- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 9, 2007

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Churches in five large U.S. cities plan to protect illegal aliens from deportation, offering sanctuary if need be, as they pressure lawmakers to create a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million to 20 million illegals.

Yesterday , a Catholic church in Los Angeles and a Lutheran church in North Hollywood each intended to shelter one person, and churches in other cities plan to do so in coming months as part of the “New Sanctuary Movement.”

“We want to put a human face to very complex immigration laws and awaken the consciousness of the human spirit,” said the Rev. Richard Estrada of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles, where one illegal alien will live.

Organizers don’t think immigration agents will make arrests inside the churches.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has not tried to arrest Elvira Arellano, an illegal alien who has taken shelter at a Methodist church in Chicago since August. Her son is a U.S. citizen, and he has lobbied in the Mexican legislature on behalf of families that would be split if parents are deported.

ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice declined to say whether agents would attempt to arrest others who take sanctuary in churches, although she noted agents had the authority to arrest anyone violating immigration law.

Anti-illegal-immigration groups called the sanctuary effort misguided.

The faith groups “don’t seem to realize that they are being charitable with someone else’s resources, and that’s not charity,” said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.

The sanctuary effort is loosely based on a movement in the 1980s, when churches harbored Central American refugees fleeing wars in their home countries. Organizers of the current movement include members of the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and other faiths.

Participating churches in San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and New York won’t initially house illegal aliens. Instead, leaders will provide legal counsel, accompany them to court hearings and prepare plans to house them in churches if authorities try to deport them.

The first to receive refuge in Los Angeles will be a single father from Mexico who has two children who are U.S. citizens, said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith association spearheading the national plans.

The churches sought aliens who wanted to take part in the sanctuary movement and were screened to make sure they paid taxes and didn’t have criminal backgrounds, Mr. Salvatierra said.

In New York, churches will be aiding a Haitian man and a Chinese couple, who are facing deportation and have U.S. citizen children, the Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz said.

Though the aliens won’t initially live in churches, three congregations are ready to take them in, Father Ruiz said.

“Depending on how immigration officials act toward us, we’ll be escalating our actions,” he said.

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