PHILADELPHIA — Angela Navarro is one of the lucky ones. Picked by her North Philadelphia parish, she’ll take part in a multicultural choir performing for Pope Francis this weekend. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Navarro, an undocumented immigrant, who says she lived with the threat of deportation for a decade.
“Those were long, difficult years,” Navarro said. “It was a very dark time. Not just for me but for my whole family.”
When immigration officials were closing in last fall, Navarro says, she entered a North Philadelphia church to take refuge, taking advantage of a 2011 federal immigration policy that prevents raids of sensitive locations, like churches and schools.
She’s part of a controversial sanctuary movement that offers refuge to undocumented immigrants who have nowhere else to turn. Today, there are 40 congregations offering shelter in 15 states, according to representatives from Church World Service.
Navarro came to the United States when she was 16. As the last member of her immediate family still living in rural Honduras, she decided it was time to reunite with her parents, who were living legally in Philadelphia. In 2003 she traveled through Central America with the father of her children, but she was eventually picked up by agents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But not all Catholics support the sanctuary movement’s philosophy. Michael Hichborn, director of the Lepanto Institute, a catholic watchdog organization, says that there’s a distinction to be made between migrants coming here for economic opportunity and refugees fleeing conflict zones.
“We should look to help them as best we can, but … there has to be a process,” Hichborn said. “We can't just open the doors to the church and say, ‘Anybody come in.’”
While more than half of all Hispanics in the U.S. still identify as Catholic, the numbers have dropped sharply over the last decade. Now, many are eager to hear the first Latin American pope speak up for them — and against the rhetoric of anti-immigrant politicians.