The Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church came within a wisp last week of becoming Tucson's first sanctuary church in two decades

Rev. Bill Remmel and the west Tucson church offered shelter to Alfonso Morales-Macias, a 41-year-old father of two facing deportation.

Ultimately, it doesn't appear Morales-Macias and his family will need sanctuary because Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials changed course and are now expected to approve a stay of removal for him, said his attorney, Margo Cowan. That would allow him to stay for one more year - putting him one step closer to being able to apply for legal residency when his U.S.-born daughter turns 21 in September 2013.

Most Holy Trinity isn't offering an open door for all illegal immigrants facing deportation, but Remmel said the church would absolutely consider sheltering others depending on the circumstances.

It remains to be seen if Most Holy Trinity's offer will spark another sanctuary movement in Tucson. The first one ended in the early 1990s, said Rev. John Fife, a retired pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church and one of the founders of the movement.

"It's extremely significant," said Cowan, a longtime immigrants' rights advocate. "I think there will be more actions like this."

With deportations at record levels, more illegal immigrants with deep roots in the United States are being separated from their families, Fife and Cowan said. More than 387,000 illegal immigrants were deported nationwide in fiscal year 2010 - more than double the 189,000 deported in fiscal 2001, government figures show.

It's time for churches to step up and do more to prevent deportations that divide families, Fife said.

"The churches have a vital role to play now to assure that families are protected," Fife said. "What Father Remmel has done, and is doing, is precisely what every church and synagogue and mosque ought to be doing."

Quick decision

The decision to offer sanctuary to Morales-Macias followed an Oct. 2 emergency meeting his attorney helped to organize by calling together people whom supporters believed would be sympathetic to his case.

The meeting's goal was to come up with a plan to help the family. When Cowan asked about finding a church to offer sanctuary, Remmel and Leo Guardado, director of social ministry at the church, looked at each other and knew what they had to do.

"Anything that the American bishops have written - "Justice for Immigrants," our own bishop - has talked about keeping families together," said Remmel, Most Holy Trinity pastor for 11 years. "We felt this is one way we could put those words into action."

Morales-Macias, who has been in the United States for more than two decades, was at the meeting with his wife and two children.

"We weren't thinking of a sanctuary movement or all of that," Guardado said. "Literally for us it was: One of the families in our Catholic diocese is going to be deported very soon. We say we are about this; are we about this, yes or no?"

They sent an email to Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, who is in Rome, to let him know. They hadn't yet figured out the logistics or the legal ramifications of that decision, "but we knew it put us with God. We knew that it put us with our teachings," Guardado said.

Kicanas could not be reached for comment, but Fred Allison, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, said the bishop does not tell parishes what they can and can't do because each parish is considered an individual, nonprofit corporation.

Whether Most Holy Trinity will offer sanctuary to others is "a discussion that needs to take place within the parish," Remmel said.

Poster Family

Morales-Macias and his wife came to Tucson 21 years ago from Nayarit, Mexico, with tourist visas. They stayed long after the visas expired. Their children were born in Tucson, which makes them U.S. citizens.

Morales-Macias has no criminal record and is a devout Catholic, his attorney said. The couple's daughter, Ana Morales, 19, is a recent graduate of Sunnyside High School who wants to study to be a physical therapist. Their son, Alfonso Morales Jr., 12, is in gifted and talented classes in the seventh grade at Sierra Middle School.

"This is like Obama's poster family," Cowan said.

Morales-Macias' troubles began in September 2007 when immigration agents arrested him while he was working for a contracted janitorial service at a Tucson Target store. He was set to be deported when he was granted his first reprieve last fall.

Cowan requested another one-year deferral but found out that had been denied in a letter she received Sept. 30 instructing Morales-Macias to turn himself in immediately. She and others mobilized to form their plan, which included marching to the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to demand action and ushering the family to Most Holy Trinity for sanctuary.

"Please spread the word - we need as many people as we can to come together to help give the Morales family a chance to stay together," Remmel wrote in an email sent out last Monday.

