Refugee rally at UW-Madison (copy)

Demonstrators opposed to President Donald Trump's executive order on refugees and travel rally on the campus of UW-Madison earlier this year. 

PHOTO BY JOHN HART - State Journal

Last week, 36 faith-based organizations, schools and campus ministries in Dane County announced their intention to provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and refugees as part of the new Dane Sanctuary Coalition.

The coalition has been in the works for months, but what does its official creation mean for undocumented immigrants and refugees in the community?

What will the coalition do?

Congregations providing sanctuary would house immigrants or refugees under imminent threat of deportation.

The Dane Sanctuary Coalition is following the leadership of Voces de la Frontera and Centro Hispano, and is part of the New Sanctuary Movement, a national collective of over 800 congregations.

How many immigrants could these Dane County congregations house?

Even with 36 organizations in the coalition, there isn’t a lot of space for immigrants to live. Five of the 36 congregations have signed up to house immigrants: Advent Lutheran Church, Community of Hope United Church of Christ, First Unitarian Society, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim and Orchard Ridge United Church of Christ.

Some of these are partner congregations that share buildings, so there are only three available sanctuary locations. Each of those could realistically house one individual or family, said Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, president of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice.

But the point of sanctuary congregations is not to house all of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, Margulis said. Instead, the national New Sanctuary Movement aims to shine a light on what it considers the immorality of immigration policies, she said.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political statement,” said Mario Garcia Sierra, a member of Voces de La Frontera. “But we believe by engaging one person or one family at a time, that will be helpful in terms of opening the conversation as to why families need to stay together.”

“As people of faith, it breaks our heart to know we can’t help every single person,” Margulis said. “That’s why our immigration laws need to change.”

Who would be eligible for sanctuary?

Because of the political nature of sanctuary, those who would live in the congregations would have to be willing to make their story public as a way of putting a spotlight on issues of deportation, Margulis said.

“It’s not just about taking in everybody who could be at risk of deportation, (it’s about) finding really specific people to be part of that public witness, to be a face,” said Rev. Nick Utphall, a pastor at Advent Lutheran Church ELCA, one of the sanctuary congregations.

Such an immigrant would be “the person we’re most able to help, who has a good chance of staying in country and who needs our help we can provide,” Margulis said.

What’s the legal risk for the congregations who would house undocumented immigrants?

It’s a tricky question without many official answers, Utphall said.

Utphall’s congregation shares a building and is a partner congregation with Community of Hope United Church of Christ. Together, they are known as Madison Christian Community (MCC).

MCC took a long look at liability issues, talking with lawyers and looking at legal precedent. Living in Dane County, where Madison Police Chief Mike Koval and Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney have stated that they will not cooperate with ICE, makes for a friendlier legal environment, Utphall said.

Additionally, the congregations aren’t acting as a type of underground railroad for undocumented immigrants, Utphall said.

“It isn’t this clandestine, secret kind of thing,” he said.

Because of that, the legal risk should be fairly minimal, he said, but it’s still there.

“As a largely white congregation, we get to float along and feel safe a lot of a time,” he said. “This is a process of sharing risk with people who have lived with it every day for decades.”

How urgent is the need for sanctuary sites?

Faith communities started pursuing the question of sanctuary after local Latino organizations like Voces de la Frontera and Centro Hispano asked them to look into it last November, Margulis said.

“Given the political discourse, we thought that it was really a huge need,” Sierra said.

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Congregations heard stories like that of a Monona man who never picked his son up from school because he had been detained and brought to Milwaukee, Utphall said. Margulis noted that the urgency is also evident in highly-attended passport fairs and immigration seminars, where parents fill out paperwork to give an individual power of attorney over their children.

What do supporting congregations do?

James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation, First Baptist Church, First Congregational United Church of Christ and Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ are all supporting congregations in the coalition. They can provide meals, transportation, advocacy and support to the congregations housing the immigrants or refugees.

What are the next steps for the coalition?

The coalition is  setting up guidelines and procedures for the congregations, and the congregations themselves are prepping their physical space for the possibility that someone need to stay in their building, Margulis said. 

The coalition is also working in partnership with several other organizations to form a rapid response network, or “sanctuary in the streets,” (not to be confused with the city's "rapid response team" to violent incidents) which would provide a secure toll-free phone number for anyone to call and report that immigration enforcement is at their workplace or house.

When will the congregations begin to host immigrants?

“No idea at all,” Utphall said.

Ideally, no one would have to move in Utphall said, noting that of hundreds of New Sanctuary Movement congregations nationwide, only a handful actually have someone living in their building.

“The whole thing is we hope not to need it. It’s a really sad thing that it’s come to this point,” Utphall said. “I wouldn’t want to have to live in my church building.”

Sierra agreed that sanctuary is a last resort, and it’s not for everyone.

“No one really wants to be committed to a building 24-7 for an unknown period of time,” Sierra said.