CINCINNATI -- When a Fairfield mother of four was deported to Mexico in April, one of her biggest advocates was the Catholic Church.
In the end, the church couldn't stop Maribel Trujillo Diaz's deportation -- but that doesn't mean Tri-State churches have given up the fight, one they say is rooted in compassion.
“We have a biblical command to advocate for the immigrant and stranger in our midst,” said David Meredith, pastor of Clifton United Methodist Church.
Meredith is part of the newly-formed Cincinnati Sanctuary Congregation Coalition. The coalition is made up of more than 20 area congregations of Christian, Jewish and Muslim traditions and aims to help undocumented immigrants find sanctuary in Cincinnati.
“We are called by Christ and Moses to be advocates for the widows, strangers, poor and vulnerable," Meredith said. "If we didn’t address this issue, we would be allowing children to become orphans and women to become widows.”
The coalition is forming a plan to also help the broader immigrant community that is living in fear under the current escalated crackdown on finding and deporting undocumented residents. Even recent immigrants who earned United States citizenship are frightened, say some advocates.
The coalition includes Temple Shalom, Clifton Mosque, St. John’s Unitarian Church, Mt. Auburn Baptist Church, Quakers and several other Christian denominations. They've started pooling resources and hope to provide immigrants with furniture, appliances, food, clothing and other services.
Clifton United Methodist Church is investing more than $15,000 in construction cost alone to convert a section of the basement into an apartment large enough for a family of four or more who has a family member at risk of deportation due to his or her legal status in the country. The apartment is expected to be ready for its first occupants in September, Meredith said.
"God does not view us by our nationality or race. We are all the same in his eyes," Meredith said. “This is no different than the church housing a refugee."
There is no law preventing the government from entering a church that claims sanctuary for an individual or family, but traditionally officials will not enter a church.
To ensure everything is done legally, the church cannot harbor anyone in secret. Therefore, the church will have a press conference to make the community aware they are providing sanctuary to an individual or family, Meredith said.
The goal is to give the family a safe space while a family member's legal status is being challenged in court.
Clifton United Methodist Church joins Christ Cathedral as one of two sanctuary congregations. The Cincinnati Sanctuary Congregation Coalition has been meeting to develop a plan of action they can take to help the immigrant community; it ranges from providing rides to the family’s children with legal status when the parents are afraid to go out at night to establishing a legal clinic that provides legal services for low or no cost.
“We want to figure out ways we can help the immigrant community right now rather than wait for someone to be under threat of deportation,” said Brianna Leavitt-Alcantara,” spokesperson for Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church, a member of the coalition. “Our faith community is standing with and supporting the local immigrants regardless of legal status. You can expect to hear more from us in the near future.”
When Diaz -- whose four children were born in the United States -- was deported, it encouraged several churches to take official steps to be able to intercede in any similar cases in the future, Meredith said.
Diaz was sent back to Mexico in April under "escalated efforts" to go after undocumented residents under the new presidential administration, said Scott Hicks, a local attorney who focuses on immigration issues and who also pastors a Methodist church in Oregonia, Ohio. Because of this, many immigrants are living in fear.
“The immigrant community is terrified,” Hicks said. “Even people who are legal citizens who are traveling out of the country are calling me asking if they will have a problem getting back into the country.”
The undocumented residents are only going to work and going right home, he said. They are rarely, if at all, going out at night for any reason other than what’s necessary out of fear of being pulled over by police and potentially sent back to his or her native country, separating them from their U.S. born children, Hicks said.
Federal immigration laws have not changed over the years, but enforcement has changed dramatically. In the last two years of the Obama administration ICE focused on deporting criminals and people who were a risk to national security. That all changed under the Trump administration, Hicks said. ICE director Thomas Homan has said to multiple media outlets that if a person is in this country illegally, they should be terrified.
“The government is enforcing the immigration laws without mercy, and that’s new,” Hicks said.