In the face of fears that the administration of President Donald Trump will launch a sweeping crackdown on undocumented immigrants, the Reform movement, including local congregations, is gearing up for a fight.
Last month, the Union for Reform Judaism issued a resolution urging its congregations to consider providing physical sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation and to provide legal and financial support to these immigrants.
But Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said in an interview that the most significant action the Reform community is taking is to mobilize political will behind the “commitment to defend and protect immigrants in their community.”
“Honestly, we’re kind of in a liminal period where there’s a high level of concern but there aren’t lots and lots of undocumented immigrants knocking on the doors of synagogues saying ‘help me,’” said Pesner. “But don’t underestimate the importance of congregations building the political will to support immigrants should the need arise.”
Trump made deporting undocumented immigrants a central part of his presidential campaign, and as president he signed an executive order that gave Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials more latitude to deport people.
Pesner said that the Reform movement’s resolution was triggered by a combination of Trump’s travel ban on citizens of seven predominately Muslim countries, Trump’s executive on immigration and a few high profile arrests and deportations by ICE — as well as fears that the situation could get worse for immigrants.
“What we’re really concerned about is the potential for mass deportations,” Pesner said. “We’re concerned about federal authorities rounding people up in their workplaces, homes and churches and threatening their due process.”
In February, the board of Temple Sinai in Washington approved a proposal prepared by Rabbi Jonathan Roos to become a “sanctuary congregation.” According to the proposal, the synagogue resolved to potentially host a family or individual facing deportation, support other religious institutions that are hosting families or individuals and to create a rapid response team.
Places of worship carry a special status as “sensitive locations” in the eyes of ICE and its officers are not supposed to apprehend immigrants in synagogues, churches and mosques, unless those immigrants have committed a crime.
In addition to Temple Sinai, Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community Kol Ami and Temple Rodef Shalom in McLean have joined an organization of houses of worship in the area that have pledged to become sanctuary congregations.
In 1985, the Union for Reform Judaism adopted resolutions urging congregations to provide sanctuary to undocumented Central Americans and other refugees fleeing violence and oppression.
The Reform movement is also encouraging its member synagogues to form partnerships with local nonprofits and churches on the front lines of the immigration issue.
“The frontline of where most undocumented immigrants turn for help would be their own Catholic parish,” said Pesner. “Most of our synagogues are in white suburbs, so if the need is really there and there are many folks afraid of deportations, we’ll have to have done some work. We have to reach out to advocacy organizations and say that we are here.”