Churches jump into action with threat of immigration sweeps, many offer sanctuary

The protesters at Saturday's Chicago march belted chants critical of President Donald Trump and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. ( Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo Getty Images )

Religious leaders across the country used their pulpits Sunday to quell concerns in immigrant communities and spring into action as nationwide immigration enforcement sweeps loomed.

A Chicago priest talked during his homily about the compassion of a border activist accused of harboring illegal immigrants, while another city church advertised a "deportation defense workshop." Dozens of Houston churches offered sanctuary to anyone afraid of being arrested. In Miami, activists handed out fliers outside churches to help immigrants know their rights in case of an arrest.

"We're living in a time where the law may permit the government to do certain things but that doesn't necessarily make it right," said the Rev. John Celichowski of St. Clare de Montefalco Parish in Chicago. His nearly 1,000-member congregation is 90 percent Hispanic and mostly immigrant.

While federal immigration officials were mum on details, agents had been expected start a coordinated action Sunday targeting roughly 2,000 people, including families, with final deportation orders in 10 major cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Miami.

Activists and city officials reported some U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in New York and Houston a day earlier, but it was unclear if it was part of the same operation. An ICE spokesman didn't return a request for comment Sunday.

The renewed threat of mass deportations has put immigrant communities even more on edge since Trump took office on a pledge to deport millions living in the country illegally.

In Los Angeles, the Rev. Fred Morris looked out over his congregation at the North Hills United Methodist Hispanic Mission and was relieved to see everyone who usually attends the early Sunday morning service. He had been worried many would stay home, fearing Trump's threat of immigration sweeps.

"Everybody is nervous," Morris said. "They are angry, very angry at being terrorized by our president."

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Associated Press writer Claire Galofaro in Louisville, Kentucky, and Adriana Gomez in Miami contributed to this report.