When Alirio Gamez was served a deportation order earlier this year, he decided to push back rather than submit himself to authorities to be returned to his native El Salvador.
On August 8, the 40-year-old, who fled his homeland after receiving a slew of death threats, joined a growing number of undocumented people taking sanctuary in churches across the United States when he set up shop in the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, located in the capital of Texas.
“The violence El Salvador is living through is very strong [for everyone],” he told Al Jazeera, recalling his flight from his homeland. “When you live it personally, it’s even worse.
“I lost the legal process [on deportation], but I want to keep fighting,” Gamez insisted.
Rather than be forcibly evicted from the country, Gamez and others like him sought protection from a church that stands in solidarity with immigrants amid an increasingly severe crackdown on undocumented people in the country.
At least 32 congregations have opened their doors to potential deportees so far this year, according to World Church Services, an organisation that tracks the protest actions.
Nina Pruneda, a public affairs officer at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), explained that the agency’s policy normally forbids it from carrying out raids in “sensitive locations”, such as educational institutions, places of worship and medical facilities.
While this is enshrined in ICE’s policies, there is no law preventing the agency from carrying out raids in churches or other sensitive locations.
“Current ICE policy directs agency personnel to avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances,” she told Al Jazeera.
‘Terrorising immigrant communities’
Gamez – at least for now – lives in a small room at the church, the second asylum seeker to do so.
For Gamez, the prospect of returning to El Salvador is a matter of life or death.
“I always have two things on my mind: What’s going to happen, and that if they deport me [the criminals] are going to kill me,” Gamez told Al Jazeera.
According to a report published in October by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project, El Salvador recorded 81.2 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016, one of the highest rates across Latin America.
The report also found that the high levels of insecurity in the country have resulted in a growing percentage of people considering to migrate elsewhere.
Gamez said the gangs ask people to commit crimes for them, including selling drugs and extorting money from local businesses that is then delivered to the criminals. The organisations issue a deadline and “if you don’t do what they ask, they kill you … if you’re a woman, they rape you”, he added.
Explaining that the average Salvadoran only makes around $30 working six days a week in El Salvador, Gamez said criminal organisations and gangs often force people to hand over a chunk of their salary.
“Thirty dollars isn’t enough to provide for a family. If you give 15 to them, it’s even worse.”
Despite the de facto safe status of churches, he said his journey has been a perilous one.
Since entering the US irregularly in 2015, he has been held in four immigrant detention centres.
“The treatment one receives at the detention centres is discriminatory,” Gamez said, recounting instances of guards telling the detained immigrants they “weren’t good enough to sweep” the floors in the facilities.
Claims of inhumane treatment in immigrant detention facilities have been echoed by rights groups and government agencies.
The US Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently admitted that ICE agents had perpetrated abuses in immigrant detention centres in violation of DHS standards.
In a report, the OIG said detainees were placed in “unsafe” and “unsanitary” conditions and were subjected to punitive solitary confinement, unauthorised strip searches, treated without respect and denied access to language services, among other violations.
In response, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an Alabama-based watchdog group, called on DHS to “stop detaining immigrants in remote facilities where it is unwilling or unable to protect the safety of detainees, and where it cannot ensure that basic health and safety requirements are being met”.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump has attempted to make good on campaign promises to deport record numbers of undocumented immigrants.
Cristina Parker, communications director at the Austin-based Grassroots Leadership advocacy group, argued that the Trump administration has “tried to sow fear among” undocumented communities, citing increasingly brazen raids by immigration authorities.
In October, US Customs and Border Patrol agents arrested 10-year-old Rosa Maria Hernandez, at a hospital after following her from a checkpoint.
Hernandez’s parents brought her to the US from Mexico without documents for treatment for her cerebral palsy.
Following widespread condemnation, she was subsequently released from the facility, where she was held 241km away from her parents.
“The fact that it was happening in streets, parking lots and apartment complexes shows a real shift, even if we look back as far as the Bush administration,” Parker told Al Jazeera, accusing the government of “intentionally terrorising immigrant communities”.
According to ICE statistics, the number of undocumented people arrested grew by 40 percent between the time Trump took office on January 20 and September 30, which marked the end of the government’s fiscal year.
Although arrests at the border have decreased during Trump’s first year, the total number of “interior removals” – or deportations of people already in the US – grew by 37 percent under the new president when compared with the same period in 2016.
