Last September, the U.S. Border Patrol asked Pima County sheriff’s deputies for help going after a border crosser who ran from them and possibly went inside Our Lady of the Valley Parish in Green Valley.
A deputy walked into the church and saw someone who matched the agents’ description. In his limited Spanish, the officer asked the man to follow him outside, where Border Patrol agents were waiting.
But deputies will no longer respond to places such as schools, hospitals or churches solely for an immigration issue, said Frank Duarte, a captain with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department and commander of the Homeland Security Division.
The new directive comes after the department “took a look at some of the issues that popped up,” Duarte said. That includes an incident in March, first reported by KVOA, where a deputy stopped at the Immaculate Conception Church in Ajo to look into three people he described as wearing “dingy and tattered clothing” and jeans that “appeared several sizes too large.”
Based on his training and experience, the deputy wrote in his report that he believed they were not legally in the country. The men tried to hide from him, and the deputy went into the church, spoke with the minister, and asked them to go outside.
The three were from Honduras, and were on their way to Phoenix after traveling for three months from the Central American country to Mexico, then three days from the U.S. border to the church. Border Patrol was called to respond.
With the new directive, Duarte said, the sheriff’s department will be better aligned with the Border Patrol.
“We decided that if someone is purely seen as an undocumented crosser, that was not a good reason to go into the sanctity of a church and remove them,” he said.
Officials with the Tucson Sector Border Patrol declined a request for an interview, but said in a written statement that their policy doesn’t “permit enforcement activities in places of worship, schools, community centers or hospitals without the written approval by the chief patrol agent of the sector.
“The Tucson Sector Border Patrol does not engage in enforcement in these locations,” the statement read.
A MATTER OF DISCRETION
Most area law enforcement agencies surveyed by the Arizona Daily Star don’t have specific policies regarding how they respond to churches or schools in immigration matters.
Generally, agencies said they respect the sanctity of a church and try not to enter without permission, unless it’s an emergency. But if they get calls from a church about suspicious activity there, they are obligated to respond.
“As chief of police, I would not want my officers to disrupt a Mass or church gathering to apprehend someone who is here illegally for that sole purpose,” said Derek Arnson, chief of the Nogales Police Department. “I would want my officers to wait or call Border Patrol and allow them to do their job.”
The Tucson Police Department changed its policy in 2007, when a Catalina High School student and his family were deported after school officials found marijuana in the boy’s backpack and called police. The police learned the family was in the U.S. illegally and notified the Border Patrol.
“In the course of that, we contacted Border Patrol and found out they wouldn’t respond to schools or churches,” Tucson Police Department Chief Roberto Villaseñor said. “If they are not going to respond, why would we?”
The department changed its policy to prohibit officers from calling immigration officials to churches or schools. But it reversed that after SB 1070 went into effect. The state law requires local police officers to try to check the immigration status of someone they stop for another reason if they suspect that person is in the country illegally.
The department encourages officers to look at the whole picture when making a decision, Villaseñor said, and see if the incident falls under the requirement that they check someone’s status only if it is “practicable.”
Generally, law enforcement officers “respect the dignity and sanctity of a church,” said church leaders, including Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas. When there has been an issue, such as in the Ajo incident, he calls officials to express his concerns and they understand, he said.
“The position of the Catholic Church is that, certainly, law enforcement has a responsibility to enter a church if there’s a public-safety issue involved,” Kicanas said. “On the other hand, apprehending an immigrant who happens to be in church like any other worshiping member of the community, law enforcement has always upheld the fact that the sacredness of the church should be respected.”
In Pima County, there were at least eight incidents involving a church or school in a 16-month period, records show. Three involved officers responding to calls of suspicious activity. Another three were because the Border Patrol couldn’t respond or the deputy was working a shift for Operation Stonegarden, a federal program that pays local law-enforcement agencies to help with border enforcement. And in two others the deputy thought people had crossed the border illegally.
