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.