WASHINGTON—More than two dozen congressional Democrats are asking President Biden to grant temporary protection from deportation to 40 immigrants living in houses of worship as part of his pledge of a new approach to immigration centered on decriminalization, reuniting families, and creating paths to citizenship for roughly 11 million people living without legal status in the US.
The immigrant families living in churches and synagogues across the country — including several in Massachusetts — were initially granted so-called stays of removal during the Obama administration but became targets of federal immigration officials under President Trump.
“Those in sanctuary have suffered enough,” read the letter to Biden led by Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas and Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and signed by 27 other lawmakers. “Your administration’s actions can bring them the relief they need and deserve.”
Congregations in Massachusetts and across the nation scrambled to help immigrants without legal status four years ago after Trump took office and began using executive powers to increase immigration enforcement, ban travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries and curb the number of refugees allowed into the US.
At least three Boston-area congregations in February 2017 committed to offering housing in their buildings, and dozens of synagogues and churches volunteered to provide logistical and political support, as religious leaders across the country called the policies unjust and cruel. Among the people awaiting relief has been Lucio Perez, an immigrant from Guatemala whom Markey met in January 2018 after Perez had been granted sanctuary a couple of months earlier at First Congregational Church in Amherst town hall.
“For years, five individuals have been taking refuge in houses of worship across Massachusetts, fearing the cruel deportation and family separation policies that came out of the Trump administration,” Markey told the Globe in a statement. “Right now, President Biden has the opportunity to open these church doors, and our nation’s hearts, to these refuge seekers and return dignity to our immigration system.”
The letter asks Biden to direct Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to exercise their prosecutorial discretion to grant stays of removal for each of the 40 people living in houses of worship nationwide. It also asks Biden to lift deportations against all people living in sanctuary within the first 100 days of his presidency, and to sign any legislation on behalf of people living in sanctuary.
Castro said the impetus for the effort arose from the close relationships he maintained with church leaders in the Austin Sanctuary Network, a coalition of faith and community leaders in his native Texas.
“You had a president who had a deportation machine going and even for earnest, law-abiding folks who were supporting their families and part of the fabric of this country, he was determined to deport them,” Castro told the Globe.
Congressional Democrats are hoping the sanctuary efforts form part of a broader push for change on immigration under Biden, who on his first day in office signed a slew of executive actions on immigration, including overturning Trump’s travel ban and reinstating a program that provides temporary relief from deportation for immigrants brought into the country as children.
Castro said he remained hopeful that Congress would be able to pass major immigration legislation, after years of political gridlock, as Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were—finally—”on the same page.”
But Tuesday delivered another reminder of the challenges as a judge in Texas temporarily blocked Biden’s effort to pause deportations for 100 days, siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He had sued over a federal law that requires the Department of Homeland Security to consult with states before making changes to its policies.
The news came as Representatives Ayanna Pressley, a co-signer on the sanctuary letter, Jesus “Chuy” García and Pramila Jayapal held a virtual press conference to discuss the introduction of their legislation to decriminalize and address systemic racism in the US immigration system.
“The [deportation] moratorium is legally sound, morally necessary, and we are confident that this enormous miscarriage of justice will be rectified,” García said.
Read the full letter: