ITHACA, N.Y.—The First Congregational Church of Ithaca (FCCI) recently celebrated the legal residency and move into permanent housing for its first sanctuary guests.

Drucila Francisco Mateo and her young daughter, Guatemalan natives who fled to the United States to escape violence and poverty, came to the sanctuary church’s apartment in July 2020, where they resided until this past September, when Mateo’s residency was approved and the pair no longer had to fear deportation.

FCCI Rev. David Kaden said that the church first began thinking about becoming a sanctuary in 2018, and more research was done by the congregation with eventually led to an overwhelming vote of support in May 2019 solidifying the sanctuary status. The FCCI is also one of the founding entities of the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance (ISA), which pledges to provide shelter for undocumented immigrants during legal proceedings for residency.

According to an internal memorandum from 2011, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released language in a policy designed to “ensure that these enforcement actions do not occur at nor are focused on sensitive locations such as schools and churches” except for unexplained extenuating circumstances. The memorandum lists “churches, synagogues, mosques and other institutions of worship, such as buildings rented for the purpose of religious services.”

Following the vote, the church began fundraising and raised enough to renovate the top of the church and turn it into an apartment. Local contractors in the area donated time and labor to the project, and the church bought the materials.

“During the middle of COVID, that first summer, we were contacted by Drucilla through her lawyer and one thing led to another, and she moved in in July 2020,” Kaden said. “During that time she was taking English-language classes.”

Kaden added that volunteers helped with everything from groceries, laundry and babysitting to helping her with her green card application.

Michael Smith, coordinator for Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance, said that the FCCI’s sanctuary program was originally contingent on community members volunteering for rotating duties involved with housing someone under the sanctuary program.

“There were several congregations […] and individuals who wanted to pitch in, who collaboratively check in with Drucilla and bring groceries or other things as needed,” Smith said.

Kaden said that becoming a sanctuary church is a huge undertaking that needs a network of volunteers for an initially unknown amount of time. “You don’t know how long they’re gonna be living with you. It needs to be a network that extends beyond what most local churches are capable of doing by themselves. That’s why we wanted to mobilize folks in other groups and form this alliance.”

Other local member organizations of the ISA include St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, the First Baptist Church in Ithaca, Congregation Tikkun v’Or Ithaca Reform Temple, the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca, St. Catherine of Siena Parish, Forest Home Chapel United Methodist Church and Living Hope Fellowship.

“My experience being in the sanctuary was very nice. I met many good people,” Mateo said in a press release from the FCCI. “The wait was long but it was worth it because now I have my legal residency. Thanks to the support I never had to worry about if I was going to have food, which is the most important thing. Thanks to everyone who supported me. It means a lot to me.” Mateo was not available for further comment.

Now that Mateo and her daughter have moved out of the church apartment, the space is ready for the next guest whenever the need arises.

Smith said that the ultimate goal is for the sanctuary movement to become unnecessary, and that part of the ISA’s task is to provide education and advocacy.

“The need is there, but it shouldn’t be there if we figure out a way to create a more humane immigration policy. The goal is to make ourselves unnecessary and change the culture enough,” he said.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...