The Auckland church that hosted New Zealand's first same-sex marriage has decided to give sanctuary to nine Indian students facing deportation over a student visa fraud.
The 80-strong Unitarian Church in Ponsonby will open its doors to the students and their families todayafter a marathon three-hour debate in the church's management committee yesterday.
Their minister, Rev Clay Nelson, said the decision to grant sanctuary was "symbolic", and the church would have no power to stop immigration officers if they knock on the door.
"Our hope is they won't come knocking and that they'd rather not do that in front of the whole world watching," he said.
"There is not going to be any physical resistance put up. The students are not going to resist."
The nine students are among almost 400 Indian students whose visas were cancelled last year after Immigration NZ found that education agents in India had submitted fraudulent bank loan approval documents to show that the students could pay their tuition fees.
Many of the students never came to New Zealand, and others came but have gone home.
The nine appealed for clemency to Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, but received letters on Thursday stating that Woodhouse had decided not to intervene. They are likely to be deported in the next few days.
One student Asha Rani and her husband Vikram Salaria, who are here with their 2-year-old daughter Khwahish, said deportation would have "a really big impact".
"We don't have any future after deportation. We can't go to any other country. We can't work in a big company [in India] after we get a deportation," Salaria said.
The students say they were not aware that their agents submitted fraudulent documents. The students have paid big fees - $35,000 in Rani's case - to the agents and to the NZ institutions where they studied.
Nelson, a US-born former Anglican priest at St Matthew-in-the-City, said there was a "free-flowing" debate at the Unitarian meeting about "all sorts of other questions about criminal liability and problems with the Building Act".
But he said there was unanimous support in the end for two resolutions - one supporting the students and asking the Government for compassionate relief, and one reaffirming the church's "open-door" policy.
"Churches have had a long history of providing sanctuary, even though it has no standing in law either here or in my home country," he said.
"It's part of their mission, what they feel called to support 'the least of those' in terms of our society."
Nelson compared the students with Muslims and refugees who were caught in President Donald Trump's proposed 90-day ban on entry to the United States.
"I am really struggling with what's happening in my home country and grateful for the support of cities and people on the women's march and those going to airports to protest the ban," he said.
"It's only by that kind of civil action working collectively that we are going to be able to resist what I think are some pretty evil days ahead."
A spokeswoman for Woodhouse said on Friday that the minister did not personally decide not to intervene in the students'; case, but left it to his officials.
"It didn't come across his desk," she said. "This is not a unique situation in that delegated decisionmakers have made the decision."