Reno church joins growing immigrant sanctuary movement

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Arlene Torres was not planning on a birthday celebration for her son, who turns 10 in a week.

Torres, 32, expected that her husband, Jose Gastelum-Cardenas, 33, would be hiding from authorities, isolated in a small room at the back of a church she had never heard of.

Or worse, he would be deported back to Sonora, Mexico, more than 1,100 miles away from their home in Reno. Torres and Gastelum-Cardenas are both undocumented immigrants. Their sons, ages 9 and 5, are U.S. citizens.

But the family will celebrate their son’s birthday in a few days, together.

“I know that there are some really bad guys that have to be deported, but there are families that need to stay together,” Torres said Friday while strolling along the Truckee River holding the hand of Gastelum-Cardenas, who speaks little English.

On Jan. 7, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Nevada became the first church in the state to provide physical sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant, Gastelum-Cardenas. It comes amid a resurgence in the faith-driven movement that advocates for the protection of immigrants who are in the United States illegally.

In January, a series of raids targeting Central American families who moved to the states in the tens of thousands in 2014 spiked nationwide interest in the idea of churches offering sanctuary. Federal agents are directed not to enter “sensitive” areas, such as churches or schools, to detain an undocumented immigrant.

While there are only about 50 churches in the country that have offered sanctuary, the interest in doing so is growing.

“When we got back from the holidays, we’d been getting calls from churches from all over the country,” said Cathi Tactaquin, executive director for the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, based in Oakland.

Of 13 documented cases of churches providing sanctuary, 11 of the people sheltered have received some sort of relief – either temporary or full suspension of a deportation status, according to the Rev. Noel Andersen of Church World Service, based in Washington, D.C. Andersen is one of the primary organizers and leaders of the church sanctuary movement.

In Gastelum-Cardenas’s case, his deportation status was temporarily suspended for a year after four days in sanctuary due to pressure from the community, the church and a local immigrant advocacy group, Acting in Community Together in Organizing Northern Nevada (ACTIONN), Torres said.

“We have grown in faith a lot,” she said.

A growing movement

While there are no known cases of authorities penalizing a church or other religious institution for offering sanctuary, the federal immigration agency’s policy does not necessarily protect them. Nor would any policy protect a church from public dissent.

“Usually, the congregations had to make a decision about whether they are going to go forward because there is some risk, and there’s not always agreement about whether they should go forward,” Tactaquin said.

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