An investigation by KVOA into the detaining of three undocumented immigrants by a Pima County Sheriff’s Deputy is causing an uproar in the Arizona religious community.
According to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department report, a deputy was passing by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Ajo when he spotted three Hispanic males on its front porch. They were wearing clothes described as “dingy and tattered,” and were also “carrying water bottles.”
The deputy said that as he slowed down, the trio hurriedly entered the church despite the fact that no service was in session.
“They had a suspicious look, and their behavior indicated that they were potentially up to no good. That’s why our deputy honed-in on it,” said the captain of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Frank Duarte.
The deputy followed them inside, and eventually they revealed that they were from Honduras, and had spent three months walking before illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The deputy then detained the men until the Border Patrol could arrive and take them in.
“There is no federal or state law that indicates that a church is a sanctuary, that law enforcement cannot take place inside of a church. And, there’s also no department policy prohibiting it,” Cap. Duarte said.
The captain also insisted that there was no proof that the men were not engaged in criminal activity at the time.
“Crime in Ajo, and the potential for really kind of, weapons of mass-destruction, if you will, drugs, and criminals to infiltrate the United States through that area is very very high,” he said. “So our deputies are on alert, and are constantly looking for the possibility of that happening.”
The reverend of the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita told KVOA that the incident raises “serious questions” about the relationship of law enforcement and religious institutions.
“It does give me cause for concern, because as I’ve understood it, law enforcement really walks very carefully around faith communities and religious establishments,” he said. “We believe our law enforcement needs to be present in places, there are cases when people maybe aren’t being treated fairly, even by our law enforcement. And, we need to have those safe spaces.”
Moreover, he said, “[p]eople are being pushed out. They’re being persecuted, and sometimes churches can see a little bit further into God’s law and God’s ways, and law enforcement is not looking at those areas.”
Gerald Kicanas, the Catholic Bishop of Tuscon, said he contacted the Sheriff’s Department to air his concerns — foremost among them, that the trio had entered the church seeking help and had asked to pray, and that while police can confront people behaving suspiciously, there is no evidence that these three men were doing anything of the sort.
Scott Eric Kaufman is the proprietor of the AV Club's Internet Film School and, in addition to Raw Story, also writes for Lawyers, Guns & Money. He earned a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of California, Irvine in 2008.
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