- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

LOS ANGELES - Mother’s Day arrived early this year, on May 9, for the children crowded into a parish hall of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church. But it came with a twist.

“I miss my mom,” said the boys and girls clustered around computer screens. “I miss my dad.”

Politicians and activists at a rally in the hall talked about freedom and justice, and a Jewish cantor accompanied by a guitar sang about mothers and children. Servings of horchata, a sweet Mexican rice drink, were placed about the Mexican buffet.

But the children were listening to their parents, who were hiding out in church basements, greet them via video chat. It was a sad anniversary at the church, known by the locals as La Placita, and one year to the day when a coalition of mainline Protestants held press conferences in Los Angeles, San Diego, New York, Chicago and Seattle to proclaim the creation of a “new sanctuary movement.”

Their aim: To involve American churches as “sanctuaries” for illegal immigrants. In the original “sanctuary movement” of the 1980s, Central American refugees camped out in churches across the country.

Last June, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 died in the Senate, making even more distant the prospect that Congress would allow 12 million undocumented immigrants a chance at U.S. citizenship any time soon.

Although 450 churches and synagogues in 18 states have formed 35 “new sanctuary” coalitions since then, only 12 churches in four states - California, Washington, Illinois and New York - currently shelter illegal immigrants. Organizers had hoped for 50 by now.

The Washington Times visited eight churches in the sanctuary movement to interview activists, pastors and the illegal immigrants they are sheltering. The subjects offered firsthand accounts of living on the run, insights into the goals of the movement and spiritually based justifications for flouting U.S. immigration laws.

Churches are not legally exempt from immigration raids, but police tend not to come onto church property. The fact that any churches have volunteered speaks to how sanctuary organizers have repackaged the immigrant situation into a family-friendly message. And few holidays speak more to the linchpin of the typical family than does Mother’s Day.

The new sanctuary movement started with a Mexican single mom.

In August 2006, Elvira Arellano and her son, Saulito, then 7, moved into a second-floor apartment at Adalberto United Methodist Church, a 50-member storefront in Humboldt Park, a western Chicago suburb. It was her last-ditch attempt to evade a court order sending her back to her homeland. Her son was an American citizen.

Clergy showed up to pray over Miss Arellano in front of TV cameras. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union, came for a press conference. The words “Holy Sanctuary” were scrawled on a 4-by-6-foot sheet of white paper placed above the altar. Volunteers camped out on the first-floor pews for 24-hour shifts; in all, about 7,000 people dropped by.

“But the police said they weren’t coming because of all the people here,” said Victor Arroyo, a volunteer with Centro Sin Fronteras, a local immigrant rights group active in the church. “The first three months, people were here constantly. The media was in and out, and people were writing songs about her.”

The Minutemen, a border watchdog group, protested in front of the church.

By the next August, Miss Arellano had become restless and decided to travel to California.

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