Leaders of the church-based Sanctuary Movement vowed on Friday to offer their places of worship as refuge for immigrants facing deportation under an Obama administration crackdown on Central American families who entered the United States illegally.
The statement came two days after The Washington Post first reported the U.S. government was planning a series of raids to remove hundreds of undocumented families as early as January in the first such large-scale effort targeting the recent flood of border crossers.
The Department of Homeland Security preparations to intensify deportations of Central American migrants, confirmed by U.S. government sources, drew immediate fire from Democratic presidential candidates and human rights groups.
Leaders of the multi-denominational Sanctuary Movement, which has sheltered at least 10 immigrants from deportation over the past 18 months, joined in the criticism on Friday, alluding to the biblical Nativity story of Mary and Joseph seeking refuge before the birth of Jesus.
"As pastors we know that each and every family is a holy family," said the Rev. Alison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. "We open our doors to today's Josephs and Marys. ... The gift we have to offer on Christmas Day is the gift of sanctuary."
The Sanctuary Movement, which Harrington said encompasses about 50 congregations in a dozen U.S. cities, made headlines in January by providing refuge in Philadelphia to a Honduran woman whose two children were born in the United States. She ultimately won a two-year reprieve from deportation.
The Rev. Noel Anderson, a coordinator for the affiliated Church World Service, put the overall number of congregations supporting the sanctuary network at about 300 in more than 20 states nationwide.
Immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have been streaming into the United States from Mexico by the thousands since early 2014 - many of them unaccompanied minors and families - fleeing extreme poverty, gangs and drug violence in their home countries.
Most were detained after turning themselves in at the border seeking asylum, but were released to surrounding communities after initial screening to await further proceedings.
A 2008 U.S. anti-human tracking law bars undocumented Central American children from being summarily sent back, as they could be if they were from Mexico or Canada.
Government sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the new campaign by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency marks an expansion from mostly targeting individuals to pursuing families with undocumented members who have already been ordered to leave.
Asked why the agency was singling out families, a spokesperson said the crackdown focused on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security, "whether alone or with family members."
Support for the move came from U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, who said it would help "eliminate the incentive that results from allowing 95.6 percent of these illegal immigrants to stay."
Harrington said she feared the crackdown will ensnare many who lacked sufficient time or legal representation to prepare asylum claims and "were too quickly put through the system."