‘Greater strength than in 1980s’
Against this backdrop, progressive churches are revamping their efforts to push back against the government’s ostensible crackdown on immigrants.
The churches’ struggle fits into a rich history of progressive congregations fighting xenophobic and nativist policies that dates back to the 1980s.
The “sanctuary movement” began as a way for US churches along the border with Mexico to aid refugees fleeing violence in Central America.
According to John Fife, the former pastor of Tucson, Arizona’s Southside Presbyterian Church – the “first sanctuary church” – US political interests in the region meant that those fleeing violence in El Salvador and Guatemala were not granted asylum and were instead viewed as “people looking for work”.
“We learned very quickly that no one was getting asylum if they were from El Salvador or Guatemala,” Fife said.
“So we started to help refugees cross the border safely without being captured by border patrol or immigration officials and bring them to Tucson and we began to hide them in the church,” he added.
It was when US border control contacted Fife’s congregation and threatened to prosecute its members for helping people cross the border that they decided to publicly call the space a “sanctuary church”.
Soon other churches and synagogues followed Fife’s congregation’s lead and the “sanctuary movement” was born.
The movement then spread from faith communities to universities and colleges, and eventually to cities and states, which enacted a range of policies that limited cooperation with federal immigration officials.
According to Fife, who was prosecuted and convicted, along with at least five other activists, of conspiring to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans into the US in 1986, the movement began to “wind down” after the US government agreed to stop deportations to Central America and grant Salvadorans and Guatemalans Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 1990.
But after former President Barack Obama‘s administration ramped up its effort to deport more undocumented people, the sanctuary movement was born again.
“With the election of Trump and his threats to deport undocumented people, that’s why the sanctuary movement revived with greater strength than we ever had in the 80s,” Fife said.
For Chris Jimmerson, a pastor at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, it was an “easy decision” for his more than 663-person congregation to take in Gamez.
After two-and-a-half months in the same room in which Alirio stays, Franco was granted a stay of deportation that allowed her to temporarily remain in the country without fearing immediate detention and expulsion.
The church is part of the Austin Sanctuary Network, which currently includes at least 25 congregations that either provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants or support others that do.
“Given the present political climate, it’s more important than ever for progressive and liberal faith voices to raise their voices and say not all religions are on the conservative side of the spectrum,” Jimmerson told Al Jazeera.
“Our faith drives us towards working for justice for other folks.”
The St Andrews Presbyterian Church, also located in Austin, Texas, took in a Guatemalan asylum seeker and her son in early 2016 to provide the pair with sanctuary after the mother was issued a deportation order.
Hilda Ramirez, 29, and her nine-year-old son Ivan fled Guatemala in 2014 to find respite from widespread violence in their homeland.
In October 2016, Ramirez, who descends from an indigenous community, was granted a one-year deferred action order, which allowed them to avoid deportation until now. In October of this year, that order expired, and the pair found themselves back in sanctuary at the church.
Jim Rigby, a pastor at St Andrews, said “there is no question – things have grown much worse” since the election and inauguration of Trump. “The fear is growing.”
Explaining why the church took in the pair, he told Al Jazeera: “It’s very important to do something to show the undocumented community that they’re loved and appreciated and we want them to stay.”
Rigby described the Trump administration as “a master of propaganda”.
“The undocumented people I meet are the ones in harm’s way. It’s racist to set it up to choose one targeted group, stereotyping 11 million [undocumented] people,” he concluded. “To me, it’s terrifying.”
Additionally, the Trump administration has increased its effort to limit the work of sanctuary cities, threatening to cut federal funding from those that have policies in place aimed at safeguarding undocumented people.
“Our cities should be sanctuaries for Americans, not for criminal aliens,” Trump said during a weekly address earlier this month.
Despite the government rhetoric against the sanctuary movement, more and more faith communities, cities and other jurisdictions have increased their efforts to push back against Trump’s immigration policies.
Back in the church, Gamez said he is grateful for the solidarity and support he has received from the congregation. “They treat me well. They’re attentive to my needs, they bring me whatever I ask,” he explained, adding that visitors often come see him at the church.
Although Gamez has found temporary shelter, what happens next continues to weigh heavy on him. “A person thinks a lot, [and] it’s something people outside [of this situation] don’t understand.”