Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Church Guidance 1: How to Assist Undocumented Immigrants


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Church Guidance: How to Assist Undocumented Immigrants Legally

As an immigration attorney, I am often approached by pastors who want to know how they can help undocumented immigrants. To some, this might seem like an easy question, but the truth is that pastors have to help immigrants carefully and strategically in order to protect their churches, their families, and themselves.

The purpose of this guide is to inform church leaders and activists about the types of assistance the law allows churches to give undocumented immigrants. 

Advice For Immigrant Church-Members

In the event that the U.S. House of Representatives passes a comprehensive immigration reform bill, here are two steps that immigrant congregants can take to ensure they will be eligible for proposed immigration benefits:

1) Start gathering evidence that proves WHEN you entered the United States.

Not every immigrant will be able to benefit from immigration reform. As of today, immigrants will have to prove that (A) they came into the U.S. before December 31, 2011, and (B) they have not left the United states since then. Therefore, they should start gathering documents like: lease agreements, pay stubs, school enrollment records, and utility bills. The government relies on such documents to determine eligibility.

2) If you have a criminal record, discuss that record with an immigration attorney.

People with certain criminal convictions will not be able to benefit from immigration reform. Therefore, you should speak with an expert who can tell you if you would be eligible and how to best resolve any outstanding legal issues. 


1) Don't employ immigrants who are not authorized to work in the US.

When it comes to employment laws, churches are treated like every other US employer: they can be fined by the government for hiring unauthorized immigrants.

Churches should have all new employees fill out an I-9 Employment Eligibility form. The form lists the required documents an employee should present to the church to demonstrate that they are authorized to work.

2) Never try to hide an immigrant from the authorities or interfere with a government investigation.

Church members can be arrested and charged with a number of crimes for hiding an immigrant, or interfering with an investigation. If you believe an immigrant needs immediate help,  it would be best to contact an attorney who will have the authority to intervene on the immigrant's behalf.

3) Refrain from providing transportation to undocumented immigrants within 200 miles of a US border.

Many people envision the US border ending at a very discrete boundary. However, for immigration purposes, the government considers the entire area within 200 miles of that boundary to encompass "the border." Because church members certainly don't want government officials to mistake them for smugglers, they should refrain from transporting undocumented immigrants within the 200 mile border (even if you would otherwise be permitted to transport immigrants in your state).


*The guidance below applies to churches in all states except: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah. If your church is located in one of these six states, contact an immigration attorney to discuss how additional immigration laws in your state may effect your ministry's immigrant outreach initiatives.

Given the potential for immigration reform, many churches today are considering implementing immigration outreaches for the first time. Accordingly, below are answers to some basic and frequently asked questions:

1) Is it safe to let undocumented immigrants into our church facility?

Yes, you are certainly allowed to let undocumented immigrants into your church. In addition, there is no law preventing them from becoming a regular part of your church community. The only restriction is that the church is not permitted to hire undocumented immigrants. 

2) Can I feed an undocumented immigrant if they are hungry?

Yes, you are allowed to give food to undocumented immigrants just as you would to any others in need. If, however, you are starting a large-scale meal program for immigrants, discuss the scope of the program with an immigration attorney to ensure that certain legal protections are in place.

3) Can I give clothes to an undocumented immigrant?

Yes, you can give clothes to undocumented immigrants just as you would to any others in need.

4) Are we allowed to give rides to undocumented immigrants?

Yes, you can give rides to people you suspect are undocumented; however, you should be careful where you are taking them. Whereas it would generally be permissible to give them a ride: (1) to a church service, (2) to their jobs, (3) to a lawyers office, (4) to the hospital if someone is sick, or (5) to a free seminar for immigrants at a social services center; it would be more dangerous to drive them long distances, especially across state lines. If you are considering such a trip, contact an immigration attorney for specific guidance.  

In addition, church members and staff should follow these three guidelines when providing transportation:
  • never take any financial compensation for providing transportation;
  • never attempt to conceal the immigrants before, during, or after the transportation; and
  • refrain from transporting complete strangers.
Following the above steps will help church members avoid any inference of illegal activity.
5) Can we provide shelter to undocumented immigrants in the homes of church members?

Churches should not house immigrants inside the homes of church members. Doing so would put the church staff or members at risk for being arrested and charged with one or more crimes - such as "harboring." 

Accordingly, in order to both (A) assist the immigrants, and (B) continue to protect the church and its members, immigrants should be referred to local organizations that can assist them. Churches can help immigrants safely and effectively by providing them with the names and contact information of various immigrant service providers. 

Using the church facility as a "Sanctuary" for immigrants will be discussed in a later edition of this Church Guidance series, as will other methods churches can use to advocate for and legally assist immigrants.


Every local church can serve the immigrants in their congregation and community. Be confident that you are not breaking any laws by giving them food, clothing, and allowing them into your church facility and church community. Your church is also permitted to help immigrants get the social, legal, and medical care that they need.

Subsequent editions of this Church Guide will cover more active ways in which churches can intervene on behalf of immigrants. For example, one edition will discuss how churches can help immigrants who are currently in deportation proceedings, and another edition will cover the legal aspects of using your church facility to provide "Sanctuary" to immigrants.

If you need legal advice about a specific immigration program at your church, or you would like to schedule a consultation for someone in your community, you can visit my website at, e-mail me at, or call my office to schedule a meeting with me at (786)908-8612.
*The above is for general informational purposes only. Organizations and individuals should consult with an attorney to verify that their specific actions will comply with the laws in their geographical area. Receipt of this guide does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. This document is an attorney advertisement and is not in response to any pending legal matter. 

Copyright © Sutton & Associates of Miami, 2013, All rights reserved.

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Sutton & Associates of Miami
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