- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Second of four parts.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - On a rainy evening last September in a Kansas City park, a group of 76 Presbyterians, Methodists, Mennonites, Roman Catholics and Disciples of Christ were clustered in a circle, trying to keep their candles from going out.

They were a stone’s throw from Interstate 70, the most public place they could find to proclaim that illegal immigrants have a place in their churches as part of the “new sanctuary” movement.

After reading Scriptures in English and Spanish, church members pledged to offer “sanctuary,” a concept that reaches back into Old Testament times when a fugitive could seek refuge from the law in designated cities and within the Jewish temple.

Signs such as “Love the immigrant as yourself” and “All religions believe in justice” rested on several shoulders, and three children dashed about with the slogan “The USA deported my daddy” emblazoned on black T-shirts.

Their mother, Winnie Jamieson - a self-described “college-educated, voted-Republican, born-again Christian and mother of three” - sported a slogan asking, “Who would Jesus deport?” She talked of losing $30,000 in court costs trying to keep her Jamaican husband, found guilty of using a false birth certificate, in the country. He was deported in 2004.

“This has devastated our family,” she said. “I cannot begin to tell you of the hurt suffered by innocent children because of the loss of their father.”

Just above them stood a sky-blue freeway billboard proclaiming, “Love the Immigrant as Yourself.” Next came a Bible citation from Leviticus 19:33-34: “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him.”

A subtitle read, “Keep Families Together.”

The Rev. Patrick Murphy, head of Hispanic Ministries for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, pronounced a blessing as an audience of birds lined up on an overhead phone cable. Then low on the horizon, the sun suddenly popped out, causing glassy skyscrapers to the west to glimmer in the golden twilight.

Kansas City was one of several cities visited by The Washington Times during an examination of this movement and its 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.

Barbecue belt

The small crowd at the Kansas City rally included about 20 people from Grandview Park Presbyterian, a Kansas church pastored by the Rev. Rick Behrens. He estimated that 70 percent of his congregation is Hispanic, most of whom are illegal immigrants.

He would like to volunteer his 117-year-old church as a sanctuary for illegals, but he doesn’t want officers from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) permanently parked outside his door.

“It’s a constant part of our life as a church to keep people safe,” he said. “People are living in a whole lot of fear right now. That’s the problem of raising our head too high on this. If we became a sanctuary, some 30 families could be affected.”

Daniel Romero, 45, noticeable by the silver earring in his left ear, worked his way in and out of the crowd. A one-time paralegal for Legal Aid and a past regional vice president for United Auto Workers, he had put in his time with the homeless and in soup kitchens. Early last year, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a Chicago labor rights group coordinating the new sanctuary movement nationwide, asked whether he would move from Chicago to set up a branch office in Kansas.

Kansas City is a magnet for Mexican and Asian immigrants, drawn by the region’s low cost of living and plentiful jobs in the beef industry.

“Chicago was very progressive, but I haven’t run into a progressive lawmaker here yet,” Mr. Romero said. “Johnson County [southwest of the city] is one of the richest and conservative Kansas counties. Even their liberals are moderate.”

The first sanctuary family he recruited ended up fleeing to Mexico. Since then, he has fielded two dozen requests from all over Kansas and Missouri in the past six months for help in setting up sanctuary coalitions.

Papal backing

Kim Bobo, coordinator of IWJ in Chicago, claims biblical backing for the movement.

“There are very few phrases repeated as constantly in the Bible as the command to welcome the stranger,” she says.

“In the Bible, Jesus repeatedly goes back to the phrase that first you love God, then you love your neighbor as yourself. Others say these people have broken the law. Well, we say the immigration system is broken,” she adds.

Many churches have held back, intimidated by increasing workplace sweeps by officials across the country against illegal immigrants. But last month’s visit by Pope Benedict XVI brought a much-needed boost, as the pope raised the issue in an April 16 meeting with President Bush, referred to the Catholic Church’s “many immigrant children” in a speech to the nation’s Catholic bishops and made a point of tacking on remarks in Spanish during his public Masses.

“I want to encourage you and your communities to continue to welcome the immigrants who join your ranks today, to share their joys and hopes, to support them in their sorrows and trials and to help them flourish in their new home,” Benedict said April 17 to 47,000 people at Nationals Park stadium.

One-third - about 18 million - of all U.S. Catholics are Hispanic, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Illegals have scant sympathy with Roy Beck, president of the Arlington-based Numbers USA, an “immigration reduction group.”

“What is so unjust about our laws?” he asks. “Is it unjust for a nation to have borders and to regulate who comes across it?

“The sanctuary movement acts as though these people are fleeing for their lives. These people are poor, and they want higher consumption,” he says. “Judaism and Catholicism and Protestantism do not give people the right to steal food. They are stealing wages from poor Americans.”

Referring to Miss Bobo’s assertions about the Bible, Mr. Beck says, “Those verses do not say, ‘If someone breaks your immigration laws, you have to give them citizenship.’ ”

“They say, ‘Do not mistreat the stranger or the alien.’ So you don’t round people up in cattle cars and starve them and torture them. You treat them as human beings as you detain them and deport them. Nothing in Scripture suggests you reward people for breaking immigration laws,” he says.

The sanctuary movement of the 1980s inaccurately portrayed people as fleeing government persecution, he adds.

“When I interviewed these people from El Salvador, I didn’t find anyone fleeing for their lives. Their businesses were ruined by the civil war,” he says. “The churches were exceptionally dishonest in everything they said and did and wrote about it. It was a movement done to make a political point to change American foreign policy. The ends justified the means for them, and it’s the same with the new sanctuary movement.”

Ready to run

More than 1,000 miles away, Juan Carlos Ruiz, an inactive Catholic priest, heads the New York City New Sanctuary Movement, a consortium of 24 Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish congregations. About 120 people from various religions turned out in the snow and sleet Dec. 13 for a candlelight vigil at an immigrant detention center in Lower Manhattan.

New York has six families seeking sanctuary, including two Chinese families. One of the Chinese families will look to Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Brooklyn and the other to United Church of Christ congregation in Jamaica, a neighborhood in Queens.

One of the other families includes Jani Montrevil, a U.S. citizen, and her Haitian-born husband, Jean, 39, who is facing deportation because of a 1989 drug conviction that put him in prison for 11 years and resulted in the loss of his green card. Federal officials require that he wear an ankle bracelet with a radio transmitter and be on curfew.

They and their four children are considering taking sanctuary in Johnson Memorial United Church of Christ in Lower Manhattan.

“This is killing us,” Montrevil said in a recent interview. “The pastor called this morning to check up on me. Churches have tried everything they can do to help my situation. We’ve gotten practical support. If it wasn’t for them, I’d not be here today.

“For the past eight years, I have not been in trouble with the law. But that does not matter to them. All that does matter is the crime I committed when I was young and stupid.”

So far, none of the six families has had to physically move into a church, Father Ruiz said.

“We do not want to take them out of their community until we are forced to,” he said. “We like to identify a family that visibly shows the injustice of the current immigration laws. Then we introduce them to a parish or faith community after we assess their case. Part of our mission is to break the stereotype on immigrants, especially Latinos.”

Groups of churches in Syracuse, N.Y., Danbury, Conn., and the New Jersey cities of Montclair, Dover and Morristown are forming sanctuary coalitions, he added.

“This has been a year of digging deep and explaining why we need immigration reform by telling personal stories of the families,” he said. “But since it’s an election year, we won’t see that reform this year. It’s a tough decision to move into a church when people know it’ll be at least a year before Congress does something.”

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