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More churches are opening their doors to undocumented immigrants facing deportation

Since President Trump took office, the number of American churches willing to shelter undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation has grown to about 1,000 -- a small fraction of the Christian community. Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino meets one immigrant who has been welcomed by a congregation in hopes of buying time to find a legal way of staying in the U.S.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, throughout his campaign for office, President Trump made halting illegal immigration and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border a central theme.

    Now, nearly a year since he was inaugurated, Immigration and Customs Enforcement says that arrests are up roughly 40 percent. But the president's policy has also inspired a renewed resistance.

    Special correspondent Duarte Geraldino reports from North Carolina on churches offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    The doors of Umstead Park Church of Christ are unlocked, but Eliseo Jimenez is trapped within its walls. The 39-year-old is an undocumented immigrant with a standing deportation order, meaning Immigration and Customs Enforcement want him returned to his native Mexico. But he's not going.

  • Eliseo Jimenez:

    I'm not going to give up on my kids. I'm not going to take them away from their own country, take them away their rights to better education, better health care, better life.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Instead, he's chosen sanctuary in this church, relying on an ICE policy that says federal immigration agents won't apprehend people in so-called sensitive locations.

    It's part of a strategy to buy time to reopen his immigration case and to find a legal way to stay. Umstead Park United Church of Christ is one of a growing number of churches around the country that have publicly declared their opposition to existing U.S. immigration law by offering sanctuary to undocumented people facing deportation.

    Reverend Doug Long is the pastor here.

  • Rev. Doug Long:

    I want to be able to say to my grandchildren one day, maybe I didn't live during the height of slavery, maybe I didn't live through Nazi Germany, but when I had the opportunity, when we had the opportunity to offer refuge to a family in need, to an undocumented immigrant who was being deported, we did our best.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    The sanctuary movement has its modern roots in the 1980s, when civil wars in Central America sent hundreds of thousands of political refugees into the U.S. seeking asylum.

    Church leaders sheltered them and were later prosecuted and convicted, though received no jail time. The movement was revived under President Obama, who critics called the deporter-in-chief for the record-high removals that happened under his watch. And since President Trump took office, the number of churches that have joined this movement, saying they're willing to shelter people or help do so, has grown from 400 to around 1,000.

  • Viridiana Martinez:

    The Trump effect is in new allies coming in, is in these churches stepping up like never before. That is the Trump effect.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Viridiana Martinez is the founder of Alerta Migratoria, Migration Alert, a nonprofit started during 2016, when many recent arrivals from Central America were detained and deported.

  • Viridiana Martinez:

    You know, at this point, it's not just a moral human rights thing. It's also a Christian duty to uphold Christian values and to be there for the people that are most vulnerable.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Umstead Park began hosting Jimenez in October 2017, after first undergoing legal training in to learn how to offer sanctuary. Pastor Long says both he and his congregation had many questions.

  • Rev. Doug Long:

    Is this legal? And in what ways might it not be legal? How might we get in trouble with our 501(c)(3) status? Can we provide enough volunteers to maintain this kind of ministry? How much does it cost?

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    After talking to legal counsel and other churches in the area, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to welcome Jimenez, converting a former office into a studio apartment. On weekends, his children, Alison and Christopher, stay with him. They sleep in a tent, a small touch meant to make the ordeal feel like an adventure.

    A church volunteer stays on the grounds 24 hours a day, sleeping on a mattress in the pastor's office, just in case immigration agents show up. Jimenez attends services and helps out around the church to pass the time, while, back at his old home in Greensboro, about an hour's drive away, his partner, Gabriela, who's also undocumented, works 50 hours a week and struggles to take care of their children.

  • Gabriela Martinez:

    They don't really understand what's happening. But they get frustrated. They cry like almost every night and every morning. They ask me why his father is not at home. What I just tell them is like, he's working in the church.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Jimenez says he first came to the U.S. when he was 17. In 2007, he was deported back to Mexico, but reentered the United States a month later, a federal felony. He did it, he says, to care for his then young children, who are U.S. citizens.

  • Eliseo Jimenez:

    Give them whatever they need for school, for clothes, or anything they need. That's just like I'm doing right now with my kids.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    In 2013, he was arrested for auto theft, but he calls the case a misunderstanding. He borrowed a roommate's car without telling him.

    Court records show most of the charges were dropped, but he pled guilty to driving with a revoked license and failing to notify the DMV of an address change. He paid a fine. And under the Obama administration, he wasn't considered a priority for deportation. He obtained a work permit, paid taxes and was checking in with ICE officials each year.

    That all changed in 2017, when President Trump signed an executive order broadening ICE criteria to include anyone convicted or charged with any crime, and generally giving ICE agents far more discretion in whom they target for removal.

  • Viridiana Martinez:

    People are checking in as they had been in previous years, and they're being told, you have to pack up your bags and go.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    That rising demand and Trump's election appear to be fueling this growing sanctuary movement. And yet it still represents only a tiny fraction of the broader Christian community.

  • Rev.Russ Reaves:

    We are to be people of the law, Romans 13, be in submission to governing authorities, because we recognize that God has allowed those authorities to be there, and therefore are good.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Russ Reaves is the former pastor at this church in Greensboro.

  • Rev.Russ Reaves:

    Biblical justice. Perfect justice.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    He says he's worked hard to welcome immigrants into his congregation. But providing sanctuary, he says, is a step too far. A number of years ago, he was asked to do so, but refused.

  • Rev.Russ Reaves:

    I would say that a church has every right, and should, reach out to see that, are there felt needs there that we can meet? Is there some way that we can help them gain access to the system that would perhaps make them able to stay?

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    Everything but actually offering them sanctuary.

  • Rev.Russ Reaves:

    Essentially, yes. The most important thing we can do is to share our faith with them and to ground them in their relationship with God, so that, worst-case scenario, they do get deported, they go back to where they're from with a sense of divine purpose for their life.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    With more people like Eliseo facing deportation, and the demand for sanctuary growing, more churches will likely wrestle with this debate.

    Remember Viridiana Martinez? She came to the U.S. when she was 7. She received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. And unless Congress acts, she too faces possible deportation this year.

    What about people like you?

  • Viridiana Martinez:

    I don't know. That's a good question to ask the American people. If this administration is really going to going to put their foot down and say, no, we're going to round all of you up, then I hope that we can have the support of churches, saying, we're going to open our doors to all of you.

  • Duarte Geraldino:

    More doors may be opening, but how long Eliseo Jimenez and others are willing to stay to avoid deportation is another matter.

    For the PBS NewsHour I'm Duarte Geraldino in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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