By Gabriella Borter
NEW YORK (Reuters) – The number of American churches declaring themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants has more than doubled since President Donald Trump was elected, but only a dozen people are known to be taking refuge there to avoid deportation.
Since Trump’s victory in November, about 400 churches have declared themselves sanctuaries, bringing the total to more than 800, according to Church World Service, an international humanitarian nonprofit. The surge came after Trump pledged to deport millions of undocumented people from the United States.
But for immigrants seeking to avoid federal authorities, sanctuary remains a last resort — and a potentially risky one.
“You need a certain mindset. You have to be a very strong-willed individual who’s willing to make that personal sacrifice to make a larger statement towards immigration law,” said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, a Phoenix-based immigration attorney.
“It’s not just about an individual staying here; it’s something much bigger than that,” said Ybarra Maldonado, who represented Mexican-born Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos, who made headlines in February and was one of the first illegal immigrants deported under Trump.
Nury Chavarria was the most recent immigrant to publicly take sanctuary in a church. Her decision seems to have helped her win some relief in the short term.
The Guatemalan-born mother of four was granted a stay of deportation on Wednesday after spending six nights in Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal in New Haven, Connecticut.
Chavarria, who has no criminal record, was previously granted a stay of removal “on humanitarian grounds,” according to Khaalid Walls, spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). She came to the attention of ICE after her application for asylum was denied in 1993, her attorney said.
In June, during a routine ICE check-in, federal authorities told her she had a month to return to Guatemala.
When illegal immigrants like Chavarria take sanctuary, they have no guarantees. However, ICE policy discourages arrests at “sensitive locations,” which include places of worship.
The concept of “sanctuary” has roots in an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, religious communities offering refuge do so as a protest against federal immigration policy.
Still, as churches nationwide declare themselves sanctuaries, immigrants are reluctant to accept their offer.
Garcia de Rayos decided against taking sanctuary in a church, her attorney said.