Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church of The Woodlands has become a Sanctuary Church, joining some eight hundred churches across the nation in affirming the inherent dignity and worth of all people. The Northwoods congregation approved the move at its May 19, 2019 Annual Meeting and held a press conference to make the announcement.

An estimated 500,000 plus undocumented persons live in the greater Houston area. Northwoods’ minister, Rev. Sarah Prickett, said, “Our church draws upon the words of holy writings that speak about how a faith community, welcomes the stranger in its midst.” The church emphasized it will act in plain sight in giving sanctuary to someone who, if deported, will likely face persecution or even death.

The Sanctuary Movement is a growing movement of faith and immigrant communities protecting and standing with immigrants facing deportation. Members pledge to protect immigrant families who face unjust deportation. Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church joins the many religious leaders, congregations, and faith-based organizations of all denominations who are part of the Movement.

Since declaring Sanctuary we have received an inspiring amount of support from the community. 

If you are interested in joining this effort please contact

FAQ: Becoming a Sanctuary Church

Is providing Sanctuary illegal? Can we be arrested or charged with harboring an alien, or some other immigration related crime?

Because sanctuary is most commonly provided in conjunction with a public declaration of who the person in Sanctuary is, and why they are being provided sanctuary, there is not an intent to conceal. It is also important to note that no congregations have been prosecuted for providing sanctuary in the past forty years.

Could they take away our nonprofit status?

Declaring sanctuary and providing shelter to someone in need is an act of faith and an act of justice. It is not a campaign or electioneering act. Churches are considered nonprofits, and nonprofits are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activity, which is generally determined by supporting or opposing a candidate for elected office. However, nonprofits are free to advocate for political issues and publicly criticize policies and elected officials. As such, declaring or providing Sanctuary should not have any impact on nonprofit status.

What stops ICE, Border Patrol or local law enforcement from coming in and arresting someone in sanctuary?

Faith communities (churches, temples, mosques, etc.) are one of the enumerated “sensitive locations” identified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as locations where immigration enforcement actions (interview, arrest, searches, and surveillance) should not occur. It is important to note that this is DHS policy, and not law. The longstanding policy was clarified in a DHS memo in 2011. It is unknown if the DHS will change this policy in the future.

Note that the UUA, UUSC, UURISE and UUCSJ do not construe this document as providing legal recommendations, and encourage all congregations considering sanctuary to secure their own legal advice.
For more information on political engagement for nonprofits, see the UUA’s Real Rules:

When and how does offering sanctuary start and end?

Being a sanctuary congregation (provider or supporter) starts when the congregation makes the decision to do so. Physical sanctuary starts when an immigrant takes up protective residence in the building. Sanctuary ends when the government rules favorably on the immigration case, when the person in sanctuary decides they no longer need or want to be in sanctuary, or when the guest permanently leaves the physical sanctuary of the congregation for any other reason.

How long does Sanctuary last?

There is no set time frame: it could be weeks, months or even over a year.

What if we can only offer Sanctuary for a couple of weeks/months, etc.?

Unfortunately, there is no way to know how quickly a Sanctuary case will be resolved, and as

such a congregation must be prepared for sanctuary to last as long as needed. If your congregation is only able to commit to a short period of time, you are better suited to be a Sanctuary support congregation until you are able to make a long-term commitment.

What happens if the person in sanctuary loses their case?

One of the reasons so few people enter sanctuary is that there needs to be a consensus between the legal team, the advocates, and the person themselves that theirs is a winnable case. Sanctuary is not offered to every person at risk of deportation – only to those who are believed to have a strong case. There is no guarantee that any case will have a positive outcome, but to date, many sanctuary cases have been successful, in part because of the process by which cases are chosen. If at some point it becomes apparent that there will not be a satisfactory determination on their case, or if the person in sanctuary decides that being in sanctuary is no longer a viable or worthwhile option, there will need to be a careful and intentional conversation to decide when and how to end the stay.

Why does a person need sanctuary?

Generally, people enter sanctuary because they have received a final order of deportation but believe that they have a legitimate case that either has not been thoroughly presented or appropriately argued before an immigration judge, and/or their immigration attorney believes they may be eligible for prosecutorial discretion. Often there are extenuating circumstances that could or should have been raised in their defense of deportation that were not, due to expedited rulings, lack of or inadequate counsel, etc.

How do we decide if we want a specific person to come into sanctuary?

When your congregation is notified of a person in need of sanctuary, your Immigrant Justice Leadership Team will need to respond quickly, and reach out to the requesting party (immigration attorney, community or grassroots group, etc.) to get as much information about the person seeking sanctuary and their immigration case as possible. That information is what the congregation will use to determine if they want to provide a safe refuge for this particular person. In recognition that a decision about a particular person may have to be made very quickly, some congregations have empowered their Board to do so.

