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Dawn Leach is asylum ministry leader at Just North United Church of Christ, where a young family from Honduras seeking asylum is currently living.  

COLUMBUS, Ohio — More and more houses of worship are beginning to welcome immigrants to live inside their walls.

But that’s not necessarily to avoid deportation by Immigration and Customs (ICE) officials, as they do when offering traditional sanctuary. Instead, they’re offering to care for asylum-seekers who are in the country legally but unable to work for months until they obtain permits.

“This is way bigger than the sanctuary movement,” said the Rev. Noel Andersen, national grassroots coordinator with Church World Service. “The amount of churches out there hosting a family right now — this is thousands.”

One is in Columbus, when, on July 7, Just North United Church of Christ on the Northwest Side welcomed in a young Honduran family of four to live within its walls while they apply for asylum. Once they get their work permits — a process that takes at least six months and costs money — the couple plan to get jobs and build a life in this country for their two young children.

“This is a way we can live out our faith, live out our values,” said the Rev. Eric Williams, pastor at Just North, which also offered sanctuary from October to January to the first undocumented immigrant to leave sanctuary as a legal resident after she got a visa.

Offering housing and financial support to immigrants seeking asylum is an extension of the sanctuary movement, Andersen said. Though it is not new, it is growing, he said.

“What we’re seeing is the need for welcoming and accompanying asylum-seekers is growing,” he said. “Congregations have shifted to accompaniment of asylum-seekers out of need. We’re not seeing the same requests for sanctuary.”

The help is likely to increase, because offering housing to asylum-seekers comes without the legal complications of offering sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant. Housing an undocumented immigrant, as two local churches are currently doing, is considered harboring and is illegal.

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“This is something a much broader group of churches could do if they perceived it would make a difference,” said Leslie Kern, an advocate for immigrant rights at the church and Williams’ wife. “Seeking asylum is very, very difficult to do without the support of the faith community, because it costs several thousand dollars to complete the process, but people arrive with nothing … there are many, many more families like this.”

The Rev. Dan Clark, director of Faith in Public Life Ohio, sees Just North as a local example of what faith communities can do if they aren’t interested in offering sanctuary.

“There is an end in sight, there is a clear legal path,” he said. “I think it’s something many more churches would be prepared to take on because the risk is less.”

The Rev. Bill Jenkins, a United Methodist minister and director of Safe Harbors Network in San Diego, started the nonprofit group to create places for immigrant asylum-seekers and refugees to stay when they are in need. He works with churches and individuals to offer housing to asylum-seekers, which he calls “sanctuary lite.”

“They’re here in the U.S., they cannot work,” he said. “Otherwise they’d be on the streets.”

Jenkins said that of about 250,000 houses of worship in the country, only about 1,000 are part of the sanctuary movement, but many more could offer housing to asylum-seekers.

“If every congregation in the United States would take one family unit and care for them, there would be no crisis at the border. There would be no people living in cages. There would be no children separated from their parents,” he said.

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