charges against Schaaf.

What is clear is that the federal administration wouldn't stop at hitting back at officials who declined to support its immigration policies. In Springfield, people of faith speak of similar attempts to scare civil society into submission to the local and federal government's policies.

Despite apparent threats from on high, the push to house Gisela and others like her isn't about Sarno, Trump, or any other government figure, Gerstenlauer explains. "We have not done any of this to challenge the mayor of Springfield. We have not even done it to challenge the president of the United States. We have done it as an expression of our faith," he says.

And he remains firm in his commitment to undocumented community members. "If we don't do this, we would be exposed to more ridicule and accusations of hypocrisy than we will likely get in doing so," he says, "In the Christian tradition we use the phrase 'the principalities and the powers.' Our commitment is not to [the authorities]; our commitment is to a higher power."