Can Undocumented Immigrants Claim Sanctuary in U.S. Churches?

legislative newsFor more than a century, state courts around the country have sought to understand legislative intent when interpreting legal statutes and state law. When judges are trying to understand the intended purpose of particular laws, federal statutes, and even the constitution itself, they must often rely on arcane and complex legislative research. Of course, sometimes the meaning behind a law is abundantly clear.

Case in point: President Donald J. Trump’s executive order on immigration, which was rushed into effect to deliver on one of the president’s primary campaign promises. There’s no need to review the fallout or controversy surrounding this executive order, but it has raised some interesting legal issues.

For instance, take this piece of news from CNN:

“Since President Trump signed an executive order apparently beefing up immigration law enforcement, stories about undocumented immigrants seeking refuge at churches have emerged.

And the number of US churches willing to offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants is rising, according to Church World Service.

In centuries past, when the church played a larger role in political life, criminals, refugees, debtors, and others could claim official “sanctuary” inside of a church, protecting them from the law. So how does the antiquated concept of “sanctuary” translate to modern political life under the Trump administration? Can illegal immigrants claim sanctuary?

In a word, no. The Immigration and Nationality Act makes it illegal to harbor an undocumented immigrant “in any place, including any building,” which includes any church.

However, just because something is legally possible, that doesn’t mean it’s politically expedient. With the Republican party promising to respect the rights and autonomy of religious institutions, raiding churches to round up and deport undocumented men, women, and children might not play well in the news.

“I think for publicity reasons, immigration enforcement does not like to go into churches,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr of the Cornell Law School to CNN.

In the first month of the Trump administration, legislative news has often been overshadowed by media stories, like the coverage of the immigration executive order. Indeed, although many people expected President Trump to rapidly sign legislation repealing Obamacare and rolling back legislation, so far there has been little legislative news from Capitol Hill.

Of course, it’s still very early in the Trump administration, and the executive order does make one thing clear: Trump has ambitious plans.