ARCHIVAL (NBC, 2-22-17): GIGI STONE WOODS: Millions of undocumented immigrants in the US are bracing for raids and deportations.
ARCHIVAL (WTXF, 1-26-17): NEWS REPORT: Sanctuary cities are pushing back against President Trumps executive orders on immigration.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 9-1-16): DONALD TRUMP: We will end the sanctuary cities that have resulted in so many needless deaths.
NARRATION: The federal government is heading toward a confrontation with cities, colleges and churches that have declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants facing deportation.
ARCHIVAL (ABC WJLA, 1-25-17): JERRY BROWN: We will defend everybody, every man, woman and child whos come for a better life.
NARRATION: But the government has faced resistance on immigration before. Sanctuary became a national issue 35 years ago, when churches smuggled hundreds of refugees into the country.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 10-22-85): A kind of underground railroad run by church workers to help people fleeing turmoil in Central America.
NARRATION: Today, sanctuary is exposing deep divisions in how Americans view the future of immigration.
REVEREND JOHN FIFE: Sanctuary is an ancient, ancient tradition. Now, it may be more important than ever.
SIXTO PAZ: It never wouldve crossed my mind that Id end up here in sanctuary. I came because there is no other choice, theres no other way to fight my last fight. This is my last fight.
NARRATION: For the last nine months, Sixto Paz has been living downstairs in this church in Phoenix. He came here seeking sanctuary after he was ordered deported to Mexico, because immigration agents try to avoid making arrests inside churches.
Hes in the country illegally but hes also spent more than 20 years building a life here, and three kids who are US citizens.
SIXTO PAZ: I came here for my family, for my daughters, for my son, who still depend on me. Its simple, you love your kids, so youre not going to leave your family behind just because a judge says you have to go.
REVEREND KEN HEINTZELMAN (SENIOR MINISTER, SHADOW ROCK UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST): We will stand between them and the government agencies that want to deport them.
NARRATION: The church is part of a network of sanctuaries that have promised to shelter undocumented immigrants from deportation.
KEN HEINTZELMAN: They need someone to walk with them, to stand with them. We have a moral and religious obligation to stand against unjust laws.
NARRATION: Its not the first time churches have taken a stand to protect immigrants. Sanctuary is the latest chapter of a conflict that started more than 30 years ago when Guatemala and El Salvador were in the middle of violent civil wars. Death squads targeted political opponents, including union leaders like Patty Barcelos father, who was kidnapped and tortured by the Guatemalan military.
PATRICIA BARCELO: He just disappeared. For months they had him. One night my aunts car pulled up. And I see this man, and he was skin and bones, he looked so old. And he called my name, but I ran from him because he did not look like my dad.
NARRATION: The family fled the country, along with hundreds of thousands of refugees heading for the US. When one group of migrants nearly died crossing the border near Tucson, a local minister named John Fife got involved.
JOHN M. FIFE (PASTOR, SOUTHSIDE, PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH, 1969-2005): They told me about death squads, they told me about people who had been kidnapped and tortured. These were middle class folks who were fleeing for their lives.
NARRATION: Fife started helping migrants apply for political asylum. But he quickly ran into a problem: the government said they were economic migrants in search of better jobs.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-11-82):ELLIOTT ABRAMS (ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE): They come here for a better life, they come here for better jobs. But that doesnt entitle them to asylum.
JOHN M. FIFE: Wed take in people who had torture marks all over their body. And the immigration judge would order them deported the next day.
NARRATION: Fife and a small group decided to take matters into their own hands, sneaking migrants across the border and hiding them in churches.
JOHN M. FIFE: I assumed it was illegal. But I could not claim to be a Christian and not be involved in trying to protect refugees lives.
NARRATION: One of the refugees was Patty Barcelo. American church workers took her family across the border from Mexico.
PATRICIA BARCELO: We walked and walked. And they said, Once you have one foot on the other side, we will help you guys to have a new life.” And they did.
NARRATION: Afraid he might be arrested, Fife did something unexpected: he went public.
JOHN M. FIFE: If we were public with what we had been doing then we might have a base of support. The major breakthrough occurred when 60 Minutes called and said, Can we film a border crossing?
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 60 MINUTES, 1982): ED BRADLEY: They crawled through a hole in a fence and dropped into a ditch, several minutes later they emerged onto a side street in Douglas, Arizona.
JOHN M. FIFE: We were inundated with phone calls.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-23-85): NEWS REPORT: It is the concept of religious sanctuary, churches giving refuge to undocumented Salvadorans and Guatemalans.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 5-7-84): NEWS REPORT: At least 100 sanctuaries are now open.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 10-23-85): NEWS REPORT: 270 churches in 33 states using an underground network to smuggle aliens across the border.
JOHN M. FIFE: Colleges and universities got the idea and then cities.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 4-9-85): PETER JENNINGS: .voted to make its city a sanctuary for illegal aliens.
ANN CRITTENDEN (AUTHOR, SANCTUARY): The national press just ate it up. These guys were appealing. They were doing a moral cause.
NARRATION: For nearly three years, the sanctuary movement operated in the open, bringing Central Americans into the country, getting them immigration lawyers, and helping them start new lives.
It was a dilemma for federal prosecutors, like Melvin McDonald.
