Is it morally acceptable for agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—or local police, for that matter—to station themselves outside places of worship in order to identify and capture illegal immigrants?

On a recent trip to Duke University, I learned about a controversy involving the Iglesia de Dios’s Catedral de Jesus in Zebulon, North Carolina. In April 2010, church members charged that local law-enforcement officers posted license checkpoints outside the church immediately following services. They claimed that the police detained only drivers who appeared to be Latino, while allowing Caucasian and African-American drivers to pass through freely. Suspecting that the real goal of the checkpoints was to catch illegal immigrants, church members filed a complaint with the local branch of the ACLU, which launched an investigation of this and similar incidents in the state.

In late September 2011, after concluding its investigation, the ACLU issued an apology to the police department—it appeared, among other things, that the checkpoints were not as close to the church as was first thought. But I found myself wondering: What exactly would be the problem if they were close?

Many people, I think, would find such a strategy of enforcing immigration law intuitively distasteful, no matter how cost-effective it might be. In a 2008 memorandum, ICE itself acknowledges this sensibility, stating that it is not agency policy to target churches, schools, and other “sensitive” locations, absent exigent circumstances such as threats of terrorism or other forms of violence. But why are these locations considered “sensitive”? ICE does not say, other than to note that “children and their families might be present.”

In the past several years, Catholics have heard a lot about “intrinsically evil” acts—acts that are always and everywhere wrong. But our moral tradition also has much to say about acts that are wrong in certain circumstances—in some times and in some places. What does it tell us about why houses of worship might be “sensitive” locations for immigration enforcement?

In the Christian West, houses of worship have long been considered places of sanctuary, although the law has not always recognized that claim. A friend who is an expert in early Christianity suggests that the root concern was not to harbor the guilty, but rather to prevent the defilement of the altar by violence and bloodshed in the pursuit and capture of the fugitive. Moving from cultic to theological concerns, it is also clear that intentionally killing someone—whether guilty or innocent—in a church subverts a central message of the gospel: Jesus Christ came to save sinners, offering us all redemption from the sentence of death that sin brought into the world. No matter who the victim, murder is more heinous if it is committed in a place of worship. The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young African-American girls, was an act of sacrilege. So too was the 2009 shooting of the abortionist doctor Craig Tiller in Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas.

In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement attempted to protest U.S. policy toward undocumented refugees from Central America. Invoking analogies to the Underground Railroad, a network of churches offered physical sanctuary to refugees, even as the same congregations worked to gain sanctuary seekers better treatment under federal immigration law. More recently, the “New Sanctuary Movement” has emerged to provide similar protection for today’s illegal immigrants. Most famously, thirty-one-year-old Elvira Arellano took refuge in the United Methodist Church in Chicago rather than be deported to Mexico and separated from her son. Declining to pursue her into the sanctuary, ICE waited for over a year to arrest her. She was detained for deportation only after she had traveled to Los Angeles to speak at a rally. For the New Sanctuary Movement, the church is not merely a place but how a congregation responds to the call to obey God’s law rather than man’s.

Someone might object that the prospect of immigration checkpoints directly outside churches does not raise the specter of a defiled sanctuary, nor does it challenge the church as a locus of political protest. That is true. But it does raise a danger, less dramatic perhaps but more fundamental. For  it threatens to reduce undocumented immigrants to their immigration status, thereby occluding their common humanity. First and foremost, those in the country illegally are human beings made in the image and likeness of God—just like us. They love their children and they give praise to God—just like us. One way of keeping the humanity of the undocumented before us is for law-enforcement officials to stand a respectful distance from places where humanity is most fully enacted and welcomed. The “sensitivity” that ICE justly respects in refraining from targeting churches and schools in enforcement practices is actually nothing less than sensitivity to our common humanity.

Published in the 2011-11-04 issue: View Contents

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.

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