A sanctuary movement focused on shielding from deportation immigrants who are in the United States illegally is gaining strength on Long Island, with clergy and lay people pledging to resist federal officials trying to send such immigrants back to their homelands.
The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island has declared itself a “sanctuary diocese” — prepared to give shelter in its 129 churches, for weeks or months, to immigrants facing arrest and deportation.
The Setauket Presbyterian Church, a congregation established in 1660, has become the first house of worship on Long Island to individually designate itself a sanctuary, saying it will open its doors to immigrants in jeopardy.
Nearly a dozen self-described “rapid response teams,” with 300 members, have formed throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties. The teams are prepared to rush to the scene of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions, accompany immigrants to court and carry out education campaigns informing immigrants of their rights.
The advocates say they are compelled to act by their faith and the Judeo-Christian teaching to help the powerless. They are part of what is called the “New Sanctuary Movement,” which now includes at least 800 houses of worship, according to Manhattan-based Church World Service, an international humanitarian nonprofit.
The informal network of safe havens is expanding as the administration of President Donald Trump intensifies efforts to deport immigrants here illegally and the future remains uncertain for Dreamers — young people brought illegally to the United States as children years ago.
The Episcopal Diocese of Long Island’s move is “a clear expression of the Gospel message that calls us to care for our brothers and sisters and to welcome the stranger,” said the Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, bishop of the diocese that covers Nassau and Suffolk counties, Queens and Brooklyn.
“The church should be a place in which people feel welcome, people feel safe, and, in fact, the Gospel is not only being preached, it is being lived,” the bishop said.
Sanctuary is not without controversy, even within the Setauket congregation itself, said the Rev. Mary Speers, pastor of the church.
“There are some people who don’t understand it, who think we are running a come-one-come-all shelter for anybody who wants a place to crash,” she said. “That’s not what goes on.”
Opponents of the movement say the act of granting sanctuary to immigrants here illegally is itself illegal.
“They’re harboring criminals, even though it is civil,” said Barrett Psareas, a proponent of strict immigration laws who is vice president of the Nassau County Civic Association in Cedarhurst. “They should be arrested, whoever harbors them, whether it be a priest, nun, sister, a deacon.”
But Richard Koubek of the Hauppauge-based nonprofit Long Island Jobs With Justice, a main organizer of the movement, said providing shelter to an immigrant who is sought for deportation is not illegal in New York as long as the house of worship notifies authorities it is doing so.
A Manhattan law firm that the group hired cited a legal basis in a 2013 ruling by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes New York, he said.
The immigrants must be provided sanctuary within the building that has the worship space and not, for instance, in a separate parish hall, Koubek added.
Places of worship, schools and hospitals typically are safe places for immigrants who face deportation to stay.
Federal immigration agents generally are prohibited from entering what ICE calls “sensitive” locations to make arrests, according to an ICE spokeswoman and ICE guidelines posted on the agency’s website. Some immigrants have remained in churches for more than a year.
So far, neither the Setauket church nor any Episcopal churches in the Long Island diocese has housed an immigrant trying to avoid deportation, mainly because few have come forward, Koubek said. But that has happened in other places, from Denver to Detroit to New York City, he said.
One Long Islander, Amanda Morales Guerra, a Guatemalan woman from Massapequa who has been living in the United States illegally since 2004, moved into Holyrood Episcopal Church-Iglesia Santa Cruz in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood in August.
Immigration authorities have said they will deport her. Morales has three young children, all born in the United States, who are staying with her in the church. She said she took sanctuary in Manhattan because she did not know of any church on Long Island offering safe haven.
Most churches, synagogues and mosques on the Island have not declared themselves sanctuaries, Koubek said. Two synagogues, two Unitarian Universalist congregations, an Hispanic evangelical church and an order of Catholic nuns are considering it, he said.
The Presbytery of Long Island, which oversees 55 Presbyterian churches here with about 10,000 members, passed a resolution last June saying it will support any church that offers sanctuary.
The Diocese of Rockville Centre — with 1.5 million Catholics, by far the largest denomination on Long Island — does not plan to declare itself a sanctuary diocese, Bishop John Barres said in a recent interview. He cited legal and health issues involved in providing sanctuary, and said the idea would offer “false hope” to immigrants.
Many of the undocumented immigrants on Long Island are Latino and Catholic.
The diocese does many other things for immigrants, spokesman Sean Dolan said Friday, including assistance to 20,000 immigrants a year through Catholic Charities, with services such as legal consultations and “know your rights” workshops.
The history of sanctuary in churches is long — many served as key stations on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves fleeing the South. The current movement is reminiscent of, and named after, a similar effort in the 1980s when religious and other groups offered sanctuary to refugees fleeing bloody civil wars in Central America.
Supporters say they are trying to help people caught up in a dysfunctional immigration system.
“It’s not that we are supporting open borders and anyone coming in and general amnesty,” Koubek said. The groups are assisting people who have been “unjustly treated . . . We are not going to accompany to court or offer sanctuary to MS-13,” the violent street gang whose members primarily are from El Salvador.
In Setauket, the congregation has selected a room near the sanctuary where an immigrant or immigrant family could stay, and even has a portable shower and stall that can be connected to a sink faucet like an old-fashioned dishwasher, Speers said.
The church, whose members included key figures in George Washington’s famous Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War, faced internal opposition to its decision a year ago to become a sanctuary church, she said. One staff member and one congregant quit, and one family withheld its annual financial pledge, she said.
Provenzano said the Episcopal Diocese, which has about 44,000 members, wants its churches to offer sanctuary and will support them. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see parishes across the diocese do this,” he said.
Koubek said the term “sanctuary” means more than providing shelter. It also involves creating an environment where immigrants under threat feel safe and supported.
The rapid response teams will fulfill that role, he said, by going to the scenes of ICE actions or accompanying immigrants to court. The teams, located in communities including Babylon, Freeport, Hempstead, Huntington Station, Port Jefferson, Port Washington and Riverhead, have a hotline that immigrants can call.
The group has received scores of calls on the hotline, including from people who said their homes were being raided by ICE agents, said Victoria Daza, an immigrant rights organizer for Jobs With Justice. Often, though, the calls come a day or more after the arrest of immigrants, she said.
The responders are trained not to interfere with immigration agents during any enforcement actions, though they can serve as witnesses or videotape the events. The teams also have recruited immigration lawyers who will work pro bono or at reduced rates.
While most rapid responders are Christians, others are Jews or Muslims. Though largely faith-based, the movement is not completely removed from politics.
One rapid response leader, Sister Mary Beth Moore, a Sister of Charity who runs a nonprofit in Hampton Bays that assists Latinos, said, “When Trump was elected, all of us who had been advocating for many years . . . were all completely crushed.”
Forming the rapid response teams “was a way for all of us to move out of our sense of helplessness and impotence and rage,” she said.