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Undocumented immigrant's sanctuary at church ends with stay of deportation

The pastor of an Arizona church which granted sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant and his family calls for more communities of faith to follow suit.
Daniel Neyoy Ruiz
Daniel Neyoy Ruiz, center, at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz.

When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall do them no wrong, the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as natives among you, and you love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. – Leviticus 19:33, 34

When the United States government failed to follow its refugee laws as people fled the civil wars it fueled in Central America in the eighties, my small Arizona church made history. It started the Sanctuary Movement, a call to care for “the stranger." Churches across the country responded, collectively offering sanctuary to thousands of people, sometimes at great legal risk.

Once again, for the first time in over 30 years, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona is offering sanctuary. This call to care for the stranger continues to be the rallying cry of faith communities in the struggle for immigration reform. As a church that is 60 miles from the U.S./Mexico border, every day we also care for families that are being torn apart. Heartbroken over this reality, we felt almost relieved when we were given the opportunity to intervene and help one of them.

The crisis in our immigration system calls to mind not the stranger, but tragically, the widow and the orphan. Our broken immigration system is creating widows and orphans every day. 1100 people a day are deported. Most leave behind family and a community they love. I have seen mothers and fathers taken from their children.

Isaiah 1:17 reads:

Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

By offering Daniel Neyoy Ruiz sanctuary, my church is making sure that his 13-year-old son Carlos and his wife Karla do not have to become the orphan and the widow.

Daniel’s situation is like so many people in our country and in our own families. He came here looking for a better life. He works hard to provide for his family as a maintenance worker at an apartment complex. He dutifully pays his taxes, and he became part of our local police department's Crime Free Multi-Housing Program. He was a leader in his church – and now he is part of our church family, having spent long days and nights living in a tiny, uncomfortable room on our property that lacks air conditioning. He never complained.

Here in Arizona, there is a growing grassroots movement that stands up for families and works to defend immigrant rights. But in 2011, our state's highway patrol pulled Daniel over. Though no ticket was issued, border patrol was called and Daniel spent the next month in a detention center. For the next several years, he fought deportation with an expensive lawyer.

When a final order of deportation was issued last month, he found his way to the legal clinic that runs out of our church. He asked us to save his family.

Opening the doors of a church or a synagogue or a mosque and declaring sanctuary is a very serious matter. But in the 21 days that Daniel, Karla and Carlos has been with us, we have prayed together, worshiped, eaten, and laughed together. We have passed the long days putting together puzzles and playing charades. And so while we are constantly reminded of the seriousness of the situation we have also found a great deal of joy as this family has become part of ours.

On Monday, we got word that the Department of Homeland Security did the humane thing and issued a stay of deportation for Daniel, allowing him to return to his home with no fear of being separated from his family. Imminent deportation is no longer a threat. Indeed, there is joy in my church today.

But the next person has already knocked at our door. We know that there are many like Daniel in Tucson, and in every community in our nation. We know that we need to be prepared.  Our congregation has begun to pray and talk about what God is calling us to do, and what it means to be a sanctuary church in 2014. Just this past week, President Obama announced that he is delaying any changes to current deportation policy until the end of the summer. Vox estimated that about 97,000 people will be deported during that time.

We hope more communities of faith will have the conversations we are having here in Tucson. In light of the command to care for the widow and the orphan, what is God calling on us to do? These are no longer strangers. These are our friends and our neighbors, and let us love them as we love ourselves.

The Reverend Alison J. Harrington became Southside's pastor in January, 2009, and was a guest on the June 1 edition of "Melissa Harris-Perry." She has been named one of Tucson’s 40 under 40, and is a recipient of the Beatitudes Society Brave Preacher Award.