Courtesy of Kathryn Stamm

October 3, 2019

Ithaca’s Sole Sanctuary Church Builds Apartment to Host Refugees Awaiting Legal Status

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For the past five months, Ithaca’s first and only sanctuary church has been renovating a new space inside their building — an apartment designed to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.

On Oct. 17, First Congregational Church in Cayuga Heights will officially bless the home, thus marking its opening to potential immigrant inhabitants while they undergo legal challenges, Rev. Dr. David Kaden, FCC’s Senior Minister, told The Sun.

According to current U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy, churches and all places of worship are deemed “sensitive locations,” where they will not carry out enforcement actions without “exigent circumstances.”

That special designation — which also applies to hospitals, schools and universities — means that churches have, in effect, been able to protect people at risk for deportation. Churches, Kaden said, have the special ability to house someone, and a small number around the country have begun to.

FCC started the process to become a sanctuary church in February 2018, when members of their church council named it as a priority, according to Kaden. Then, they began the research on what would need to be done, which included visiting other sanctuary churches in Syracuse.

In May of the same year, they took the issue to the congregation, who voted “overwhelmingly” in favor, Kaden said.

Initially, some congregants were concerned about funding, but between church donations and a GoFundMe page, FCC has raised over $21,000 toward developing the apartment space. They have also partnered with the Ithaca Sanctuary Alliance — a group made of representatives from different faith groups — who will help cover ongoing needs beyond the renovation, including laundry, cleaning supplies and meals for future refugees.

An immigration lawyer in the congregation has been providing council and creating intake documents to clarify the legality of the project. Because sanctuary churches are fairly uncommon, other churches around the country have contacted Kaden about these new intake documents.

“I’m a member of [community service fraternity] Alpha Phi Omega, so I’ve been advertising to the group to get volunteers, and we’ve had other students come and help,” said Lindy Davenport ’21, a member of the sanctuary committee at FCC.

These volunteers have been on the ground working on the apartment, where they just finished the tiling in the bathroom. When the apartment is finished, there will be a “comfort team” designated to decorate and make the space a home, Davenport said.

Kaden expects people to reach out when they announce the apartment’s completion. After a candidate for sanctuary contacts FCC, lawyers at the Cornell Law School have agreed to work pro bono to advise the decisions. The goal, Kaden said, is to buy housed immigrants time to receive legal status.

FCC wants to house immigrants who would have the chance to receive legal status if given the time to exhaust all legal options, so they will evaluate who has a viable chance.

At the end of the day, Kaden will make the final decision on whether FCC’s resources will best benefit a particular candidate.

“We say every Sunday, ‘no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,’ Kaden said. “And we mean it. It’s an extravagant welcome to everyone, and so it should include someone who’s undocumented.”