Hawaiʻi and Undocumented Immigrants: Part 3

Jul 4, 2017

Credit St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church

As federal officials crack down on illegal immigration, many in Hawaiʻi’s faith community are mobilizing.  But actions come with risks. In her continuing series on undocumented immigrants in Hawaiʻi, HPR contributing reporter Jackie Young has the story.

Credit St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church

Several churches and faith groups in Hawaiʻi are considering offering sanctuary to immigrants who are here illegally.  Some so-called “Immigrant Welcoming Congregations” or IWCs may risk hosting undocumented immigrants. Others may simply help with food, financial, or moral support.

Rev. Steven Costa has discussed the possibility of becoming a sanctuary with his supervisor at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Kalihi.

“We’ve talked about the possibility, like on the mainland, where a young woman or family comes here many years ago, children are born, families are together and growing, and then all of a sudden, maybe mom or maybe dad, did not do their legal paperwork.  And then they’re going to be deported.  And those seem to be the most heart-wrenching. 

“We’re not ready or willing to step in if someone overstays their visa unnecessarily or inadvertently.”

Rev. Steven Costa
Credit Jackie Young

What would they do if confronted by the authorities? 

“We are ready to suffer the consequences if so be it.  We do not believe that even the federal government wants to have, on the news, them coming into a church, arresting priests for trying to protect someone who needs help.”

The concept of sanctuary goes back thousands of years, to the Middle Ages, and more recently, to the ‘80s, when sanctuary was offered to refugees from Central America.  But, it’s not a legal protection.

Mateo Caballero, legal director of the ACLU of Hawaiʻi, explains the criminal sanctions.

“There’s a statute—a federal statute—that makes it a crime—a felony—to either harbor or transport undocumented immigrants with the intent to avoid the federal authorities.”

He says some individuals were prosecuted during the sanctuary movement of the ‘80s.

“Eventually they brought charges against a lot of the individuals involved in that network.  These were conspiracy charges.  Essentially they said they had an agreement among themselves to violate criminal federal law—both the criminal harboring statute and the transporting statute.”      

However, “most of those folks did not have to serve very long prison sentences, if at all.”

St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church provides food for those in need on weekly basis.
Credit St. Elizabeth's Episcopal Church

Some churches have also been reluctant to identify themselves as a sanctuary, for fear of losing their non-profit status, or having their assets seized.

Although churches are afraid of repercussions, Rev. John Heidel, coordinator of the IWC network, says they are considering more outreach. 

“There’s an effort to make this more interfaith, so we’d like to get Buddhist congregations, and Jewish congregations, and the Muslim community involved in some way if we can.”

Tomorrow, we’ll look at community safety under an immigration crackdown, and what comes next.