ITHACA, N.Y. — The First Congregational Church of Ithaca has declared that it is now a sanctuary church and has pledged to “provide shelter as needed for any undocumented immigrant who is seeking sanctuary while the legal challenge to deportation is in process.”

Church leaders held a press conference Thursday to explain why they chose to make their church a local sanctuary.

“Becoming a sanctuary church is an extension of one of our core principles in the United Church of Christ: ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here’. Engaging in the Sanctuary process is a statement of extravagant welcome for at-risk members of our community, modeled on the principle of God’s unconditional grace offered to all,” Rev. Dr. David Kaden, senior minister of the First Congregational Church, said.

Sanctuary cities and municipalities have been a hotly debated topic, locally and nationally. The City of Ithaca and Tompkins County have both passed sanctuary resolutions. Ithaca is listed on a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement document about jurisdictions that have enacted policies limiting cooperation with ICE, with the criteria, “Will only honor ‘warrantless detainer requests from the federal government under limited, specified circumstances’ such as violent or serious crimes or terrrorist activities.” Ithaca is one of more than 100 declared sanctuary jurisdictions across the country, and such jurisdictions have drawn scorn from the Trump administration. Recently, President Trump reiterated he was “giving strong considerations” to releasing migrants to sanctuary cities.

Declaring themselves a sanctuary church, said Andy Weislogel, FCCI Church Council president, is “designed to further a climate of welcome, compassion, and justice amid the omnipresent reminders of bias toward immigrants in today’s news cycle.”

While there is a lot of attention at the national level about immigration, Mary Jo Dudley, who is the director of the Cornell Farmworkers Program, grounded the issue locally, addressing the question, “What does it mean to us here?”

“New York depends heavily on agriculture,” Dudley said. “Our farmworkers in the area throughout the state are primarily undocumented immigrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala, and that influences their reality every day just to leave the house. To go to their child’s parent-teacher conference, to go to the grocery store, puts them at risk.”

She said it’s often hard for people to connect that when they buy milk in the grocery store, they are purchasing a product that is the result of physically demanding farm work that relies heavily on immigrant workers. She said the church declaring itself a “sanctuary church” has political and real significance.

Related: Overtime at issue in proposed farmworker rights bill

Weislogel said they are declaring themselves a sanctuary church in solidarity with many other Ithaca faith communities that are part of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, a collection of local congregations, community organizations, and individuals fleeing violence or in danger of deportation. Other Alliance members include St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, First Baptist Church in Ithaca, Congregation Tikkun v’Or Ithaca Reform Temple, First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, Living Hope Fellowship, St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Forest Home Methodist Church, Ithaca Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and First Congregational Church of Ithaca (United Church of Christ).

Formed in March 2018, goals for members of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance include educating themselves and the community about immigration-related issues and advocating for justice and comprehensive humane immigration reform, and accompany and support immigrants and their families, at their request, when facing immigration-related hearings or meetings or as guests in sanctuary.

At the news conference Thursday, Rev. Kaden shared a story of a Pakistani couple, Malik Naveed bin Rehman and Zahida Altaf, who sought sanctuary at the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme in Connecticut. They have a 5-year-old daughter who is a U.S. citizen and they had been in the country for 18 years with temporary visas, but they stayed past their visas’ expiration dates. They tried for years to pursue legal status, but according to a report from local radio station WNPR, they were derailed from a path to citizenship and lost nearly $6,000 due to an immigration lawyer mishandling their paperwork and faced deportation. The church offered them sanctuary and the couple stayed there for months until ICE announced it would not oppose their stay request while a judge considers their appeal.

“Today, First Congregational Church of Ithaca declares itself publicly to be a sanctuary church in part because we are inspired by stories of possibilities such as this one. We have no illusions that by making this public declaration, we will fix a broken immigration system, but we might just add a little bit of good cheer, make a little bit of difference in the lives of people like Malik and Zahida, fellow human beings and children of God,” Rev. Kaden said.

With this declaration, Rev. Kaden said the First Congregational Church of Ithaca is currently the first and only public sanctuary in Tompkins County.

Featured image courtesy of First Congregational Church of Ithaca UCC Facebook page. 

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.