Oregon man's story propels sanctuary movement among Lutheran churches

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Talia Richman
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Sunday, August 7, 2016
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The knock came at 7:30 a.m., just as Francisco Aguirre was about to take a shower.

His 18-year-old son was the one who opened the door and saw the uniformed immigration officers standing on the front porch...

On some level, Aguirre had known this could happen, given his recent arrest for drunk driving. He pulled out his cell phone and made a call.

Soon, about 15 church volunteers appeared on his front lawn, got Aguirre into a car and rushed him to Augustana Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland...

He was an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. He had crossed the American border in 1995 and became an advocate for immigrant rights. Now, he was at Augustana seeking sanctuary from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – the first person in Oregon to do so in recent history....

Two years later, Aguirre's first, fitful night of sleep in Augustana catalyzed the burgeoning sanctuary movement among Oregon's Lutheran churches. And it may soon have ripple effects across the country.

The sanctuary movement is nothing new. In the 1980s, houses of worship opened their doors and offered Central American refugees shelter in a time when their native countries were falling apart...

At the time, he was one of six people nationwide seeking security in a holy place. Next week, Oregon's Lutheran churches will spur a vote on the practice...

Augustana has called itself a sanctuary congregation since 1996, when the current pastor assumed his position, though Aguirre was the first and last to make use of this designation.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement likely won't touch undocumented immigrants if they're in a house of worship...

But the concept of sanctuary has critics, some of whom say it allows churches to help potentially dangerous immigrants break the law and remain in the country illegally.

In May, the U.S. Department of Justice dropped its charge of illegal re-entry against Aguirre. Sixteen years prior, he had been found guilty of selling drugs and sent back to El Salvador, but he said he stayed there for just six hours before setting out again toward Oregon.

The drug charge? Officials said he was selling heroin. Aguirre said he let two men who didn't have a place to stay into his home, and the drugs belonged to them.

As for immediately leaving El Salvador, the murder capital of the world? Well, he said, staying there was a death sentence.

Over the next decade, Aguirre worked as an organizer with a nonprofit helping day laborers find work. But a drunk driving charge in 2014 put him back on ICE's radar and drove him to Augustana that September...

But about two months ago, the United States again ordered Aguirre's deportation, said lawyer Steven Manning. The federal immigration agency still considers him an "enforcement priority due to his aggravated felony drug trafficking conviction, prior removal and subsequent illegal reentry," said spokeswoman Rose Richeson.

Manning filed a lawsuit against the removal order, and Aguirre is seeking an asylum screening to determine if he can stay in the U.S.

"He can stay until both of those are resolved," Manning said, adding, "he has a great case on both ends."

If all works out in his favor, Aguirre hopes to go into a seminary. If it doesn't, he said, he'll go back to Augustana.

"I'd like to finally become a pastor and find a way to better help the immigrant community," said Aguirre, 36. "That's my passion."

And though Aguirre no longer lives in small basement room below Augustana's sanctuary, the church has continued to fight for him — and the larger movement that Aguirre symbolizes in Oregon.

"We took on Goliath, we took on ICE," said Augustana's Rev. Mark Knutson. "We're a little church on the corner, and we're on the verge of something really incredible."

'Whereas, Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees'

Knutson stood before about 300 representatives of various Lutheran churches from all over Oregon during their annual assembly in May. He recounted Aguirre's story and the positive impact the man had on his congregation.

And then he called on Oregon Lutherans to declare themselves the first "Sanctuary Synod" in the nation.

The resolution, which passed overwhelmingly, encourages the state's 115 Lutheran congregations and ministries to become sanctuaries and prepare to "protect refugees and undocumented sisters and brothers from arrest and deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers."

It wouldn't have happened without Aguirre, said Oregon Bishop Dave Brauer-Rieke.

"Francisco gave Augustana the opportunity to live out their faith, and then Augustana gave that opportunity to Oregon's Lutheran churches at a whole," he said. "Whenever you put the face of a real person on an issue, it impacts us. That's very clearly the case here."...

Church leaders and community activists met almost nightly to strategize about Aguirre's situation, and they decided they'd use the long-standing church bell as a warning signal in case something went wrong. If he rang it, neighborhood volunteers would come running.

"The congregation was totally on board," Knutson said. "People here understand that you're part of the congregation, and you can't be afraid to step out in faith."

Augustana is looking to get a new clapper for its 600-pound bell. Knutson said he plans to have it made out of melted-down guns.

'The political winds'

Next week, the Oregon Synod will take their resolution from May and go before the national assembly of Lutherans in New Orleans. They'll ask the church to become the first "Sanctuary Denomination" in the U.S.

Brauer-Rieke has little hope it'll pass.

"We haven't really educated about the issue," he said. "While Lutherans nationwide are pretty pro-immigrant, there are churches from Texas and the southern states which have some pretty strong feelings about immigration."

And there are still some concerns among church leaders that participating in sanctuary puts them at risk.

"Some people were offended," Brauer-Rieke said. "They say you're asking us to do something illegal. I responded by saying that there's nothing illegal about this and we're not forcing anyone to do anything."

The bishop isn't discouraged. He just hopes to put the idea out there so more action is possible later on. After all, he said, the issue is one that's part of the denomination's DNA: Following World War II, one in six Lutherans worldwide were refugees or displaced persons.

"There are many Lutherans for whom these immigrant stories are no more than a grandma and grandpa away," Brauer-Rieke said.

The movement is not without critics. It came under fire last year after a 45-year-old man from Mexico, who was deported five times, was arrested for killing a woman in San Francisco, where he was protected under sanctuary.

"It creates problems when organizations like churches take it upon themselves to prevent ICE from doing their job, especially when it's a job that protects the public at large," said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Washington, D.C-based think tank Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates limiting immigration.

But people like Knutson promise to continue offering protection in the church. He's seen what happens when legal hurdles force immigrants to return to dangerous countries....

Unless there's comprehensive immigration reform, Knutson said, the movement will keep growing.

"Listen to the political winds," Knutson said. "Unless we change our laws, there will be a thousand people seeking sanctuary in the upcoming years."