What if there is someone who needs sanctuary, but we aren’t ready? Or don’t feel comfortable?
Declaring yourself to be a sanctuary congregation does not obligate you to take anyone or everyone into sanctuary. It is still up to your congregation to decide at the time if you are ready, and if the person in need is someone they want to commit their time and resources to assist.

What if they have a criminal record?

Each congregation must decide the parameters of the type of candidate they will consider for sanctuary. We strongly encourage congregations to make this determination on a case-by-case basis, rather than declaring a rule such as “no one with a criminal history”. Examples of why that broad rule can be problematic include:

– Undocumented people who cross the border more than once are charged with a felony, which puts them in the broad category labeled “criminals” by the federal government

– If the arrest or conviction was part of the persecution the person was fleeing in their home country;

– Under current immigration laws,

– If the person has an old record (DUI, assault, etc.) from years ago that represents where they were at the time, but not where they are in now; and

– Immigrants are more likely to have arrests and convictions for mutual issues (ex: racial profiling by law enforcement, dealing with racist neighbors/co-workers, etc.)

What if we take someone into sanctuary and later decide it isn’t working out?

In the same vein that declaring sanctuary doesn’t demand that a congregation accept every and any person requesting sanctuary, neither does accepting a person into sanctuary mean that under every circumstance they person must stay in sanctuary in your church even if it isn’t working. That said, the act of going into sanctuary is often in direct defiance of an order of deportation or an imminent order of deportation, so the person in sanctuary is in an even more vulnerable position after entering sanctuary. There would need to be a very serious, and impassable problem that multiple and varied attempts had failed to rectify before the very serious decision to terminate a sanctuary stay should even be considered. If were to be the case, it would be necessary to be working with the Sanctuary coalition, your interfaith partners, and UURISE to try to find a new sanctuary placement and develop a plan for the safest possible transfer of the person from one sanctuary location to another.

What if the person wants to leave sanctuary?

Sanctuary can feel like house arrest, and there is nothing about it that is easy. It requires a lot of courage, faith, and sacrifice for the person entering sanctuary, so at any point that they determine that they want to do something else, that decision should be honored. Is it always up to the person in sanctuary to determine if it is successful, necessary, and worth the sacrifice.



How much space do we need?

There isn’t a minimum amount of square feet required, but there does need to be sufficient private space to allow for a bed and for their belongings (dresser or wardrobe, etc.). If there is not a specific room, you might consider walling off part of a larger area to create an appropriate room.

Do we need to have a shower?

Yes. Although one can “clean-up” in a sink for a short period of time, this is not realistic for a multi-month stay.

What if we don’t have a shower or private space?

If you do not have private space or a shower your congregation will need to decide if there is space that could be set aside and created as a private shower, if a shower could be added to existing bathroom facilities, or a new bathroom or shower could be constructed. If there is not space to build a private area or shower, then your congregation would be better off becoming a Sanctuary Support Congregation.

What if we have a childcare center at our church?

You will need to research the licensing regulations and the lease to determine if offering sanctuary could put the center or your legal contract with the center in jeopardy. Generally, there will be ways to provide sanctuary that do not put the center’s license at risk, but you need to understand the regulations in order to craft rules or modify the building structure accordingly. Often it is as simple as declaring that the person in sanctuary will not have access to the childcare center when children are present.

Does the person in Sanctuary need to be in the place of worship, or can they stay in the parsonage or other building owned by the congregation?
There is not hard and fast rule, but the general consensus is that use of the parsonage or another building would only work if it is on the same parcel of land as the place of worship. If the parsonage is on a distinct piece of property, even if it is only a block or so away, then it will not fall within the intended protections of the “sensitive locations” memo. As the provision of Sanctuary occurs by utilizing the government’s own policies, it is prudent to try to work within the clear reading of those policies.



Can the person in sanctuary leave to go shopping? To the doctor? To work?

No. Once someone enters sanctuary, they must stay in sanctuary either until they receive a positive outcome on their immigration case, they decide they no longer need/want sanctuary, or an emergency requires them to forfeit the safety of sanctuary. It is important to remember that by entering sanctuary, they have chosen to defy orders of ICE to leave the US, so once they have defied those orders, they must remain in the protective space. It is often helpful to think of sanctuary as a form of “house arrest” or non-prison detention. It is recommended that your congregation a sympathetic physician, nurse practitioner or other medical provider, or a health clinic willing to do “house calls” as needed for non-emergency issues.

What if there is a medical need or a medical emergency?

If there is a medical need, ideally you will reach out to a medical provider or community clinic to have that need addressed within the walls of the sanctuary building. If there is a medical emergency where the sanctuary guest’s life is in danger, then emergency treatment must be sought, unless the guest chooses to deny medical care. These are issues that should be discussed as a part of the decision to bring a specific person into sanctuary.

What if they have to go to court?