Later that day, in a rare occurrence, Cowan received a call from Immigration and Customs Enforcement telling her Morales-Macias should apply for a stay of removal. The stay would be for one year and can be renewed for additional one-year periods, Cowan said.

There doesn't appear to be any effort to deport Morales-Macias' wife, and it's unlikely the government would have targeted Morales-Macias had he not been arrested because its policy is to prioritize going after illegal immigrants with criminal records.

Had the stay not come through, the family would have moved into the church - they looked around after that Oct. 2 meeting for a room that might be comfortable. There is no law prohibiting the arrest of someone inside a church, but there has been a agreement in Southern Arizona for decades that neither the Border Patrol nor any other law enforcement agency enters churches looking for people - except in cases of an active pursuit.

New Guidelines

In a memo sent in June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton highlighted 19 factors agency officials can consider for granting reprieves.

The list includes a person's length of time in the U.S.; if the person is pursuing an education; if the person or family members have served in the military; if a person was brought illegally as a child; and if the person has a spouse, child or parent who is a legal permanent resident.

In August, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano sent a letter to a group of senators announcing that an interagency working group had been formed to conduct a case-by-case review of the tens of thousands of pending deportation cases.

"Each of these cases costs taxpayers thousands of dollars, and those involving low-priority individuals divert resources and attention from high-priority cases," Kumar Kibble, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director, said last week in testimony before the House Homeland Security committee. But, he insisted, "At no point will any individuals be granted any form of 'amnesty.' "

Tucson immigration attorneys Maurice Goldman and Patricia Mejia say they have been getting frequent calls from clients asking if they are eligible for reprieves. But Mejia isn't aware of anybody in Arizona who has been granted a reprieve based on the new guidelines.

"Everybody got all excited about it, but so far there are no results," she said.

If Arizona churches joined in offering sanctuary, "We would see a lot more pressure on the administration, our congressional delegation and we would begin to see change," said Jennifer Allen, director of Tucson-based Border Action Network.

Stays of removal

Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not discuss individual cases to protect privacy, but spokesman Vincent Picard said field office directors can approve stay of removal requests when a person needs more time to take care of pending matters.

That can include selling a house, allowing a child to finish a school year, or in some cases, when a person has an application for legal residency sponsored by a family member pending, he said. Stays of removal are issued for a time determined by the field director, but are never indefinite and do not provide a path to legal residency, Picard said.

Even so, getting a reprieve is rare. Morales-Macias is the third Tucsonan known to get one in the last two years.

It's unclear if the practice has increased in Arizona because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have figures on deferred action. Officials discovered an error in the record-gathering process, rendering figures for 2005-2010 incorrect, Picard said. They are working to fix the problem but aren't done yet.

Other churches

A new sanctuary movement is not planned here, but it's clearly not out of the question.

Southside Presbyterian Church, which started it all 30 years ago, hasn't discussed opening its doors again for shelter but would probably be more apt to say yes than other congregations, said Rev. Allison Harrington.

"That would be a very serious decision because we know what it means. We know what kind of commitment that is," said Harrington, pastor for the past three years.

When the New Sanctuary Movement sprouted in the mid-2000s in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, Fife and other Tucson religious leaders opted instead to concentrate efforts on trying to prevent illegal border crossers from dying in the desert.

That's still the strategy at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, said Rev. Randy Mayer "We're helping hundreds, if not thousands, of people, by putting out water and giving direct aid to migrants," Mayer said. "It's more important that we do that work and other people take on the work of offering sanctuary."

A handful of members of the Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tucson were active in the original Sanctuary Movement, but the church is more involved today with immigrants from other parts of the world, said Rev. Marney Wasserman. They have two families from Togo and University of Arizona graduate students from Jamaica, Korea and Nicaragua in their congregation.

"Whether sanctuary is still a useful tool, I don't know," Wasserman said. "But I do believe that the need for large scale immigration reform is great."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or

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