Members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Quad-Cities have voted for their church to become the area's first sanctuary congregation for immigrants fighting deportation.
That means that they would house people facing a final notice of deportation for as long as it takes to get their appeal heard. In this way, potential deportees would not languish in detention centers and families could stay together, the Rev. Jay Wolin said.
The vote on Sunday by the Davenport congregation followed months of investigation and discussion by members concerned by the increasingly aggressive actions of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, Wolin said.
Places of worship fall under ICE's "sensitive locations" policy, which directs officials to avoid conducting enforcement without prior approval or only in extreme circumstances, he said.
The church just north of the intersection of East Kimberly Road and Eastern Avenue has several rooms in its lower level, currently used for children's religious education, that could become sleeping/living quarters for individuals or families.
A kitchen is available "and the most important thing, there is a bathroom and a shower," Wolin said. "We would not be able to do this if we did not have a shower."
Wolin and John Dunsheath, chairman of the congregation's sanctuary task force, said sanctuary status does not mean anyone trying to avoid immigration enforcement can simply move in. Rather, the congregation would work with partner organizations to find people who have received a final notice of deportation and they would be thoroughly vetted.
The congregation currently is recruiting partners for creation of a Sanctuary Coalition. Prospects might include One Human Family Quad-Cities, Quad-City Interfaith, LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens) and Palomares Social Justice Center, he said.
Because those seeking sanctuary would not be able to leave the campus, congregation members have volunteered to help with security, food, laundry and routine medical services. Members of the Sanctuary Coalition also would be asked to help by volunteering services or donating money.
"We can't do it by ourselves," Dunsheath said.
The congregation expects to host a seminar in late July with a representative from the Iowa Sanctuary Movement to speak and answer questions for potential partners.
Discussion began after 2016 presidential election
The impetus for the church's sanctuary discussion came shortly after the 2016 presidential election when Peter Morales, then national president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, put out a call for congregations to become sanctuary congregations. "He was concerned about the rhetoric, and foresaw a need," Dunsheath said.
The national organization assembled a "tool kit" for congregations to use for discernment. The Davenport congregation's board decided that at least 80 percent of the congregation had to vote 'yes' for the effort to go forward. Sunday's vote was 89 percent in favor, with about 90 of 233 total members voting, Wolin said.
"We were thrilled," he said.
Nationwide, about 75 Unitarian Universalist congregations have declared themselves sanctuary congregations, with at least a dozen of those actively housing people, Wolin said.
An institution has to be public about what it's doing, though, otherwise "you're 'harboring,' and that's something different," Wolin said. Institutions also cannot transport individuals. And the person in sanctuary will need to have his/her own legal representation; the congregation cannot offer that help.
Whether housing people would run afoul of Davenport city zoning ordinances remains to be tested, Wolin said.
But he pointed out that through history, faith-based organizations have been involved in protecting immigrants and people fleeing persecution as part of religious ministry.
"This is who we are and what we do," he said.