The Star requested details from area law enforcement agencies of incidents from Jan. 1, 2013, through April 15, 2014, where an officer referred someone to the Border Patrol from a church or school. The sheriff’s department’s reports were a result of a search for “UDA” (undocumented alien) circumstance code and keyword search for school and church. The review might be missing cases classified differently.
TPD couldn’t provide any information because its system doesn’t allow for keyword searches, but Villaseñor said he is not aware of any recent cases. Most other agencies didn’t find any records using similar keyword searches.
In Cochise, a manual review of 48 reports found using “agency assist” and “UDA” yielded one incident in March. It involved two people who jumped the fence east of the Naco Port of Entry and ran to an elementary school. They were found lying in tall grass next to the school’s bus lot.
In Nogales, officials can’t do keyword searches, but a separate review of hundreds of incidents for the Star’s recent SB 1070 investigation resulted in four reports in 2013 and two others in 2012. Two were at a school, one at a faith-based shelter, and the others at churches.
INTENT NOT ALWAYS CLEAR
Immigrants see churches as safe havens, but so do those smuggling them.
“One thing is the humble people wanting a better life; I feel for them,” said the Rev. Martin Martinez, the priest at Sacred Heart Church in Nogales. “But then, the other element is quite frightening.”
In the 10 years he has been at the church, on a hill less than a 10-minute walk from the border, he said he has seen how human smuggling has become intertwined with drug smuggling.
One time, a group of people was sitting behind an eighth-grade class in the church, he said. When a man walked into the church and motioned with his hand to follow him, the men all stood and left.
“If something had happened to those kids,” Martinez said, “I would have to answer for that.”
Sometimes, men he suspects are ringleaders walk inside the church with cellphone in hand as if they are walking into a mall, he said.
“See that tall building?” Lt. Sergio Rosas of the Nogales Police Department said smugglers tell the immigrants. “That’s where they are going to pick you up.”
Not only is the church visible from far away, but it also has bathrooms outside the building, as well as shrubs and trees out back — all places where Rosas has found people hiding.
He said officers respond to incidents — stemming from calls or patrolling — at a church or school at least once a month.
“Nogales is a small town,” he said. “We are very familiar with what’s normal and what’s out of the ordinary.”
LOCAL POLICIES VARY
Area churches where incidents have been reported don’t have a uniform policy, either.
“If they show up here and are hungry and thirsty, we feed them and give them water,” said the Rev. Dane Miller of Serenity Baptist Church in Three Points.
Pima County sheriff’s deputies responded to the church twice in the period reviewed by the Star. Miller said church officials call the Border Patrol or the sheriff’s office if border crossers are very ill or exhausted, but there’s no official policy.
On one of those occasions, a deputy working a Stonegarden shift heard over a Border Patrol radio about possible illegal border crossers. When he got to the back of the church, he found three people trying to drink from the sprinkler system. All had taken off their shoes and were wrapping their feet with bandages, the report read.
The men, who were on their way to Atlanta, had been walking for a week and were lost. The deputy waited about an hour for Border Patrol to arrive.
Miller said a border crosser comes through the church about once a month, and often doesn’t seek refuge. Five years ago, it used to be one or two large groups a week, he said, but has since decreased, in part due to the Border Patrol’s enforcement of the area.
Some churches, such as Valley Presbyterian in Green Valley, let individual employees or parishioners decide if they want to call the Border Patrol or the sheriff’s office in regard to “travelers,” as the Rev. Larry DeLong calls people crossing through the desert.
“We offer humanitarian aid when it is asked for or needed and move them on their way,” he said. “We are not a sanctuary because we have so much of a spectrum of beliefs here.”
The confusion points to the nation’s broken immigration system, Bishop Kicanas said.
“If the president and Congress could pass a comprehensive immigration policy reform that would provide access for people who want to come to work to do so legally, find a way to reunite families, address the 11 million or so people who are in shadows,” he said, “we could concentrate our efforts on criminal behavior, which does exist along our borders.”