Portrait of Reverend Samuel Rodriguez photographed by Ian Allen for TIMEPhotograph by Ian Allen for TIMEDO NOT PUBLISH*FINAL RETOUCHED FILE* Please contact photographer for usage
Reverend Samuel Rodriguez Photograph by Ian Allen for TIME

Donald Trump's Inaugural Pastor Creates 'Safe Haven' for Immigrants

Mar 01, 2017

The Sacramento church of an evangelical pastor who led a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration is offering beds for congregants who need a safe haven from immigration raids or domestic violence.

Pastors at New Season Christian Worship Center set up thirty cots in two large rooms just days after the President issued his January executive order that expanded federal deportation policy. Congregants spread the word that they were available for anyone who was afraid of the immigration policies’ potential effect. Half a dozen families showed up in the past month. Most stayed just a couple of days. About half came with fears over immigration and half with fears of domestic abuse, according to church officials.

New Season Christian Worship Center is led by Sam Rodriguez Jr., the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January. Rodriguez has offered legal education about immigrant rights to his parishioners, and has asked them to contact NHCLC’s immigration attorney if they fear their family may be separated. He has also offered similar resources to the NHCLC leadership to distribute to their churches at their discretion.

“The anxiety in Christian conservative, evangelical churches has grown exponentially, because many of our worshipers, many of the families we serve, many of the families in our pews, may very well lack the appropriate documentation, even though we have a don’t ask don’t tell policy,” he says.

The safe haven program is run by pastor Charlie Rivera, who leads the church’s Spanish-speaking Cantico Nuevo ministry. The church decided to speed up the start date of the safe haven program once fears over deportation escalated. “We don’t ask, do you have this documentation or not,” Rivera says. “All we do is provide a safe haven.”

New Season’s safe haven program is different from the sanctuary church movement, which seeks to protect immigrants facing deportation from federal officials. Some 800 mostly liberal Christian and interfaith congregations have signed up to be sanctuary churches and most come from non-evangelical denominations including Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Disciples of Christ churches.

Six families are currently using the nationwide sanctuary church movement, according to the Church World Service—two cases are in Denver, two in Chicago, one in Phoenix, and one in Philadelphia. Federal law prohibits the harboring of undocumented immigrants, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have said the agency will continue its “sensitive locations policy,” which bars agents from searching or arresting potential undocumented immigrants in places of worship, hospitals, and schools.

New Season does not have a plan in place if federal immigration agents arrive at the church, says Rivera. The program is intended to offer a space for recuperation and spiritual encouragement during a time of fear. “We are just there offering assistance, giving them a sense of hope, peace,” he says.

Rodriguez has been working for months to build a bridge between the Latino evangelical community and the Trump administration. During the campaign, he challenged Trump’s commitment to build a southern wall and to deport with force roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants. In a private meeting Trump held with evangelical leaders in June, Rodriguez says he asked Trump to keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as children, often called Dreamers, to find legal employment and avoid deportation. He also said he asked Trump to not separate families with deportation.

In December, Rodriguez reiterated those concerns in a listening session call with Trump transition officials, while 40 Hispanic denominational leaders listened on the line. “We have every desire to work with President Trump in finding a solution to our immigration crisis, one that addresses his objectives and stops illegal immigration, and deports those involved in nefarious activity, but protects the Dreamers and the god-fearing, hardworking families that are here undocumented,” Rodriguez says.

The Department of Homeland Security issued draft memos in mid-February that confirmed that DACA would remain in effect and broadened group of undocumented immigrants targeted for deportation. The memos also suggested that deportation of criminals could be interpreted to mean anyone who is in the U.S. illegally, not just offenders of serious crimes. Rodriguez has urged Trump to confine deportation of undocumented immigrants to violent criminals, such as murderers, drug dealers, and gang members. “I am grateful that the president met the critical element embedded in his promise not to touch the Dreamers,” Rodriguez says. “I need the president now to complete the promise and protect good god-fearing hardworking families from being separated."

"What has taken place in the past two weeks does not respect the president’s promise,” Rodriguez said.

Theologically conservative churches face different challenges from their liberal counterparts. Many evangelical churches have members who are strong Trump supporters as well as immigrants who are both legal and undocumented. NHCLC is a largely conservative network of evangelical Hispanic churches, and Latino evangelical congregations have been growing quickly in the U.S. Nearly a quarter of Assemblies of God churches, for example, are Latino, and much of the new growth has come from Hispanic communities. “This is a community that is not completely hostile to him,” Rodriguez says. “It was the conservative evangelical community that played a dominant role in the election of our president.”

Predominantly white evangelical congregations face a similar challenge. Rod Loy leads First Assembly North Little Rock in Arkansas, a theologically conservative church, and he estimates that 10% of his 5,000-congregant church is Latino. This week, Loy met with the Latino leadership of his church to talk about the “overwhelming” fear that families are feeling from Trump’s policies. The church also gave a college student about $1500 to pay for her family’s citizenship papers. Whenever a church member becomes a citizen, Loy says, the church celebrates during the Sunday service, giving them a standing ovation and a “basket of Americana,” including a can of Coke, an American flag, apple piece and a baseball.

Loy hopes to start a church-based immigration program, and is sending a team to an upcoming immigration law training in Minneapolis with the Evangelical Free Church of America. He expects to soon have volunteers to represent congregants in immigration court. “We are all very concerned,” Loy says. “We have to respect our president, we have to respect our leaders, but if you live in fear, there is no freedom.”

At Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20, Rodriguez read a prayer from the Book of Matthew. “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs,” he prayed, quoting Jesus. “God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

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