This will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The first step is to see if an attorney is able to represent them and they can avoid appearing in person. If that is not a possibility, then the guest in sanctuary will need to determine how they want to handle the situation, ideally with advice from their attorney. There is a wonderful example of creative problem solving from Portland, OR where they created a “Church on a bus” in order to transport someone in sanctuary to appear in front of a judge for another issue while remaining physically in a religious space. In part due t community support, the judge dealt with the case at hand and did not involve himself in the immigration case – only asking confirmation from the minister that the person would continue to have a place in sanctuary.

Will the person in sanctuary become part of our congregation?

That is entirely up to the person in sanctuary, but based on our experience, it is highly unlikely. Sanctuary is a social justice commitment, not a recruiting opportunity. It is common for someone in sanctuary to want to maintain and express their own faith.

Who “pays” for the person in sanctuary?

Expenses for food, clothing, laundry, medical, etc. in general will need to be covered by the host congregation, the Support congregations, and the Sanctuary Coalition. Fundraisers, crowdfunding, and grants for justice work can help defray costs and lessen the drain on the congregation’s resources.

Can a small congregation provide sanctuary?

Yes. The size of the congregation does not necessarily matter as long as there is sufficient space, and a sufficient volunteer team that will ideally be from support congregations, interfaith partners, and a sanctuary coalition.

How do we declare sanctuary?

In most cases, the public declaration is an important component of sanctuary. One of the reasons for a public declaration of sanctuary is the light it shines on the specific case, which allows others to organize and mobilize around it. Bringing attention to the case builds a strong case in the “court of public opinion” which results in pressure on DHS and ICE, which often leads to successful closing of a case. Once a congregation has discerned and decided they will provide sanctuary, a public announcement is often appropriate. This decision should be made in conversation with the partner organizations, and Sanctuary coalition. If there is a possible case on horizon, you might wait to announce both the decision and the start of sanctuary at the same time. Public declarations often start with a press conference or a vigil.

When or why would there be private sanctuary?

Private sanctuary, or when a congregation’s sanctuary status has not been publicly announced, is a tactic that is sometimes used for a time before the case becomes public, and is often used as a way to leverage negotiations with ICE with the pressure of a public case looming. In this type of case, the determination is made by the legal team and the impacted person, and often will depend on the current relationship with ICE attorneys. There have been a number of cases won with this tactic, but it is not employed on every case.

Legal Questions

Once your congregation has gone through a discernment process about whether or not you feel called to offer sanctuary and have the location and resources that make it possible, you can turn to other kinds of questions. Some of these will inevitably be questions about whether your congregation is breaking the law, and what the possible consequences might be. Answers to these questions will vary a great deal based on the city and state in which you’re located, and the stands they have taken on sanctuary.

Answers about when, and if, sanctuary violates the law also depend on interpretation of the statutes on the books. For example, there is a law against bringing in and harboring persons not authorized to be in the United States (INA Sec.274). While a sanctuary congregation is re clearly not bringing people into the country, whether that counts as “harboring” someone has been interpreted by the courts. Some courts have interpreted harboring to require concealment of a

person. When we declare sanctuary for an individual we are bringing them into the light of the community, not concealing them in secrecy (U.S. V Costello, 66 F.3d 1040, 7th Cir. 2012). Other courts have interpreted harboring to be simple sheltering (U.S. V Acosta de Evans, 531 F.2d 428 (9th Cir. 1976).

In the past, those entering sanctuary often had a clear pathway to win relief from deportation, which meant they were not a high priority for deportation and that ICE could grant them prosecutorial discretion. However, in the early stages of President Trump’s administration it has become clear that no person with immigrant status is guaranteed such a pathway, since even those with visas or green cards have been challenged.

Over the past forty years, no congregation has been prosecuted for allowing undocumented people to find shelter and safety in their house of worship. However, it is important to note that it is unknown about how aggressively migrants might be pursued within sanctuary settings that in the past were considered off limits. Similarly, we do not yet know how President Trump’s administration will respond to congregations and other institutions that defy the hostility to immigration and open their doors to migrants. The legal advice provided in the links below was created to help you understand the legal arguments that have been marshaled in support of sanctuary in the past. They will also help you be aware of where legal actions of resistance different from ones that may be in violation of immigration law. These tools will be updated as UURISE and the UUCSJ learn more about how the current administration responds to declarations of Sanctuary and what legal tools are effectively deployed in response. Additional legal resources are available from the Catholic Legal Immigration Network12 and the New Sanctuary Movement.13

Advocacy Strategies

Advocacy strategies will change rapidly as the Trump administration begins to crack down on Sanctuary cities and possibly on individuals in sanctuary. But however the political circumstances around us change, public advocacy will remain critical.

In partnership with legal service providers, immigrants’ rights organizers, and the person in sanctuary, a strategy will be developed and a multitude of different people in government or

12 Catholic Legal Immigration Network (2014): pdf?dl=0
13 2. New Sanctuary Movement Legal Toolkit: