Two young women sit at a table in Rabbi Laurie Coskey’s office in a northeastern corner of San Diego. The church pastor in whose house they currently live sits to their left. Around the table are another pastor, the head of a local Quaker meeting and Rabbi Coskey.

The women came to America eleven years ago, when they were children, their parents having allegedly fled political persecution in a country in Eastern Europe. (To protect their identities, they requested that the country not be specified in this article.) They sought asylum status but were denied. They appealed the ruling up to the Ninth Circuit and lost there, too. They stayed in the country anyway. The girls went to school in San Diego; learned to drive, though they could never get driver’s licenses because of their illegal status; made friends, almost none of whom know that they are undocumented; got good grades. The oldest was offered spots at top universities–but being illegal and therefore ineligible for financial aid, enrolled instead in a lesser-known, and cheaper, local college, where she declared a major in business administration.

At 6 am one day this past June, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents knocked on the family’s door. They arrested the father and left behind the mother and her two girls–telling them that they would let the girls finish their semesters in school and university and would then expect them to leave the country, according to the family. The father was taken to an immigrant detention center. Three weeks later, he was deported. The girls and their mother went into hiding to avoid a similar fate.

Desperate, the girls began researching their options on the Internet. Legally, having rolled bad dice in the illegal immigration crapshoot, they’d run out of tricks. Quite simply, they had been unlucky enough to be among the tiny number of illegal immigrants snagged by immigration authorities, and there was nowhere left to turn. Despite having grown up in the United States and never having left the country in the eleven years they had lived in San Diego, they had no right to remain.

“We didn’t make a decision to come or not come here,” says the younger sister. “We were so young. Our parents made the decision.” The sisters stumbled upon references to something called the New Sanctuary Movement, locally coordinated by Coskey and others, and later in the summer they made contact with local religious groups that had pledged to help people in their situation. “They were deer in the headlights,” Coskey recalls. “They still are a little bit. They felt sort of raped by the system. It’s a terrible word. But they were. They’d just grown up, lived their lives and done everything right, and here they were.”

Within weeks, a local congregation had debated their situation and decided to take them in. “To be Christ in the world was to open my home and invite them in,” explains the pastor, who, like the two young women, agreed to talk only on the condition that her identity be protected. “I hear Christ asking me to provide shelter and food and love to someone in need.”

While many admire the sense of moral purpose demonstrated by New Sanctuary Movement leaders, some progressive immigration reformers are skeptical of their modus operandi.

“It’s a highly laudable cause in many ways, and you can appreciate why they’re doing what they’re doing,” says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University’s School of Law. “But it touches such an incredibly minuscule part of the population. It’s more symbolic than meaningful in the lives of immigrants.”

Chishti believes, moreover, that it’s problematic that New Sanctuary advocates fail to distinguish between civil and criminal immigration cases, embracing individuals who have willfully ignored final deportation orders and who have ended up with criminal cases against them. “There are people who have final notices, know they have final notices, and then they’re taking refuge. It gets you in the harboring problem.”

It also gets into what is in many ways an even thornier issue: progressives don’t like faith-based infringements on the secular political and legal system when conducted by conservatives. How, therefore, does it make sense to claim sacred privilege from the left? “Our legal system,” Chishti notes, “does not recognize a church-based sanctuary. We have a separation of church and state.”

Yet for all the flaws in New Sanctuary philosophy, its practitioners are highlighting something important: America is a country of immigrants, but in recent years more and more of those immigrants have entered illegally. They have done so not out of a desire to live on the margins and at perpetual risk of deportation but because the current immigration process makes it extremely hard for large numbers of people to migrate legally from countries like Mexico and Guatemala–or, for that matter, from countries such as the one the San Diego sisters came from–while at the same time economic and political factors, such as the way NAFTA has played out, make it extremely hard not to embark on a migration journey.

Political leaders bemoan the wave of illegal immigration that has resulted but, until recently, have generally avoided trying to alter the equations that underlie the phenomenon. After all, having a large undocumented worker population has proven rather profitable to big business. And thus the unofficial policy of “Let ’em in but keep ’em on their toes.” Add to this mix the ongoing grassroots backlash against illegal immigration, and suddenly there are an awful lot of people who have been living gray-zone existences in the United States for years–oftentimes decades–who are now at risk of a knock on the door from ICE and a sojourn in an immigrant holding facility, followed by deportation. Many of them were brought to the country as children; their primary language is English, their cultural reference points are American, the country they identify with–despite their lack of a passport, valid Social Security number or driver’s license–is the United States. Frequently their spouses are legal residents and their kids are American citizens. Deport these people and, in addition to shattering families, you are sending them back to a “home” they have no memories of, no connections to, no chance of succeeding within. It’s a lose-lose situation. It’s inhumane.

It is primarily in response to this quandary that the New Sanctuary Movement has grown up over the past couple of years. “We’re in this for the long haul,” says Michael Ramos, of the Church Council in King County, Washington. “There’s going to be several years of uncertainty and fear in our immigrant communities. And it’s only just that faith communities step forward and provide a measure of hope.”

“The philosophy of the national movement is based around providing prophetic hospitality to families in need of it,” asserts the Rev. Liana Rowe, a United Church of Christ pastor in Phoenix who coordinates New Sanctuary Movement activity throughout Arizona. “Based on teachings of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, hospitality and compassion weave their themes throughout most of the major faith traditions in the world.”

In the 1980s, as one Central American country after another collapsed into brutal civil war or military repression, churches around the United States began giving “sanctuary” to refugees fleeing the violence. Most of these men and women lacked legal papers, since the United States was reluctant to give refugee status to those fleeing governments deemed “friendly,” and once in the United States they existed only in the shadows. Many found their way to progressive churches, and over a period of several years, those church congregations began helping them–providing shelter, voicing moral outrage when the Immigration and Naturalization Service instigated deportation proceedings, organizing transport between hideouts.

Unlike in medieval Europe, sanctuary inside a church carries no legal protections in the United States. But the cloak of religious authority, the aura of sacred space, does seem to provide a moral protection, making government agencies that much more reluctant to go after people facing deportation. Sanctuary providers cannot recall one instance in which immigration officers have forcibly entered church property to seize an undocumented immigrant for deportation.

“We have to start with the biblical vision of sanctuary,” explains the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of the California-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), over herbal tea in a Los Angeles Starbucks. A curly-haired bohemian-looking woman, Salvatierra, who welcomed refugees into her home during the 1980s, lives in the West Side neighborhood of Los Angeles and helps coordinate the state’s sanctuary providers. “Sanctuary is a social mechanism written about in the Book of Numbers–for situations in which a person has committed a crime and the response to the crime is inappropriate, cruel and unjust.” In the Book of Numbers, sanctuary is proffered to those who have committed manslaughter but are going to be punished for the more serious offense of murder. In ancient Israel, Salvatierra says, there were entire cities given over to providing sanctuary.

In modern times, some religious figures in what came to be known as the Sanctuary Movement were prosecuted in the late ’80s on federal conspiracy charges for transporting undocumented individuals across state lines. Among the religious left, these men and women have entered the pantheon of heroes, their actions models for those who today are providing sanctuary to undocumented immigrants. Faith-based groups in California, New York, Illinois, Arizona, Washington and several other states are declaring a similar moral obligation upon their congregants to take in families that risk being split apart by immigration proceedings. As a result, several men and women have entered sanctuary since last January, when the movement coalesced out of a series of meetings held by immigrants’ rights groups and social justice organizers nationwide, and many more are in the process of being adopted into sanctuary by local churches, Quaker meetings and synagogues.

In the Seattle area, more than a dozen churches have pledged to take in sanctuary seekers. Scores more places of worship in San Diego, Los Angeles, New York and other immigration hubs have also declared their willingness to host men and women facing deportation.

The poster child for the movement, a woman named Elvira Arellano, was housed in sanctuary in Chicago for months before being arrested and deported while attending an immigrants’ rights event in Los Angeles over the summer. Her deportation served as something of a catalyst for activists, and in recent months a large number of congregations have signed on to the New Sanctuary Movement. Those in sanctuary include not only Mexicans but also Eastern Europeans, Haitians and, in New York City, a Chinese family.

Salvatierra told me, “God leads social change through the victims and warriors. Whoever’s on the front line, they’re the leader and we’re in solidarity with them. It’s a liberation theology precept.”

The central questions are whether those fleeing economic destitution have as strong a moral claim, and whether their religious defenders have as valid a reason to do an end run around secular law, as those fleeing the guns and bombs of juntas did a generation ago. It’s an arguable point. The religious men and women of the New Sanctuary Movement have concluded there is, indeed, a moral equivalence, one made all the more urgent by the increasingly unpleasant demonization of “illegals” that has occurred in recent years. And having reached a moral conclusion, the congregations have felt compelled to act rather than to sit back and watch events unfold–displaying an admirable willingness to go to bat for their moral beliefs, absorb criticism and come out (verbally) swinging.

Churches in Long Beach and Simi Valley that have offered sanctuary have been picketed by the Minutemen, as well as California-specific groups such as Save Our State, and their pastors routinely receive hate mail and threats of violence. In Simi Valley, a deeply conservative suburb north of Los Angeles, the city council recently billed the United Church of Christ (UCC) nearly $40,000 for police services after anti-sanctuary groups launched a large protest against the church. The rationale? The congregation had brought the protests on themselves by offering sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant, and thus should be liable for all law-enforcement expenses. None of this has deterred the congregations.

“I think there is a higher law,” says Frank Johnson, a retired pastor at the UCC church in Simi Valley. The Simi Valley church looks like a huge, cream-colored stucco McMansion, an utterly functional building on a wide back street, the surrounding hilly landscape a strange mixture of end-of-the-earth shards of desert rock and lush irrigated gardens. In a building just up the hill from the main church, 29-year-old Liliana “Santuario” is living with her infant son, Pablito. They moved from their home in the agricultural town of Oxnard into sanctuary last May, first to a church in Long Beach, then up north to Simi Valley–fleeing an ICE deportation order that would send Liliana to Mexico, from where she migrated close to a decade ago. If deported she would leave behind her three children and her husband (all US citizens).

“As persons of faith,” continues the white-haired, mustached Johnson, “we believe God seeks justice for the people. Whereas in most circumstances we believe it’s important to obey the law, there are occasions such as the civil rights movement and people shielding Jews from the Holocaust–all of those things are illustrations of the fact there is a law of love that trumps some laws that exist on the books, if there is injustice. That’s why we’re doing this.”

The UCC people clearly believe their ward can become the new Arellano, and that doesn’t necessarily make for the best interactions with the media. Liliana, a beautiful young woman, is always surrounded by handlers. She claims to be keeping a diary, in English, designed to help her learn the language, but the diary, which her handlers urge her to read to me, has clearly been written by a publicist.

“This is a country of opportunity,” she reads aloud, her handler correcting her pronunciation. “But where is the love and compassion? When I think of the United States, I think of the Statue of Liberty. Give us your poor and free and huddled masses. I yearn to breathe free.”

Liliana’s handler looks at her. “Very good. Excellent,” she tells her.

The scene is about as authentic as a B-movie script from one of the studios a few miles away in Hollywood. It’s a shame because when she’s allowed to just tell her story, Liliana is a compelling figure, her terror at being deported away from her three young children and her husband palpable.

Far more authentic is the scene in the Angelica Lutheran Church deep in the impoverished Pico Union barrio, near downtown Los Angeles. It’s a landscape of broken-down old cars, discarded sofas, taco stands and street merchants hawking bags of secondhand goods. Little old ladies in flip-flops wander the streets. Prematurely aged men pause to rest on the furniture left out on the sidewalk.

Angelica is a large, arched, brick building. Originally built for Swedish immigrants, these days it is an evangelical church, presided over by the Rev. Carlos Paiva and attended mainly by Mexican migrants. Ads for the Harvest Bible University adorn its exterior. A small room in the back of the old building, furnished with a TV, couch, fridge and a stove, is currently home to José, a 44-year-old immigrant from Guadalajara, and father of four–the two youngest of whom are US citizens. To the furnishings he has added his clothes, a collection of English-language classes on CD and a few personal items.

José has lived in Los Angeles since 1989, when he paid a coyote $300 to help him cross over from Tijuana. In the years following, he worked several jobs, including truck maintenance at Los Angeles International Airport. He has been facing deportation proceedings since ICE caught up with him in 2004, and he sought sanctuary last February after ICE sent him a letter saying he was to be sent back to Mexico. The first church to welcome him was La Placita; then in September he moved to Angelica.

“Sometimes I feel very alone,” he says in Spanish, sitting on a pew under the lush altar, with Paiva translating. “Depressed. It’s not easy to be away from my family. I try to feel good. I try to be busy, working. I say prayers here.” Paiva adds that José helps with the church’s food distribution program to local seniors and also does custodial work around the building.

Given that there are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, and the New Sanctuary Movement will only ever directly help a handful of them, its impact, as Chishti argues, is largely symbolic. And given the concerns about church-state separation, it has its problems, even at the level of symbolism. In light of the backlash it tends to provoke, it’s also reasonable to ask whether it is always the best strategy for promoting the rights of immigrants. But its practitioners are, at the very least, offering a moral alternative to the overheated, often inflammatory rhetoric of the Lou Dobbses of the world.

Sanctuary advocates are spotlighting a broken immigration system that Congress has signally failed to fix. And they are standing up for downtrodden people in an era in which our patience for poverty and despair has too often been absent. Above all, they are refusing to compromise fundamental values. For all this, they may win public sympathy for their cause and inject a bit more humanity into the frequently callous immigration debate.

“I protest in silence,” says Reverend Paiva, in Pico Union. “I protest with a peaceful heart. I protest by working together with Congressmen and politicians to work out a way we can solve this through humanitarian actions. This isn’t about one or two people coming from another country. It’s about power and the actions that create imbalances between countries. It’s a part of the call, part of the mission, of the church. You need to be hospitable, welcome the stranger, help people in unjust situations.”