Hundreds of Minnesota clergy members and faith leaders are about to open their doors for refugees on the run, and the recent spike of death-defying escapes into Manitoba prove there's a desperate need for such sanctuaries, they say.
"Walking in negative-25-degree weather in the middle of winter to try to get across the border is a signal of what's at stake for many people and families and communities," Doran Schrantz told the CBC. "People are terrified."
Schrantz is the executive director of ISAIAH, Faith in Democracy, a Minnesota-based faith agency that advocates for refugees. Schrantz was responding to the case of two refugees from Ghana who in late December walked their way across the U.S. border into Manitoba. They are now in a Winnipeg hospital recovering from frostbite — just two of more than 500 refugees who've snuck across the border since the beginning of 2015.
"It exemplifies the amount of sacrifice and just sheer survival and urgency of people's experience," Schrantz said.
Trump ramps up fears
Immediately after November's U.S. presidential election, that "desperation" among immigrants and refugees grew worse, she said, because president-elect Donald Trump made it clear a top priority will be to target and expel them.
That's why ISAIAH launched a state-wide effort to create "safe places" for immigrants facing deportation. The premise? Currently, immigration officials don't seek out illegal immigrants or refugees who take shelter in schools, or hospital or church settings. So ISAIAH wants as many faith communities as possible to open their doors for anyone at risk.
"You are committing to let your church be a place that an immigrant can go and live, essentially indefinitely, while they go through the due process that would be due to them, if they have some kind of immigration violation or deportation order," Schrantz said.
"It's immigration 101 training. People are taking this incredibly seriously." - Doran Schrantz, executive director of ISAIAH
It's a tall order, but the response was "incredible." So far, more than 200 faith leaders, congregation members and communities came forward. They're now actively learning the legalities, the limitations and the needs of harbouring at-risk immigrants.
"It's immigration 101 training," Schrantz said. "People are taking this incredibly seriously."
It's also not without risk. Currently immigration officials stay away from the designated sanctuaries. But there's no guarantee that come Jan. 20, when Trump takes office, they will continue to honour that protocol.
"It's not a law," Schrantz said.
Refugee railroad to Canada
Talks are also in the works about ways to help refugees considering heading to Canada, though at this point, details are scant, Schrantz said.
"But I would imagine that people of good will and of conscience all across our state and other places will be seriously considering how they can protect immigrant families in that way," she said.
It all depends on the political landscape once Trump takes office.
"We are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst," she said.