A. MELVIN MCDONALD (UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, DISTRICT OF ARIZONA, 1981-1985): Usually youre pursuing really bad people that have committed bad crimes. With the sanctuary movement, you had nuns, rabbis, priests. After a while I felt it was almost a farce. It went way beyond the religious argument that was being used to be a political statement. They were basically sticking their nose at law enforcement, saying we dont care what your laws are.
ARCHIVAL (SOUTHWEST REPORTS, 1985): JOHN M. FIFE: Sometimes you cannot love both God and the civil authority. Sometimes you have to make a choice.
A. MELVIN MCDONALD: Were not going to let any group or organization, even if youre people of the cloth, go forward and defy the laws of the country. Were just not going to do it.
ARCHIVAL (GOVERNMENT FOOTAGE): US Immigration officers, federal agents! Open the door!
NARRATION: The government launched a 10-month undercover investigation to infiltrate the sanctuary movement.
JOHN M. FIFE: They sent paid informants and even tape recorded worship services in our churches.
A. MELVIN MCDONALD: When you use the sanctuary of a church to plan the breaking of laws, I dont think that the sanctuary should be protected.
NARRATION: Fife and other church workers were charged with smuggling and concealing undocumented immigrants. In the end, eight of them were convicted but didnt serve any prison time.
After religious groups filed a separate lawsuit, the government let hundreds of thousands of Central Americans re-apply for asylum, including Patty Barcelo. She went on to raise a family and work at a hospital in Tucson.
PATRICIA BARCELO: We had an opportunity to stay here because of people that cared enough, because of people that wanted us to live.
NARRATION: The sanctuary movement faded from the headlines for decades. But then
ARCHIVAL (KNTV, 11-25-14): The sanctuary movement has reignited once again.
NARRATION: By 2008, things had changed. It wasnt refugees seeking sanctuary, it was undocumented immigrants already living here, trying to avoid deportation. And it wasnt just churches at the center of the controversy.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, KGAN, 12-2-16): NEWS ANCHOR: The issue: so-called sanctuary cities.
ARCHIVAL (FOX NEWS, 7-16-10):NEWS ANCHOR: Dozens of cities across America that protect illegals and do not report them.
NARRATION: Many so-called sanctuary cities, like Seattle, have taken a public stand by not asking about immigration status when they provide services, like education and medical care.
ARCHIVAL (KIRO, 11-10-16): ED MURRAY (MAYOR OF SEATTLE): These are our neighbors and we will continue to support our neighbors. thats what community is all about.
NARRATION: And with 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the country, some police departments have changed their approach to fighting crime. King County sheriffs deputies dont ask whos here legally and the county doesnt always cooperate with the federal government when it wants to deport people.
DETECTIVE RICARDO CUEVA: Ill get dispatched out here and people dont want to talk. Theyre very edgy when they see the police. I just tell them were not immigration, were not here to ask you if youre here illegally. We dont care about that.
SHERIFF JOHN URQUHART (SHERIFF, KING COUNTY): If people are afraid to call the police because theyre going to get deported, the chances are theyre not going to report crimes, theyre not going to be good witnesses of crimes and we have to have people to cooperate with their local police if were going to have any effect at all on the crime rate. I dont care where they were born. My responsibility is to keep them safe, and I intend to do that.
NARRATION: But in 2015, sanctuary cities helped fuel a national backlash against illegal immigration
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 2015): NEWS ANCHOR: Outrage over San Franciscos sanctuary city policy.
NARRATION: when an undocumented immigrant was released from the San Francisco jail and then arrested again for the killing of Kathryn Steinle.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-6-15): NEWS REPORT: Lopez Sanchez has seven prior felony convictions as has been deported to Mexico five times.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 7-21-16): DONALD TRUMP: Where was the sanctuary for Kate Steinle?
NARRATION: Crimes committed by undocumented immigrants became a centerpiece of Donald Trumps presidential campaign. And while studies show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native born citizens, the issue fanned a heated political debate about illegal immigration.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 7-6-15): NEWS REPORT: Trump said Steinles death was yet another example of why we must secure our borders immediately.
ANN CRITTENDEN: There is unquestionably this gigantic anti-immigrant feeling and backlash. There is a mass movement now that did not exist in the 80s to deport people in the country illegally.
ARCHIVAL (TRUMP SPEECH, 2-28-17): DONALD TRUMP: Bad ones are going out as I speak and as I promised.
NARRATION: While President Trump has hinted that he might soften his stance, since taking office hes authorized a dramatic increase in deportations, including undocumented immigrants who havent committed serious crimes.
In response, hundreds of new churches are promising to give sanctuary again 35 years after John Fife helped start the sanctuary movement.
JOHN FIFE: The ancient tradition of sanctuary is going to be as viable as its been for thousands of years and it may be more relevant than ever.
ARCHIVAL (CNN, 2-14-17): NEWS REPORT: More than 6,000 people have signed up to provide sanctuary including 800 churches.
A. MELVIN MCDONALD: Its dj vu all over again. Dont complain when somebody enforces the law just like we did in the 1980s.
NARRATION: The political uncertainty leaves undocumented immigrants like Sixto Paz in limbo. Hes still in sanctuary, but he knows he cant stay forever.
SIXTO PAZ: Its hard but its worth it. I love my daughters a lot, I love my son a lot. Thats the reason I have the strength to be here.