A tiny church in Newberry says it soon will begin sheltering undocumented immigrants who face deportation orders despite the possible legal consequences.
Clayton Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church says it will become South Carolina’s first “sanctuary church,” flouting the federal law that makes it illegal to knowingly harbor undocumented immigrants.
Sam Stone, the church’s board chairman, said the congregation feels compelled by faith to protect people who, he says, have been mistreated by an unjust immigration system.
“People have to live. They have to eat. They have to take care of their children, send them to school,” Stone said. “We make it impossible for them to do these things. When they try to find a way to do those things, we prosecute them. Our faith just calls for us to treat people better than that.”
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Stone said the 15-member Newberry church will select and house up to two immigrants at a time in its fellowship hall. The church also will help the immigrants hire attorneys to fight their deportation orders, allowing them to stay in the United States.
The risks are great, Stone concedes.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents typically don’t raid churches or other “sensitive” locations, such as hospitals or schools. But there is no law protecting any immigrants at Clayton Memorial from an immigration raid, nor is there one protecting Clayton Memorial’s members from charges themselves.
“We’re taking a risk,” Stone said. “We decided it was important to do that.”
Sanctuary churches have been around since the 1980s, when illegal immigrants poured into the United States to escape war in Central America.
At that time, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia had a contentious internal debate about whether to become a sanctuary church, recalled Brett Bursey, director of the S.C. Progressive Network and a member of the church. Ultimately, the church decided against it.
“It’s going to be interesting to see,” Bursey said of Clayton Memorial’s plans. “It’s going to be a challenge. We’ll see.”
Stone said Clayton Memorial’s members want wholesale immigration change, starting with giving undocumented immigrants an easier path to citizenship so they don’t feel the need to come illegally.
Clayton Memorial also has not estimated how much the project will cost. The church plans officially to announce its plan at a news conference Tuesday, eight months after it began considering the idea.