A woman raises her hand in front of a cross.
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

The Democratic mayor of Springfield, Massachusetts, opposes a local church’s decision to shelter an undocumented immigrant.

Earlier this month, Gisella Collazo approached South Congregational Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, looking for sanctuary. Collazo, who came to the U.S. nearly two decades ago using a fake passport, and whose two children and husband are American citizens, decided to seek refuge after U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) instructed her to purchase a ticket back to Peru, her native country.

Battles over immigration and sanctuary often play out at the state or federal level. But when South Congregational agreed to take Collazo and her children in, it found its most vocal opponent closer to home: Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The mayor, a Democrat, is challenging the church’s sheltering of Collazo and her children through the building and tax codes.

The standoff dates back to last June, when South Congregational, along with five other churches in Springfield, pledged to get involved in the sanctuary movement. South Congregational volunteered to be an actual, physical sanctuary site. The other churches promised to contribute different forms of support: translation, transportation, grocery shopping, and entertainment.

At the time, the churches’ announcement of sanctuary was simply a declaration. But Sarno immediately voiced his displeasure, and said he wanted city departments to inspect South Congregational for code violations.

In an interview with MassLive, Sarno said he was “fit to be tied” over the church’s decision. Sarno added that many legal immigrants had come to him with complaints and concerns about undocumented immigration, and that while he was in favor of legal immigration, he could not sanction those who had broken the country’s laws.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno in his office in 2014 (Stephan Savoia/AP)

Springfield, Sarno has stated, is not a “sanctuary city”—a term loosely used to describe those cities whose local law enforcement officers do not actively engage in federal immigration enforcement. Yet neither is it explicitly anti-sanctuary: Springfield is not enrolled in the 287(g) program, which essentially allows state or local law enforcement to operate as ICE officials within their jurisdictions.

Legally, the federal government is within its rights to extend the long arm of immigration enforcement inside a house of worship. All that may prevent ICE from crossing a church threshold is its own “sensitive location” policy, wherein the agency says it will only take enforcement actions “in limited circumstances” in places like schools, hospitals, and houses of worship.

The sensitive location policy is vague and has not always been followed consistently, but churches have functioned as fairly safe havens thus far; the potential bad press from raiding one may have been a deterrent to the government.

Last summer, Sarno sent a code enforcement official to South Congregational to speak with its minister, Tom Gerstenlauer, and with Tara Parrish, the director of the Pioneer Valley Project, a social justice organization that helped bring the Springfield churches together to organize their sanctuary initiative.

During the meeting, Parrish said, the official started listing changes that would need to be made in order for the building to categorized as habitable. Afterwards, he sent a letter on city letterhead, which was also published online, detailing sanitary codes the church was in danger of violating.

“They threw the kitchen sink, saying, ‘Here’s all the things you should be nervous about right now,’” Parrish said. “Tom said, ‘Thanks, we appreciate your insight.’” When the city did its official inspection a few months later, the church passed.

Now that South Congregational has actually taken in Collazo and her children, Sarno has the church in his sights again. Last Tuesday, Sarno’s office posted an email to the city’s website that had been sent to various city agencies, asking them to “re-inspect the property in question for illegal housing aspects” and “start the review process to strip [the church] of their tax exemption status.”

Soon after, fire department and code enforcement officials told the church they wanted to come in to inspect the building, although it isn’t due for another inspection until August.

Sarno has no legal standing to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status on his own; the Internal Revenue Service is in charge of tax exemption. Neither Sarno nor his office would respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sarno also said last week that he does not want to jeopardize federal funding by having Springfield become a sanctuary city—something the Trump Administration has threatened other cities with in the past.

But in this instance, said Bill Newman, an attorney at the Western Massachusetts branch of the ACLU, the sanctuary is religious and independent of the local government. The church, he stressed, is an independent body—one that the federal government cannot expect local officials to control.

Newman argued that the city “is targeting a religious institution on the basis of the church’s belief.” “To me, what the mayor has said so far would not be compelling to another municipality,” he said. “I think most elected officials have great respect for separation of church and state.”

According to Gerstenlauer, the issue of safe harbor is one of free speech and the First Amendment, which “says we have a fight to exercise our faith: love for our neighbor and hospitality to the stranger.”

Both Parish and Gerstenlauer said they have received calls from people asking how they can help. Meanwhile, city councilors in Springfield introduced an order that intends to block Sarno’s efforts. The order states in part, “No public dollars shall be allocated for the purpose of interfering with the religious freedoms of South Church in accordance to our Constitution.”

Should the mayor veto the order, said Councilor Adam Gomez, he believes the council has the nine votes necessary to override it. Gomez added that some in the council are considering creating an order with more all-encompassing language that other cities could use to protect churches in similar situations.

Gerstenlauer said he feels the church is being threatened by the mayor’s suggestions that the building may not be up to code. Should that be the case, he said, “Either we have to make some changes, or we have to tell Gisela goodbye, and that would be unconscionable.”

Even moving a few feet away from the church could have repercussions for someone in Collazo’s situation—in Florida, an undocumented man was taken in by ICE when he stepped outside after a church service. As a result, those in sanctuary usually do not leave church grounds.

Of Collazo, Gerstenlauer said, “She has a GPS [from ICE] on her ankle, and if she leaves the building, she’ll likely be arrested and deported in a heartbeat.”

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