More than 100 faith leaders, including some from as far away as Nebraska, are expected to attend a seminar at Lancaster Theological Seminary today to learn how to aid undocumented immigrants in this country.

The day-long session is titled “Faith in Action — Sanctuary Training for Faith Leaders.” It will focus on practices for establishing a physical sanctuary; accompanying immigrants in legal proceedings; how to respond to Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and ways churches can coordinate with local and statewide campaigns.

Chris Frame, a member of the Citizens’ Immigration & Refugee Action Committee of Lancaster, which along with Lancaster Stands Up and Lancaster Theological Seminary is sponsoring the event, said the training is designed to offer support for  undocumented people. That includes informing them of their rights and accompanying them when they go to court.

“They do have certain rights,” he said. “They’re entitled to a day in court.”

Peter Pedemonti, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, which is providing the training, said the program is designed to show how people of faith can respond legally to what he termed  “unjust laws.”

By accompanying immigrants to court, he explained, it not only shows immigrant families that they have the support of their neighbors, it shows the judge that the immigrants do not stand alone.

Pedemonti said the raids and deportations break up families. Standing with immigrants and refugees, he said “shows who we are as a people and as a country.”

Frame said that during President Barack Obama’s administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers  arrested and deported known criminals.

Under the Trump administration,  raids often cast a wider net, arresting anyone without proper documentation.

Some people, he said, have been detained for months.

“The bigger issue,” Frame said, “is the breaking up of families. Children who were born here can stay but  (if the parents are deported) there’s no one to look out for them.”

He pointed out that overstaying a visa to this country  “is not a criminal act.”

Federal pressure

The sanctuary movement  faces increasing  pressure from the federal government.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Sanctuary for Criminals Act which forces cities to cooperate with federal immigration laws and agencies by allowing the federal government to deny funds for law enforcement if the cities do not comply with the law. The measure passed 228 to 195, largely along party lines.

President Donald Trump has urged the U.S. Senate to approve the legislation.

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania  Senate passed a similar measure that would cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in state subsidies to cities and counties that do not always honor detention requests from federal immigration authorities.

The policies of sanctuary cities vary, but the term generally refers to places where local government officials will only honor U.S. immigration detention requests when they are accompanied by an arrest warrant.

Although law  enforcement has  the right to enter churches and other buildings that serve as sanctuary for refugees and illegal immigrants, most police departments have refused to do so.

They have not intruded, Pedemonti said, “out of respect for certain places of worship.”

Some pushback

While the training session is open to people of all faiths, not all church leaders are on board with aiding undocumented immigrants.

The Rev. Darryl Dech, a retired Lutheran pastor who lives in Wyomissing, contacted LNP to object to the seminary’s decision to host the gathering.

Dech, whose most recent church was Maidencreek Church, in Blandon, Berks County, a shared ministry of the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, claims the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia wants to “establish its own law” regarding immigration.

“The tactics,” he said, “are right our of (activist) Saul Alinsky’s ‘Rules for Radicals.’ ”Dech said he believes sanctuary movement groups mislead churches.

“It’s kind of a big front,” he said. “I’m concerned that churches are being manipulated into becoming sanctuary churches. It’s unfortunate that churches are part of this movement.”

In a subsequent email, Dech wrote: "I recognize that the whole concept of sanctuary cities was already present 3,000 years ago (Numbers 35:1-34), but no one can argue that this is similar to current day sanctuary cities."

Pedemonti sees it quite differently.

“It’s a decision we face: Do we follow God’s law or people’s law?”

Cheryl DeMarco,  a member of the Citizens’ Immigration & Refugee Action Committee, said the New Sanctuary Movement “advocates nothing that breaks any law. They don't interfere with law enforcement efforts but bear silent witness. They ensure that vulnerable persons know their legal rights. They speak for persons who, because of fear and/or lack of language proficiency, can’t speak for themselves.”