- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2007

LOS ANGELES — Churches in a small number of U.S. cities are preparing to start a “sanctuary” movement to help illegal aliens avoid deportation and unite faith-based groups in a push for immigration reform.

The New Sanctuary Movement is based on the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when churches harbored Central American refugees who were fleeing wars in their homelands, said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, an interfaith association spearheading the plans.

“At the time we were able to make major changes and awaken the moral imagination of the community,” said Mr. Salvatierra. “Immigration today is still a human rights issue.”

Mr. Salvatierra said they were in the process of identifying immigrant families to assist, but declined giving further details.

The full plan, which includes other major U.S. cities, will be announced in several weeks, said Mr. Salvatierra, who is with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The movement will enable congregations to provide “hospitality and protection” to some immigrant families whose legal cases “clearly reveal the contradictions and moral injustice of our current immigration system,” according to the New Sanctuary Movement’s Web site.

The site lists Los Angeles, Chicago and New York as central cities.

The sanctuary movement of the 1980s included more than 200 churches of various denominations across the country. Several activists in a small number of states were arrested, often while transporting illegal aliens from one place to another.

The new sanctuary plans come as immigration reform legislation has been stalled since last summer, with Congress split over whether to first strengthen border security and immigration laws or extend a path to citizenship to illegal aliens.

The plans also come as hundreds of illegal aliens have been detained and deported in immigration raids in recent months.

Local and national religious leaders from a dozen faiths — including Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran and Presbyterian — have been meeting and planning for a few months, said Pastor Cesar Arroyo of San Pablo’s Lutheran church in North Hollywood.

The group has been inspired by Elvira Arellano, an illegal alien from Mexico who has taken refuge at a Methodist church in Chicago since mid-August to avoid deportation, Mr. Arroyo said.

“We have to show that faith isn’t just for church on Sunday,” said Mr. Arroyo. “We can’t just say ‘God bless you’ but if you are hungry or having problems we can’t do anything for you.”

Individual churches have been investigating the implications, both legal and otherwise, of providing refuge to illegal aliens, said Jorge Mario Cabrera, associate director of Carecen, a Hispanic advocacy group in Los Angeles that also helped with the movement in the 1980s.

“Churches don’t yet know what this will look like,” said Mr. Cabrera. “They don’t know if by declaring themselves a sanctuary more than 100 people will show up, and then where will they house them?”

Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the conference would not support harboring illegal aliens because it would be breaking the law.

Still, he said individual dioceses have much local autonomy.

“Local bishops have authority over their diocese and can instruct parishes to comply with the law or not,” he said. “But if it’s done, it puts the diocese at risk.”

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