Columnist Razvan Sibii: Offering sanctuary to undocumented immigrants

  • Lon Chaney stars as Quasimodo in the classic silent film version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” FILE PHOTO

Published: 4/20/2020 3:00:07 PM

A beautiful young woman is wrongly condemned to death. As the king’s men drag her to her execution, a very ugly man suddenly emerges from a church, knocks out two soldiers, slings the woman over his shoulder, and runs back with her into the church shouting, “Sanctuary!” The woman will not die today, for the church is “a place of refuge” and “all temporal jurisdiction expire(s) upon its threshold.”

The anecdote, familiar to everyone who has read Victor Hugo’s “Notre-Dame de Paris,” or has seen one of the many “Hunchback of Notre Dame” movies, still serves as the main lens through which many of us perceive the contemporary practice of giving “sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants.

Sexist imagery aside, the story does offer some modern day equivalence (the church as refuge, the stay of “execution”), but also misconception (no, temporal jurisdiction does not actually expire on the church’s threshold). Modern “sanctuary” is a rare happening that brings together a desperate individual and a community of faith in a highly fragile, highly complicated, last-resort endeavor to frustrate the king’s men and give their intended victim a respite.

Since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, three undocumented immigrants have been given sanctuary in churches across the Valley: Lucio Perez (at First Congregational Church in Amherst since October 2017), Irida Kakhtiranova (at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence church since April 2018), and Gisella Collazo (at South Congregational Church in Springfield between March and June of 2018).

Few communities across the country have taken this radical step to register their dissatisfaction with the Trump administration’s deportation frenzy, but, for the past four years, hundreds of towns and counties have openly refused to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. In 2011, ICE announced an official policy of avoiding arrests in certain so-called “sensitive locations” such as churches, schools and hospitals. Miraculously, that self-imposed policy still guides ICE’s actions. And this is where sanctuary comes in.

The king’s men retain the power to enter a “sensitive location” if they’re looking for a dangerous criminal or if there’s “imminent risk of death, violence, or physical harm to any person or property.” The recipient of church sanctuary, therefore, is never guaranteed complete safety from arrest. As long as they stay on church property, they enjoy the flimsy protection of a “sensitive location,” but, most importantly, they can also rely on a community who is ready to raise hell, should ICE break down the church doors.

The process by which a community decides to offer sanctuary and then implement it is long and arduous. For the Interfaith Sanctuary Coalition in Springfield, who gave sanctuary to Gisella Collazo, that process started in December 2016, a few days before Trump assumed the presidency. The Coalition brought together six churches, who, with the help of the Pioneer Valley Project, a Springfield activist organization, began the difficult work of deciding exactly what their religious convictions dictated in terms of opposing the new administration’s deportation threats.

For seven months, the constituent congregations deliberated on the purpose, wisdom and logistics of offering sanctuary. They researched the history of sanctuary in America, they spoke with groups who had recently been through that experience, and they planned for every contingency they could think of.

What if some group members had a problem with sanctuary? There was going to be no easy solution to this. “Some of the congregations had a lot of members who were very upset and threatened to stop giving money to the parish,” recounts Tara Parrish, PVP’s director. “We were really impressed by clergy who stood up to that and said, ‘This is what we’re called to do.’”

What if Springfield’s mayor, whose antipathy for undocumented immigrants was well documented, would retaliate against the organizers? “We lawyered up the church. We had a legal team that was representing South Congregational Church. ACLU was offering legal support, along with other voluntary lawyers,” Parrish says. Her organization also worked with the Springfield City Council to pass a resolution protecting the churches.

What if ICE did raid the church? “It was about volunteers knowing that they needed to get the pastor on-site immediately. It was also about taking video and not interfering. It was also about having a media strategy,” Parrish explains. If ICE came in, the community would make sure the public relations cost of that move would be high.

Who would be considered for sanctuary, and how long would they be expected to live in the church? Sanctuary works best when it is used as a tactic to prevent immediate deportation and give an undocumented immigrant a little more time to pursue their case in court. The best fit, therefore, was going to be an individual who had a decent chance of adjusting their immigration status.

Finally, in June 2017, the Coalition announced to the world their intention to offer sanctuary. “There was a decision made among us that we really needed it to be a public tactic,” Parrish says. “It would be done so that ICE was aware of the decision to offer sanctuary, and even the location of where the person was. We really wanted to shine a light publicly on the injustice of threatening to separate families and also the arbitrary fashion in which enforcement was being done.”

In March of 2018, Gisella Collazo entered sanctuary at the South Congregational Church. Roughly three months later, she left, having secured a stay of deportation.

The dramatic heroics of a recluse misfit, snatching the damsel from the clutches of her executioners, were nowhere to be seen. What was in plain sight, however, was a community’s courageous response to the king’s injustice.

Razvan Sibii is a senior lecturer of Journalism at UMass Amherst. He writes a monthly column on immigration and incarceration. He can be contacted at

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