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Gimme Shelter | The Nation

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Gimme Shelter

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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.

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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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."

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