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Safety under the steeple

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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.

"It'd been a year, and the movement had to keep moving," Mr. Arroyo said. "A lot of raids and deportations were happening around the nation, so Elvira decided to visit different communities around the country. She had a strong faith in God: If He wanted Immigration not to detain her, then they wouldn't."

Miss Arellano visited several immigrants in sanctuary in the Los Angeles area and held two press conferences. She had just left La Placita the afternoon of Aug. 19 when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents closed in. A few hours later, she was back in Mexico.

"We waited until that person came into public space and made the arrest," ICE spokeswoman Pat Reilly said. "She had broken the law quite publicly, so we arrested her in a way that didn't harm anyone. She had illegally re-entered the United States, which is a felony, and used another person's Social Security card to illegally obtain employment in 2002. She could have gone to prison for 20 years."

Miss Arellano, who was deported with her son, left behind Daisy, the family dog, and all her belongings. But the second-floor apartment is not vacant. Another illegal immigrant, Flor Crisostomo, has taken her place.

The Arellano incident drew a fierce reaction. On Aug. 21, Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn cited an "unscientific survey" about the Arellano affair, which drew about 23,900 responses and produced 182 comments in the blog post - most against the Adalberto church's one-time resident.

In the survey, 91.5 percent said Miss Arellano should have been arrested, 82.4 percent said a church should not provide sanctuary, and 76.4 percent said the presence of a U.S.-born child in the family should not make a difference in a deportation case. Only 16 percent said they would term Miss Arellano the "Rosa Parks" of the immigrant rights movement.

"Elvira symbolizes what families go through here," said Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a Chicago-based nonprofit coordinating the sanctuary movement. "There is no rational way she can become a citizen. She's a good symbol of that as we currently have a broken immigration system and no way to fix it."

From summer 2006 to spring 2007, three groups decided that the immigration issue needed a human face - in fact, many human faces - and a connection to God.

They were the IWJ in Chicago, founded by Ms. Bobo, a member of the United Church of Christ; Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE) in Los Angeles, headed by the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran; and Asociacion Tepeyac, later renamed the New York New Sanctuary Movement, founded by Juan Carlos Ruiz, an inactive Catholic clergyman who emigrated from Mexico in 1986.

Ms. Salvatierra and Mr. Ruiz met in November 2006 in San Antonio to think through ways American churches could use their resources on behalf of illegal immigrants. Impressive church coalitions had coalesced 20 years earlier to offer sanctuary; perhaps, they thought, those coalitions could be restarted.

"We saw what Elvira was doing," Mr. Ruiz said, "and we began playing with the whole idea of a 'new' sanctuary movement."

They presented their idea in January 2007 at a Washington, D.C., meeting of 65 religious leaders representing 13 denominations.

"We were building the plane as we flew it," Mr. Ruiz recalled. "But ground organizing started after that in terms of gathering support."

One of the top organizers was Ms. Bobo, 53, who runs IWJ out of a fourth-floor office at Edgewater Presbyterian Church, a French Romanesque edifice a few blocks from Lake Michigan.

She cut her teeth on political organizing during a 1977 stint with the Washington-based Bread for the World, a Christian group that fights hunger. When she moved to Chicago, "I realized the religious community was doing very little on work and labor issues. I said, 'There's a gap here.' "

On her office walls, she has posted three panels of political buttons, including a blue-and-yellow one proclaiming, "Jesus was a low-wage worker."

"At this moment in history, you cannot be involved with workers without being involved in immigrant rights," she said.

She started IWJ in 1996, using her Bread-for-the-World organizing know-how plus $5,000 from an inheritance. Her office was her North Chicago bedroom. Her twins were then 16 months old, and her husband, Stephen Coates, was attending Yale Divinity School.

Twelve years later, she runs a nonprofit with a $2 million budget that pays her a $60,000 annual salary and has 20 staff members. A 2006 list of top donors that contribute more than $100,000 include these foundations: Ford, Marguerite Casey, Nathan Cummings, Rockefeller and Annie E. Casey.

She has a board made up of Buddhists, Episcopalians, Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists and Jews. Muslims have served in the past but not evangelical Protestants. On attracting them to the board, "We're working on that," she said.

For now, the sanctuary movement is an initiative of the religious left. Evangelical pollster George Barna calls immigration a "nonissue" among conservatives.

"American evangelicals tend to be focused on America and the preaching in most churches is U.S.-centric," he said in an interview. "They send money overseas, but they're immersed in a culture war here and that takes up most of their energies."

A major part of the organizers' strategy was a retooling of the concept of sanctuary from being an escape hatch for illegal immigrants to being a "family-values" issue.

Thus, applicants for sanctuary had to be chosen carefully. Their situation needed to be desperate; hence, a deportation order was necessary. They also needed to have a record of having worked and paid taxes. They had to agree to be a public figure for media interviews. They must not have committed any crimes, and most important, they must have American-born children to make the case that to separate them would destroy a family.

The challenge was to find churches willing to take on the issue. There were four tiers of suggested involvement.

* The first and the most intense was being a host congregation that would allow the immigrant to live on church grounds.

* The second was providing money, support, legal help and volunteers to the host church. Usually there is a group of six or seven churches - with an occasional synagogue - in a cluster.

* The third tier was praying for the church, the immigrant and all involved.

* The fourth was called "discernment," whereby a congregation prays and discusses what level - if any - they want to have in the movement.

Although sheltering illegal immigrants is a felony, sanctuary organizers said in interviews that they had found a loophole in the law: They inform the local ICE office about an immigrant's presence, thereby evading any charge of secretly harboring fugitives.

Jennifer Hill, a coordinator with the Chicago Metropolitan Sanctuary Alliance, said it has been a hard sell to persuade Chicago churches to take in immigrants.

"There is so much fear in the religious community in getting involved," she said. "They cite theological reasons or maybe it's just politics or maybe they feel threatened in their way of life."

About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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