Sanctuary Churches in MidCity

APR17imm1 When Noel Díaz describes his first time being deported back to his native Tijuana, he chuckles and blames his grandfather. Díaz’s mother lost her job in Los Angeles and stopped sending remittances back to Mexico. His grandfather, worried that he hadn't heard from her, handed his undocumented daughter’s home address to U.S. embassy officials and asked for help finding her. Immigration authorities had no trouble finding her and delivering her father’s message. Then, they ordered her to go back home to Tijuana.

Díaz shares this story on a chilly Friday evening at Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, a catholic church in the Byzantine Latino Quarter, where he founded Ministerio del Sembrador (Ministry of the Sower). Today, the ministry broadcasts Catholic programming over international television and radio. On this evening, bundled-up parishioners celebrate the ministry’s 32nd anniversary with a hybrid event that combines a mass with an immigration resources fair. 

AUG17imm6The words “We cannot live in fear!” echo through the building as Díaz and his panel of attorneys and immigration experts encourage undocumented church attendees to come out of the shadows. “We must inform ourselves. We must prepare.”


While churches in the community are not officially declaring themselves “sanctuary churches,” many immigrants are viewing their houses of worship as sanctuaries of refuge. Religious leaders are looking for ways to assist undocumented parishioners in light of the current administration’s anti-immigrant agenda.

Sanctuary churches are those that offer shelter to undocumented immigrants to protect them from immigration authorities. This concept began with the sanctuary church movement of the 1980s. At the time, churches protected refugees fleeing the wars in Central America. More recent initiatives have gained municipal support throughout the U.S. The governments of Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, have declared they will stand against deportation proceedings. President Donald Trump has vowed to punish sanctuary cities with funding cuts until they comply.

“[Helping immigrants] seems central to the gospel of Jesus, which often welcomes strangers and is inviting of outsiders,” said Pastor Scott Bartlett at Bethel Lutheran Church.

Recent raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are causing panic in undocumented individuals, who have questions about their rights and their status but don’t know where to turn for answers.

Blanca Gutierrez says she feels blessed. Her family has complied with income tax laws and has stayed out of trouble since the day they arrived in the country. She has raised four children with her husband Francisco in the 23 years they have spent in Koreatown. She chats with a group of neighbors, whom she hosts in her home before mass every week, as they wait their turn to speak to one of the immigration attorneys offering free consultations at the St. Thomas event. Francisco says they will be asking about whether their U.S.-born adult children can help them legalize their status.

“We’re not afraid,” Blanca said in Spanish. “But we are worried about the uncertainty.”

Religious leaders also are looking for answers. Some are consulting attorneys and attending information sessions within their religious networks to learn more about the legal implications of harboring immigrants. Others are answering their phones hesitantly and referring any immigration questions to their regional leadership. They fear a backlash from ICE. 

Although ICE has a policy to avoid enforcement at “sensitive locations,” including schools and churches, they are not completely banned from doing so. This is where enforcement could become more aggressive and the legal implications are daunting", says Pastor Bartlett.

“Church property is sacred space that legal law enforcement doesn't want to cross,” Bartlett said. “[But] there’s no law that says they can’t.”

Because his church is located on the western side of The Neighborhood News’ distribution base, while St. Thomas is located on the eastern side, Bartlett says he hasn’t had as much exposure to the sanctuary movement. His experience has been limited to about 10 Middle Eastern families seeking refuge for religious persecution. The Iranian community, in particular, comes to him with a fear “that family members back home will find out they’re Christian.” Currently, he is communicating with the Lutheran community in Los Angeles, organizations such as Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and faith-rooted immigrant activists to educate himself and his parishioners on the state of immigration.“Scripture is full of references to helping people in need and providing resources for aliens among nations,” he said.

Attorneys say individual cases vary significantly from one another so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to navigating immigration law. Programs such as the Catholic Charities of Los Angeles’ Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project are increasing their outreach efforts and meeting refugees where they feel the safest. Oftentimes, that is at church, says Program Director Patricia Ortiz.

Her top tips for undocumented people are to know you have rights, what they are and to be very careful of who you trust. Fear harbors opportunistic fraud so demand credibility from anyone offering paid advice. She also pleads that all undocumented individuals seek a consultation to learn more about their particular options. 

“You have a right to fight,” she said in between consultations at the St. Thomas event.

Upcoming immigration information events (Please call to confirm):

April 5 & April 19 (Every 1st and 3rd Wednesday of the month), 6:30-8:30pm

Free one-on-one consultations with immigration attorney.

Lutheran Church of the Master

10931 California Route 2, Los Angeles, CA 90025

(310) 473-1055

April 7, 6-11pm

Immigration resources assembly

Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church

2727 W Pico Blvd   (323) 737-3325

April 26

Legal Fair with one-on-one consultations

Saint Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church

2727 W Pico Blvd  (323) 737-3325

Pro Bono Legal Service Providers:

Kids In Need of Defense  (213) 892-2043

Immigrant Defenders Law Center  (213) 634-0999

Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project  (213) 251-3505

Public Counsel  (213) 385-2977

International Institute of Los Angeles  (323) 264-6217

El Rescate  (213) 387-3284

FEAR OF DEPORTATION - An excellent article can be found at

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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