What Churches Should Know About Immigration Law

An immigration attorney shares how churches can help immigrants in their congregations and communities.

We talked with immigration attorney Analí Gatlin Looper about the sanctuary church movement, resources churches can use to learn more, and key reminders on immigration law and immigrants’ rights.

What exactly is a sanctuary church? Is it a legal designation, or something else?
“Sanctuary church” is a self-proclaimed designation. It’s not a legal definition or designation.
In 2011, US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) put out a memo saying they’re not going to do actions in churches, hospitals, schools—that’s not their intention. While that’s not a “hard and fast rule,” it is a policy that the officers are told to follow. The Department of Homeland Security has officially stated [as of February 20] that the sensitive locations policy is still in place despite the new executive orders, and ICE’s website says that the Sensitive Locations Memo is still in effect—from what I’ve heard from individual ICE agents, they are still operating as if it is in effect. I think it is still a viable policy until we hear something specifically rescinding this memo.
There’s no legal protection for a church, however, if they want to have undocumented immigrants staying there. In the 1980s, there was the sanctuary church movement with the Central American refugees and asylum seekers. A lot of people were prosecuted: pastors and congregants were prosecuted for harboring undocumented people because there is no legal protection. This movement [in churches] arose from the Christian command to welcome the stranger, as well as the political component of realizing it doesn’t look good for immigration to go storming into a church, trying to arrest or deport people. Churches have capitalized on that. Again, however, there’s not a legal protection for people to engage in it.
What kinds of reliable resources can churches turn to if they want to learn more about issues related to immigration?
Nonprofit immigration law firms are going to have good information; there also might be for-profit firms that are going to do pro bono work.
If helping in the legal aspect is an interest of your church, give money to organizations that already do that. There are a lot out there, and there are places like ILRC (Immigration Legal Resource Center) that have a lot of information about work that’s happening, and they work nationwide. They do big-picture work, not necessarily helping to take on immigrants’ individual cases, but they have a lot of information available. US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is the government entity that’s responsible for giving immigration benefits; their website has breakdowns of different types of immigration benefits and explains them. The site is not going to vet your case and say, “This is what you should apply for.” They just have their facts on their website, as well as all the forms to fill out for immigration benefits.
But I caution churches against giving legal advice, which I think is a risk that happens once you start to learn some things about the law: you now want to share that with everyone you know, but the advice you’re giving might apply to one person but not another. Even telling someone what form they should fill out is giving legal advice.
I have seen churches that don’t have an attorney on staff start providing legal service help for immigrants. That’s against the law, and it’s also unsafe and not helpful.
In the nonprofit world, there’s something called “BIA reps”—Board of Immigration Appeals representatives—who have been trained and who have passed an exam by the Board of Immigration Appeals. That allows them to basically work as attorneys, but only in the field of immigration. They can, however, give legal advice, and if they’re fully accredited, they can even go into immigration court in front of a judge.
They are only allowed to work in the nonprofit sector. The BIA realized there are not enough attorneys doing low bono or pro bono immigration law. So through BIA, people can get trained in immigration law to function like attorneys, but they do not have to be an attorney. They have to be under the supervision of an attorney, however.
What are some of the most important things for churches to keep in mind in the midst of uncertainties about immigration law and enforcement?
With the potential for expanded enforcement (and the expanded enforcement that has already taken place), there are just a lot of folks who are really scared and afraid. I’ve seen it affect children quite a bit: US citizen children who are part of mixed-status families. I think churches will have a role to play in providing emotional support for such families.
There also are, of course, financial needs for people who get into enforcement proceedings. It’s not cheap to bond out of detention, to go through the court process if you are in removal proceedings. If churches are wanting to get involved, there’s a need for financial resources. Immigration law is so complex, and often cases take so long, that an attorney spends a lot of time on one case. A lot of immigrants can’t afford what it would cost if you paid an attorney per hour to do their case; it’s cost prohibitive for a lot of folks.
Churches can provide in other ways relating to this issue, as well. For example, my church sent me to law school because there was no one providing nonprofit immigration legal resources in Waco, Texas, where I’m from. There are tons of immigrants who qualify for benefits here. I get really frustrated when I hear people say “go stand in line to get a legal status”—well, there’s often not a line for people to stand in to do that. That line just doesn’t exist. It’s a very complex system that almost always requires attorneys or legal representatives to help you maneuver it. There are just not enough of us right now and not enough resources to go around. People are desperate and want to do the right thing and get legal status. No one wants to live in a shadow of uncertainty or without work authorization—that’s not anyone’s desire—but you have to have help to get to that status.
Regardless of what type of status a person has, churches can help them find affordable legal services if they have questions about their status. It’s important to remember that a lot of undocumented immigrants came with visas. They might have overstayed their visas, but I think there’s a lot of confusion: that everyone who is considered among the 14 million undocumented people came without visas, but a lot did come with them and have overstayed them. The mere fact that they came in with a visa might change what benefits they qualify for.
If churches are connected with legal service providers, it’s great to help people in their church find out answers to their questions: “What are the consequences if I stay this long?” “Am I allowed to work?” “Am I not allowed to work on this visa?”
A lot of people live in fear because they don’t know what the information is—they don’t know what is at their disposal. I meet with a lot of people who have lived here for years and didn’t know they qualified for immigration benefits. We need more people having access to immigration practitioners.
In noting what churches should keep in mind related to this issue, it’s not as much about what the rights of a church are, but to understand the rights of the undocumented person, or someone who’s possibly not a citizen. I think churches striving to know those well, and also to help their congregants and others know those well, is a huge and crucial step.
Can you name some of these rights that would be important or useful for church leaders to know?
There are constitutional rights that everyone has who is in the United States, no matter where they were born: not the entire Constitution, but parts, including the right to remain silent, the right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. Those do apply to undocumented people.
We have to think about how we, as a church, can help people access benefits that are out there for undocumented and documented immigrants in the community. What are the ways we can protect them? For example, immigrants have a right to drive around the city and not be racially profiled by the police or by immigration. If that’s happening, then church members need to stand up and say, “This isn’t right.” They need to call attention to it.
Analí Gatlin Looper has worked with American Gateways since early 2015. She represents clients in a variety of family-based cases, crime victims’ visas, and asylum cases. Looper also has worked with the Immigration Clinic at Baylor Law School.

Read For more on this topic, see an article on immigration law and the church and a downloadable resource detailing how to keep your church safe and legal as you strive to serve the immigrant communities in your context.

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