“ATTN: ICE is at the Vallarta next to the USA fitness in Sylmar, please be careful anyone,” read one of several Twitter messages that spread through social media on July 13 as undocumented immigrants’ nerves jumped to new heights due to the announced Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.
In reality, there were no ICE agents. It was a filming company shooting a movie at the commercial plaza along Foothill Boulevard that had several vans and security guards in the area.
While the information proved false, it was a reminder of the paranoia created by the ICE operations that sought to apprehend 2,000 people across the country (not the millions President Trump had announced in June) with a final order of deportation, about 140 of them in the Los Angeles area.
Pastor Fred Morris of North Hills United Methodist Church Mission called the announcements “terrorism for political gains.”
“He terrorizes people who are undocumented,” Rev. Morris said during an interview conducted inside the church. Attendance was almost 100 percent Latino.
The religious temple counteracted this “terrorism” by opening its doors as a “sanctuary” to any undocumented immigrant fearing ICE. The church’s gym can accommodate hundreds of people and another group would feed them.
“We have people set up to take kids to school even,” Morris said.
Although that designation began in February 2016, Pastor Morris said to date only one person has entered, a single man who came to the doors of the church on July 14. Morris said the man told him he had not been able to pay rent where he was living, and he also feared the ICE raids.
“He’s undocumented and scared,” Morris said.
The pastor added being initially puzzled by the fact that no one else had taken advantage of the offer, but then considered that this is a difficult decision to make for those with jobs, apartments, car payments and school-age children.
“For them to come into sanctuary, they would lose everything,” Morris acknowledged. “I’m not anticipating many people coming to us for sanctuary.”
More than likely, he said, “people are sleeping in their cars, staying with friends in case ICE comes to their house.”
Morris admits that the church gym would not be a “very attractive alternative” given that people would have to sleep on the floor, as there are no cots.
“We don’t have a lot of creature comforts,” Morris said. “I would say this would be the last resort.
“I don’t anticipate we’ll be flooded with people."
Once there, those inside the sanctuary would probably not be able to leave until their lawyers allowed them to do so.
“I’m sure ICE agents would be across the street watching us,” he said. “Mind you, ICE can’t go onto the church premises, and if they were to do so, I would call the police and tell them there are armed men who are trespassing.”
In the meantime, the pastor is trying to reassure his flock that life must go on, albeit with some precautions. He passes out red cards to his congregation with recommendations on what to do if ICE shows up at the door, and the rights undocumented immigrants have.
He also tells them to register their US-born children as citizens of their countries of origin, and have a power of attorney giving custody of their children to someone they can trust.
Morris knows this well because he also runs the San Fernando Valley Refugee Children Center responsible for 310 undocumented children, many of them housed with uncles and other family members.
“Obama Started This”
Almost all of these children are unaccompanied minors who arrived at the border and were taken to “hieleras” (cold holding cells) where they spent from a few days to several weeks, something that Morris calls “malicious and cruel” treatment.
Almost all kids who go through the hieleras suffer from respiratory problems by the time they arrive at the center. But while the situation has been aggravated under Trump, the Pastor blames this situation on his predecessor.
“That is Obama’s invention,” he said. “He was less malicious about it than Trump,” but “he sullied his historical memory” by starting this, Morris added.
He also frowns on the idea of President Trump calling undocumented immigrants “criminals and illegals.”
“These people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are facing death from gangs,” Morris said.
He believes this posturing and the immigration raids spearheaded by Trump is “beyond shame,” and a “cruel and deliberate” intent to scare people.
“It makes me very angry to have our president being a terrorist,” Morris said.
That’s why opening the doors to the church as a sanctuary to undocumented immigrants — despite its limitations — is a way of going against this terrorism.
“The message is ‘in your face’ to Trump by being a sanctuary church,” he said.
Los Angeles ICE raids response hotline: (888) 624-4752, (323) 894-1504, or (657) 210-0157.