The Investigators

Apr 9, 2014 12:32 PM by Tom McNamara and Paul Birmingham

N4T Investigators: Undocumented immigrants taken into custody at Ajo Catholic church

Are there places that should be off-limits to law enforcement? It's a question that some are raising in the wake of a recent incident in Pima county.

The incident happened on March 23, in the community of Ajo, about 130 miles southwest of Tucson.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators received a number of emails from people concerned that Sheriff's deputies and the Border Patrol stepped over a sacred line.

According to a Pima County Sheriff's Department incident report obtained by the News 4 Tucson Investigators, a deputy passing by the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church spotted three Hispanic males on the front porch of the church. The three were wearing dingy and tattered clothing, and were also carrying water bottles.

The deputy goes on to say that all three then hurriedly walked into the church. The deputy then went into the church, which was not in session. Ultimately, the three told him they had come from Honduras, walking three months, and crossing the border illegally.

After taking the trio outside, the deputy detained the three until Border Patrol arrived. An agent them took the men into custody, after confirming they were in the country illegally.

"They had a suspicious look, and their behavior indicated that they were potentially up to no good. That's why our deputy honed-in on it," says Captain Frank Duarte, with the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

Duarte tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, the deputy was doing what he was trained to do.

"There is no federal or state law that indicates that a church is a sanctuary, that law enforcement cannot take place inside of a church. And, there's also no department policy prohibiting it," Duarte says.

Duarte also tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, while some may view the church as a sanctuary, it does not mean it's a place that is immune from violence.

"We've certainly seen that where folks go into schools, and then create many injuries as a result of shootings or bombings. There's no reason that could not happen in a house of worship," Duarte says.

Duarte adds that the incident followed other arrests just days earlier in Ajo in which deputies seized 1,800 pounds of pot, and arrested 35 illegal immigrants.

"Crime in Ajo, and the potential for really kind of, weapons of mass-destruction, if you will, drugs, and criminals to infiltrate the United States through that area is very very high, so our deputies are on alert, and are constantly looking for the possibility of that happening," Duarte says.

Randy Mayer, Reverend with the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita tells the News 4 Tucson Investigators, though his church is not a sanctuary church, he believes the Ajo incident raises serious questions about the relationship between law enforcement and religion.

"It does give me cause for concern, because as I've understood it, law enforcement really walks very carefully around faith communities and religious establishments," Mayer says.

Mayer also says he understands that law enforcement has a job to do, but says churches also play an important role in the community.

"We believe our law enforcement needs to be present in places, there are cases when people maybe aren't being treated fairly, even by our law enforcement. And, we need to have those safe spaces," Mayer says.

Mayer adds, with Arizona being a border state, churches here may be viewed as being safe havens for those coming illegally into the United States.

"People are being pushed out. They're being persecuted, and sometimes churches can see a little bit further into god's law and god's ways, and law enforcement is not looking at those areas," Mayer says.

After learning about the incident in Ajo, Tucson's Catholic Bishop, Gerald Kicanas also contacted the Sheriff's Department to express concern. Kicanas says there is a long-standing custom of the Border Patrol, police and sheriff to respect the sanctity of the church and not apprehend people inside. He also raised concerns that the group had entered the church seeking help, and asking to pray. Kicanas added, while police can legally question someone who looks suspicious it was not clear that the men had done anything wrong to lead to their apprehension in the church.

We'll continue to follow the case, and bring you any updates.

If you have something you'd like the News 4 Tucson Investigators to check out, email us at investigators@kvoa.com, or call the News 4 Tucson Investigators tip-line at 955-4444.

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