Newberry church opens its doors to undocumented immigrants

Clayton Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, with a congregation of about 15 members, is opening its doors to undocumented South Carolina immigrants, becoming the state’s first “sanctuary church.”

A tiny South Carolina church is standing up to President Donald Trump's illegal immigration crackdown that has received backing from Gov. Henry McMaster. 

In the town of Newberry, about 40 miles northwest of Columbia, the Clayton Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church will soon open its doors to undocumented immigrants who are at risk of deportation. 

With a congregation of about 15 people, the facility stands to become the first known "sanctuary church" in the state.

Individuals who are under deportation order may stay at one of the church's adjacent halls, which is being retrofitted into a residence, said Sam Stone, the chairman of the church's board.

The church will open its sanctuary in January, Stone said. It could offer protection from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has a policy to avoid arrests at "sensitive" locations like houses of worship and hospitals. 

But Stone acknowledged that knowingly sheltering someone under deportation order is likely a violation of federal law. He said immigration had become a "politicized" issue and described opening the shelter as a calling of his faith. 

"We meet injustice with courage," he said. "That’s all we’re trying to do here."

Such facilities have cropped up around the country while Trump has pushed to ramp up deportations. McMaster, a Trump ally, has backed the effort in South Carolina.

McMaster supported a bill in the last legislative session requiring local governments to certify they are cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

The bill effectively prohibits any South Carolina "sanctuary cities," where law enforcement is less likely to refer nonviolent undocumented offenders to the federal government for deportation. The proposal passed in the House but failed in Senate, but supporters got the bill's language included in the state budget approved by the General Assembly. 

It's unclear if there's a cluster of undocumented people in Newberry, with a population of roughly 10,000. Stone said there's just one Hispanic member of his congregation.

But either way, the Newberry church, advised by an immigration attorney on its sanctuary setup, could still offer a resource, said Brett Bursey, executive director of SC Progressive Network, an advocate group.

"At the very least you show humanity, compassion," he said.

Stone said he's concerned about safety at his church. Newberry police have agreed to add patrols to the area, he said. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story should have said a proposal requiring local governments to certify they are cooperating with federal immigration authorities did pass in the General Assembly this year. 

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.