A woman prays in St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of the most prominent Roman Catholic churches in New York City
Do urban parishes have a moral obligation to offer refuge to undocumented immigrants? Andrew Kelly/Reuters

An activist is calling on the Archdiocese of New York to make churches places of refuge for people threatened by President Trump’s stance on immigration.

In February, a Catholic priest in Staten Island told the Daily News that, after rumors of ICE raids, he had seen a dip in the number of parishioners in churches. In New York, the Catholic Church continues to play a central role in the daily lives of Latinos. Since President Trump signed executive orders on immigration, activists have wondered if the Church should be doing even more to protect undocumented people.

According to Pew Research Center data from 2014, at least 35 percent of Catholics living in New York’s five boroughs are Hispanic. Many of them are unauthorized—New York is the U.S. city with the largest population of undocumented immigrants. So, how could the Church come to the aid of a community that seems increasingly in need of help? The activist Felix Cepeda has an idea: utilize property assets.

For a while, the Archdiocese of New York has seen a decrease of both parishioners and priests. This has led to an aggressive plan to ensure the survival of its most important churches by closing more than fifteen others. These are spread out among Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island; some are located in very valuable areas. Cepeda thinks those now-empty properties could become sanctuaries for people at risk of deportation.

"It's not just about helping undocumented people. In this city, there are more and more homeless people and access to culture is a constant challenge," says Cepeda. "Keeping those spaces closed does not make any sense." His proposal is threefold: to dedicate those spaces to solving the migration, housing, and cultural crises. In addition to addressing these three issues, his model is collaborative. "There are many groups in this city that could manage those spaces. The Archdiocese would not have to bear the costs involved in the execution of all of the potential programs, because if it opens itself up to other organizations, many more people could benefit,” he says. “They could open cultural centers, build affordable housing, provide shelter for the homeless, and welcome undocumented immigrants. "

Regardless, Cepeda acknowledges that his proposal is controversial. Although in New York there are several places of worships that are defined as 'sanctuaries' for undocumented immigrants, none of them are part of the Catholic Church. That would require authorization from the Archdiocese, which has yet to happen. "The Catholic Church continues to have a very rigid understanding of leadership. Although there are many priests who want to welcome undocumented people into their churches, no one can take that step if Cardinal Dolan does not approve,” adds Cepeda.

The role of Archbishop Timothy Dolan has recently become the subject of much criticism. Although during the last presidential campaign he criticized Trump's proposals on immigration by publishing an article in the Daily News, months later he participated in the inauguration ceremony in the nation's capital. His stance is similar to that of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C. "When we use the word 'sanctuary', we have to be very careful not to create false hope," Wuerl told the Washington Post. "Given the separation of church and state, the Church has no right to say 'if you enter this building, the law does not apply to you,' but we do hope to be a voice to those who have none."

As for Cepeda's proposal, it seems that the activists will have to wait. Sources from the Archdiocese corroborated this information to CityLab Latino, but made it clear that they were not interested in a formal interview.

Some clergy in the Church have taken positions more closely resembling Cepeda’s. In an interview with the Catholic publication Crux, Daniel Flores, the bishop of Brownsville, a Texas town near the Mexican border, said that "in some instances," undocumented people seeking asylum were experiencing the "real threat to life," and failing to support these undocumented people was "to comply with an immoral act."

On the other hand, the Catholic Church has already called on individuals to not respect the law on certain occasions. The Church criticized the Affordable Care Act, for instance, claiming that the law compelled institutions and professionals to "oppose their conscience" by requiring them to provide contraceptive methods to patients regardless of their own religious beliefs.

"An unjust law can not be obeyed," read the document released by the American Episcopal Conference. "In the face of an unjust law, change must be sought, especially when the law contains misleading words and deceptive practices." At that time, the bishops were called upon to muster "the courage to not obey these rules" and to "avoid them as a duty of citizenship and an obligation of faith." On the issue of sanctuary, however, it is unclear whether a similar conclusion will be reached.

This post originally appeared on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

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