Winonans to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation

Published 8:16 am Friday, May 4, 2018

WINONA — Winonans of faith are rallying behind an effort to create a sanctuary church, a place where immigrants living in the U.S. illegally can stay without fear of deportation as they follow the winding legal path toward citizenship.

The recently formed Winona Sanctuary Network is looking for a local church that’s open to serving as a sanctuary, as well as volunteers willing to cook, clean and do laundry for the residents and families who will stay there.

But organizer Dwayne Voegeli says the network’s chief responsibility is building a broad base of support for such immigrants and their families, the kind of group that will stand by and protect them if federal authorities like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement ever close in.

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“It’s hard for someone to be taken away if they have a community, a circle of people supporting them,” said Voegeli, who teaches social studies at Winona Senior High School. “People of faith have always been at the forefront of social justice, and the more of us there are, the better.”

There is no law stating that immigrations in the country illegally or criminals are safe inside the walls of a church. But federal authorities, to this point, have respected the privacy and sanctity of so-called “sensitive locations,” like places of worship.

At the grocery store, immigrants in the country illegally can be rounded up.

At the movie theater, families can be pulled apart.

But at a church, ICE officials are known to back down and leave people be. They don’t often enter without a warrant in hand.

The Winona Daily News reports that Voegeli and other members of the network, a spinoff of the Winona Interfaith Council, say the legality of sanctuary churches is written in shades of gray. They don’t know what would happen if, say, federal authorities stopped respecting these sensitive locations. There’s a chance they’d face legal consequences.

“Sometimes, as a person of faith, there’s a higher law,” Voegeli said. “Historically, religion has sometimes been part of the problem. This is a chance for religion to be part of the solution.”

The sanctuary network has been gathering steam and gaining supporters since its first informational meeting in late February.

That meeting attracted nearly 70 people from an array of faiths — more than twice the number organizers were expecting — and a mix of mostly small churches have expressed support for the project.

Nancy Bachler, one of the organizers, said the group has heard from roughly half of the churches in Winona, including some of the mainline parishes.

Nancy, whose husband Steve is also involved with Winona’s sanctuary church movement, said offering help to people who need it, whatever that help entails, is one of the pillars of her faith.

“It’s so important to open our hearts to the faiths and beliefs of other people,” she said. “It’s an important thing to examine what moves your heart. We should make sure that what moves us is love — not prejudice.”

“I know they had a difficult time, but what kept them going was they had a commitment to helping making things work. I want to help make things work,” said Steve, whose ancestors emigrated from western Europe.

Members of the sanctuary network point out that providing safety and shelter — even in a way that bends the law — is nothing new in Winona or around the world.

American churches and communities — perhaps even Winona — helped move fugitive slaves to Canada before and during the Civil War.