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.