GREENSBORO, N.C. – The Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro is one of three churches in North Carolina that offer Sanctuary for undocumented immigrants and refugees facing removal.

Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro and The School for Conversion in Durham are the other two churches serving as Sanctuary to undocumented immigrants Juana Ortega and José Chicas.

Julie Peeples, Senior Pastor at CUCC, says there are currently five North Carolina churches interested in providing “sanctuary,” but each faith group or congregation approaches becoming a Sanctuary in different ways.

Typically, church leaders receive notification from an immigration attorney or agency for immigrants’ rights that a person (without a criminal record, with legal representation) is seeking sanctuary.

An important factor in a church accepting working with a sanctuary-seeker is to ensure the interests of the person and the church match.

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As long as the church is not harboring someone – hiding them from the law or transporting them— they are not going against the law, since the church notifies ICE and law enforcement that the undocumented person is being given humanitarian aid.

In the case of CUCC, Sanctuary serves as a safe space for the person until they can receive due process.

Most recently, Minerva Cisneros García entered Sanctuary at the church located on 400 W Radiance Drive in Greensboro, a day before her removal order became effective on June 28, 2017. Her removal order was vacated on October 2, 2017, which allowed her to leave Sanctuary without penalty.

“What worked for us was to, for the last few years really, make good connections with agencies in the community that are doing work with immigrants,” Peeples said.

After studying the concept of sanctuary and reaching out to national organizations about sanctuary came the logistics of making it actually happen.

Obstacles are part of the logistics sorted out in the process of becoming a sanctuary. For CUCC, one of them was making sure Cisneros and her two sons had their basic needs met, like installing a shower in the space that would be designated to them.

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Peebles says that, historically, law enforcement and ICE have treated schools, hospitals and churches as safe havens and are “hands-off” from entering to pursue someone without a warrant signed by a federal judge.

“Ultimately we are answering to a higher law,” Peebles said. “We are answering to God’s law.”