Columbia church declares itself sanctuary for immigrants

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COLUMBIA - The Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia will provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants or refugees who are at-risk of deportation or detention while the individuals pursue legal recourse.

Members voted Sunday to become a sanctuary congregation. Ninety-seven percent of those present approved the declaration.

Reverend Molly Housh Gordon said the congregation felt becoming a sanctuary aligned with the church's mission. 

“We want them to know that we value their presence in our community and all that they bring to our community," she said.

Gordon said the declaration of sanctuary is in response to some recent policy changes regarding immigration in the United States.

“We know from our conversations that there are people who are living in fear in Columbia, and we want those people to know that they’re not alone," Gordon said.

The church would provide food and shelter to an individual who entered the sanctuary.

According to the church's website, there is some legal risk involved with providing sanctuary to people not authorized to be in the United States.

The church and individuals using the sanctuary would rely on a policy set forth by the Unites States Department of Homeland Security. The policy asks Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to avoid focus on "sensitive areas," including schools and churches. However, the declaration of sanctuary has no legal standing and arrests could still happen.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement FAQ on sensitive sites says, "Enforcement actions may occur at sensitive locations in limited circumstances, but will generally be avoided. ICE or CBP officers and agents may conduct an enforcement action at a sensitive location with prior approval fro the appropriate supervisory official, or if the enforcement action involves exigent circumstances."

The individual seeking sanctuary would not be able to leave the site until their legal case is resolved.

Gordon said funding is not clear at this point. She said the church could receive support and resources from the National Sanctuary Movement and other people of faith in Columbia.

"We are not, as a congregation, doing this alone in Columbia or in the country," Gordon said.

The church will celebrate its sanctuary decision on Tuesday, April 18.