Durham County

Faith leaders know they’re breaking the law. Why they’re taking the risk

José Chicas spends his days in what he describes as prison-like space reading the Bible, praying and pacing, but it’s the people helping him who could potentially face actual prison time.

Two weeks ago, Chicas, 52, pastor of Iglesia Evangélica in Raleigh, found refuge from deportation in the School for Conversion in Durham, an interfaith group that teaches how to live in community.

“I only open the door and look outside,” he said. “I can’t go out and step on the dirt.”

Chicas is the third person in North Carolina who has been publicly offered sanctuary by faith leaders.

Juana Ortega, 49, lived in Asheboro for 24 years until she moved into St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro on May 28. She was the first person to receive public sanctuary in the state, sanctuary advocates said.

Minerva Garcia’s sanctuary followed in late June when she moved from Winston-Salem into Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro with her two youngest sons, ages 3 and 6.

When a faith-based organization provides sanctuary it gives someone a space to do the most essential things in life – sleep, eat and bathe – beyond the reach of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Those who provide sanctuary to people facing deportation are breaking at least part of a federal law, 8 U.S. Code 1324, and can face up to five years in prison.

But enforcement appears rare.

ICE has an internal policy of not entering sensitive locations such as institutions of worship, schools, hospitals, sites of public religious ceremonies or sites of public demonstrations. The are several exceptions to the policy, however, and it can be changed at any time by Homeland Security.

The Durham County Sheriff’s Office does not participate in the 287 (g) program, a federal program that authorized deputies to do immigration enforcement.

“Unless there is a criminal warrant for the person’s arrest, we would not ‘arrest’ someone merely for deportation purposes,” said Brian R. Jones, director of planning and development. “This is true whether they are in a church, or on the street.”

Sought asylum

Chicas is from left El Salvador and left in the 1980s to escape the country’s civil war. He applied for asylum in the U.S. in 1985 but was denied in 2008. He appealed the decision in 2009 and lost.

Since 2010, Chicas has shown up every year at ICE’s field office in Charlotte and has received deportation delays and work permits. At this year’s appointment ICE gave him a final order to leave by June 28.

In the late 1990s he was charged with one misdemeanor count each for assault and assault on a female. He was sentenced to two years probation, according to documents from the Wake County Justice Center.

Chicas was also convicted in 1993 of driving while impaired in Lee County, according to state records. He was sentenced to 12 months probation and ordered to undergo a substance abuse assessment. The judge ordered him to spend 24 hours in a Lee County jail, according to state records.

Chicas is married and has four children, three of whom are U.S. citizens and one who has Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Before Chicas moved into the school, he was a maintenance worker for a Catholic school in Cary.

All three of the people in sanctuary – Ortega, Garcia and Chicas – have final deportation orders and are asking either U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis or Rep. David Price to request stays of removal, delays in deportation.

Sanctuary history

Sanctuary in the U.S. dates as far back as the early 1800s when the Underground Railroad protected slaves fleeing north.

The modern sanctuary movement has gained national attention since 2014. Over 800 houses of worship have volunteered to offer sanctuary and more than 20 faith-based institutions are actually providing sanctuary.

Jennie Belle, director of the N.C. Council of Churches, has given at least 10 presentations on sanctuary to church leaders in the Triangle and one in Greensboro.

“This is something that our faith calls us to do,” Belle said, “to welcome the immigrant, to feed people when they need it, to clothe people when they need it, to house people when they need it.”

“We are called not to submit to unjust laws,” she said.

Others disagree.

William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said the government should reevaluate these churches’ tax exemptions. The PAC opposes illegal immigration, amnesty, the guest worker program and a path toward citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

“We think any church that tries to aid and abet illegal immigrants in violation of federal law should have its tax status revoked and should face charges under federal law,” Gheen said.

“They don’t believe the American laws will be enforced, and 99 percent of the time they’re right,” he said.


Faith leaders providing sanctuary in their churches and schools could be prosecuted by the U.S. government with a federal law that punishes those who knowingly or with “reckless disregard” harbor, shield from detection, transport or conceal unauthorized immigrants.

Hans Linnartz, a Raleigh immigration attorney who has advised more than 200 faith leaders on the risks of sanctuary, said these leaders are violating this law.

“It’s pretty clear that most of what churches or individuals do, in terms of providing sanctuary, is harboring,” Linnartz said. “They’re usually providing goods and services and a place to live. Whether it involves concealing from detection or shielding a person from detection depends upon how the particular entity goes about doing it.”

Case law shows defines harboring as “afford(ing) shelter to” and acting “to substantially facilitate an immigrant’s remaining in the U.S. illegally.” The Ninth and 11th Circuits have said harboring must be done with “intent” to help the immigrant avoid deportation.

The appellate courts have also determined First Amendment religious rights are not a defense against harboring, concealing or shielding from detection. The government has prosecuted employers, landlords and faith leaders under this law.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, director of the School for Conversion in Durham, which is helping Chicas, said he understands the legal risk.

“For us though, the moral obligation to stand with our brother is more important than any consequences that we have to face,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “One way of saying it is, he is suffering consequences because of an immoral policy and we would rather suffer with him than leave him alone, so we’re willing to take the risk.”

The Rev. Julie Peeples of Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, which is providing sanctuary to Garcia and her two young son, said their church sped up their process to provide sanctuary because they saw this as a humanitarian crisis.

“We follow what the ACLU has said and what a number of circuit courts have said, as long as you are not hiding someone, shielding them from detection, or transporting them that what you are doing is basically offering them humanitarian aid,” Peeples said.

The likelihood of prosecution is uncertain, Linnartz said.

“Among the couple of churches that have raised the flag and said ‘Here’s what we’re doing,’ we haven’t seen the government go after them and I don’t know if it would,” he said.

In the ’80s two major prosecutions of church leaders received so much negative publicity that the White House issued a directive to stop prosecuting sanctuary leaders, Linnartz said. The government weighed the cost and benefit of prosecuting a few people when it had thousands of unauthorized immigrants in the country, he said.

“I think it embarrasses the government to do this,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “If they want to do that, they can. But it seems to me that offering them sanctuary in a religious institution is very much in keeping with the long history of religious sanctuary. A government who wants to challenge that has to deal with public ramifications.”

Camila Molina: 919-829-4538