The walls and ceiling of the basement laundry room are still an unfinished mess of exposed beams, nails, and electrical cords. Across the way, narrow hallways extend into two converted guestrooms, each bathed in warm afternoon light from windows that look out on the backyard. Books and fashionable clothing from decades past lay haphazardly stacked in odd corners, and down the hall there’s a sparsely furnished bathroom and a toy-filled family room.
It was a warm Sunday afternoon in May when Claire — a cheerful woman who requested ThinkProgress not use her real name for fear of identification by federal officials — escorted two reporters through a whirlwind tour of the basement in her Richmond, Virginia area home.
With these rooms, she said, she hopes to join the millions of Americans pushing back against the rhetoric of the Republican president’s administration.
“My intention is to be a part of the resistance,” she said.
While most activists voice their discontent with the nation’s current president using chants and raised fists at marches and rallies, Claire’s clutter of wood, work tools, and sawdust could be one of the boldest forms of protest yet: She’s building a space to house undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation.
More specifically, Claire is considering making her home part of the “home sanctuary” movement, an offshoot of what’s known as the New Sanctuary Movement, a longstanding religious initiative in which churches and other houses of worship allow undocumented immigrants to live in their buildings to shield them from authorities. Congregational efforts are risky, but “home sanctuary” — modeled after the underground railroad that aided runaway slaves in the 1800s — is far more dangerous for participants, as their actions make them individually liable for defying federal law.
Claire hasn’t committed to house anyone just yet. But she’s seriously thinking through her options, and considering the type of family units that her basement could shelter.
“I would think easily we could do four adults, who are married or same-sex and didn’t mind sharing a bed,” Claire said as she scanned the space. “We’ve got a double and a queen.”
Those offering home sanctuary often keep their activities secret, and rarely speak to press. But Claire and her husband allowed ThinkProgress to have a glimpse into the physical, financial, and often spiritual preparation required of those wrestling with whether to take the unusual — and gutsy — step of sheltering those fleeing from authorities.
Claire is nothing if not political, and it doesn’t take long for her to bring up current affairs. She said her interest in offering home sanctuary originated with the rise of the GOP president.
“During his entire campaign and during his presidency he’s been saying Mexicans are rapists, drug-dealers, and murderers,” she said, shaking her head. “And that’s obviously not necessarily the case for the 11.3 million [immigrant] population.”
“We know better than Donald Trump’s lies,” she added later.
Even more jarring, she said, is the sharp escalation of deportation efforts under the current administration’s presidency. Since taking office, the 45th president has signed a number of executive orders designed to expand the kinds of criminal offenses punishable by deportation; increased funding to hire 10,000 additional immigration officers; signed off on laxer requirements on new jail contracts to incentivize more localities to detain immigrants; and threatened to pull federal funding from jurisdictions refusing to deputize local police departments as federal immigration enforcers. The Republican president has also surrounded himself with anti-immigrant ideologues who stand to play a major role in shaping federal immigration policies for years to come.
The president’s recent orders, ostensibly crafted to combat unauthorized border crossings and allay national security concerns, resulted in the arrest of 41,318 people — or 400 people per day — in the first 100 days of his presidency, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
Neither Claire nor her husband are strangers to the work of aiding immigrants. She said they both participated in the original Sanctuary Movement during the 1980s, when U.S. clergy smuggled Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries across the border and protected them within church walls. According to Claire, her home was once used as a “transition on the road” during this time, a place for refugees to stay for one night before they made their way to other houses.
Though Claire seemed visibly troubled by the risks, she steadied herself by invoking a sense of compassion.
“I have a strong conviction that people who are seeking sanctuary or people who have come to the States or who are trying to come to any other country — to leave their homeland, their support systems, their everything — and uproot their families… they have compelling reasons that I should respect,” she said.
Claire, a U.S. citizen, will never face deportation. But she could be arrested. She could face imprisonment under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which punishes individuals for concealing, harboring, or shielding “such alien in any place, including any building or any means of transportation.”
Claire pointed out she could be detained by authorities despite not being their main target. There have been a number of “collateral arrests” in which ICE agents detain people on the basis of immigration violations simply because they are in the same room as the main suspect of their inquiry.
It’s a nightmare hypothetical scenario. But Claire can take some solace knowing she lives in an area of the country that’s more sympathetic to immigrants.
“I have, for a long time, had a sense of being more Christian at my center than being American, or nationalist,” Claire said, adding that she sees all of those “touched by the same spirit” as part of her “family.”
“Nations are arbitrary,” she added. “And family is welcome in my home.”
by Jack Jenkins and Esther Yu Hsi Lee
Jack Jenkins is a Senior Religion Reporter and Esther Yu Hsi Lee is an Immigration Reporter at Thinkprogress.org.