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."