As President Donald Trump's immigration policy continues to calcify, New Yorkers are asking about the legal implications of protecting someone from Immigration and Customs Enforcement—inside a church, school, or home.

"We've been getting requests from churches in particular asking what's safe and what's not, and how to stay on the right side of the law," said Hasan Shafiqullah, deputy attorney-in-charge for the Legal Aid Society's Immigration Law Unit.

Under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, anyone who knowingly "conceals, harbors, or shields" a non-citizen accused of violating the law, or attempts to do so, risks fines or imprisonment. The INA is written so broadly that, at first glance, it's hard to imagine protecting a neighbor from ICE without also violating it.

But existing case law indicates legal ways to protect a non-citizen in New York: a person who skips an appearance in immigration court for fear of a negative ruling, or someone with a final, non-negotiable order of removal. Churches, attorneys and clergy members say, have historically been particularly safe.

"I think people are probably going to be safer from door busting in a house of worship than in a private home," Shafiqullah said. "And that, I think, is just because of social norms: recognizing that houses of worship are not a place for brute force."

About 700 religious congregations across the country have pledged to offer sanctuary according to The Sanctuary Movement. This month, DNAInfo reported that inquires to the NYC-Based New Sanctuary Coalition have recently increased 300 percent.

On Monday, the Legal Aid Society published a fact sheet on how to provide sanctuary for a non-citizen while staying within the bounds of the law. The group stressed that it cannot legally advise anyone to "be in violation of the law," but can try to clarify all possible consequences.

"So much is case by case. So we would not want someone to take action solely on the fact sheet," Shafiqullah stressed, adding that to deliberately cross sanctuary irregardless of the guidelines "is ultimately a radical act."

According to the Legal Aid Society, if ICE is aware that the person they are looking for has sought shelter inside of a building—private residence included—the act of sheltering is not illegal in-and-of-itself. But, if you are hiding someone "to help them avoid detection by the government," that is likely a violation. For example, sheltering a person and also helping them access a fake social security card. Or, sheltering them and helping them sneak out the back door when ICE knocks.


A post shared by Elizabeth De Leon 🌚 (@of_lion) on

Once ICE agents come to the door, a person offering sanctuary can tell them that they are not welcome on the premises. What happens next, though, depends on the type of warrant the agents have in hand. In the case of a judicial warrant, ICE might be seeking someone who is actively evading a felony arrest, or is on the FBI's most-wanted list. Whereas an administrative warrant might be for a person with a prior removal order, who ICE decides no longer deserves a stay.

In the latter case, Shafiqullah said, "There is no obligation to open your door if it's a home, church or business: an administrative warrant isn't mandatory."

A church or mosque may still be an effective sanctuary, even in the case of a judicial warrant. Not only does it qualify as "sensitive locations," which ICE is directed to "generally" avoid (schools and hospitals, too), but it has extra symbolic weight.

Still, many of the non-citizens who seek sanctuary in churches in New York City have not committed violent crimes. Reverend Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church told the NY Times in December that there were 11 people in sanctuary in NYC churches, most of whom had committed "white-collar" crimes. This month, according to DNAInfo, at least 14 congregations in NYC are providing sanctuary.

A Denver woman sought sanctuary inside a church earlier this month, rather than go to a mandatory ICE check-in. A mother of three children, she decided to move into a basement sanctuary room. It's not clear when it will be safe for her to leave. (In some cases, sanctuary is simply an overnight option, perhaps for the duration of an ICE raid.)

Long-term sanctuary in a confined space, even if successful, should only be considered under extreme circumstances, advocates say. A second list of guidelines is intended to help people prepare for the detention of a family member, but could also apply in the case of church sanctuary.

"We do not advise people to be physically in a space where they are going to be constrained, because then it becomes like a jail for them," said Juan Carlos Ruiz, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Coalition of NYC and a Lutheran minister at St. Peter's in Manhattan.

Ruiz's group offers weekly immigration clinics to help people sort through their paperwork and, in some cases, prepare for trial. The coalition will also send volunteers to accompany people to ICE check-ins. "Sanctuary for us is much more than the physical space," he said. "Our religious garb... has some symbolic power."

While ICE's sensitive locations remain on the books, it's not yet clear how practice might shift under President Trump. (ICE didn't respond to our inquiry about the future of sensitive locations.) "Earlier this month, faith leaders protested when ICE agents reportedly handcuffed six men leaving a hypothermia shelter at a church in Virginia, apparently violating the sensitive locations policy.

"Under Trump, we do not know," Ruiz said.

Our full guide for immigrant rights in New York City is here.