SEATTLE - When a coalition of pro-immigrant church groups kicked off the “new sanctuary” movement on May 9, 2007, Seattle was one of five cities chosen to host a kickoff press conference.
The venue was fortresslike St. Mark’s Cathedral, a stone-and-brick building that housed Salvadorans and Nicaraguans during the sanctuary movement of the 1980s.
“What’s at the heart of this is that we have 12 million people who’ve been productive members of our communities,” said the Very Rev. Robert Taylor, then dean of Episcopal St. Mark’s. “It’s not a family value to tear these families apart.”
Seattle is one of the most liberal cities in the country on immigration and one of eight cities visited by The Washington Times in its examination of the sanctuary movement - 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.
In 2003, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance barring police from checking on the immigration status of people they arrest unless they had reason to think the suspect was guilty of a felony crime.
Washington state has long been a hub for Asian immigrants. The state, particularly its eastern half, is a top agricultural producer, a provider of forest products and a stop on the way to Alaskan salmon canneries - all in need of cheap, unskilled labor.
Maria Elena, an assumed name for a single Mexican mother of two small girls, divides her time between her apartment and a Seattle church that has offered her sanctuary.
Because an abusive former boyfriend lurks about her hometown in El Salvador, going back there is not an option.
In addition, her eldest daughter, 6-year-old Natalia, is profoundly handicapped. Salvadoran doctors had told her mother to seek help overseas, i.e. the United States, because there were no decent facilities in the country. The family briefly lived in Silver Spring, but after the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office ferreted them out, they fled to Seattle. They arrived at the downtown Greyhound station, knowing no one.
“I went to a Presbyterian church where I told a woman my story,” Maria Elena said. ” ‘I guess I’ll have to call Immigration,’ the woman there told me. So I grabbed my kids and my suitcase and got out of there.”
She ended up at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, a 400-family congregation that worships in a plain brick building on a ridge overlooking Puget Sound. A sign in front of the church proclaims: “The Good Samaritan was an undocumented alien.”
“They gave me food and clothes,” Maria Elena said. “Ever since I got here, they have treated me well.”
A friendly, animated woman in her early 30s with her hair pulled back in a bun, she would train as an orthodontist if she were legal. Meanwhile, Natalia is getting much-needed therapy.
“I do not want to settle for less because of my daughter,” she said. “That is my driving force.”
The church has raised $10,000 to support her and other illegal immigrants. St. Mary’s also has renovated a spacious second-floor apartment - down the hallway from the Rev. Tony Haycock, the parish priest - to make room for yet another sanctuary family.
“There is such a general lack of empathy for these people,” said Matthew Adams, a lawyer with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, an agency involving 17 staff lawyers and 200 pro-bono lawyers representing about 500 people.
“One in five individuals here is an immigrant,” he added. “The city of Seattle recognizes the role immigrants play here, and they don’t divide them into legal and illegal.”
Father Haycock did not return calls seeking comment, but two of his parishioners said helping illegals involved some delicate sidestepping with Seattle Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett.
“We don’t say the word ‘sanctuary,’ ” said Dick Selin, a church member. “The archdiocese has sent letters calling it ‘hospitality’ and telling parishes they can help with fines for people in detention centers. But the archbishop is a conservative guy who doesn’t want to be the first in line on this issue.”
Another parishioner, Jorge Quiroga, who operates a window installation business and helps immigrants on the side, said St. Mary’s was not going to wait for the bishop’s approval.
“We told Archbishop Brunett we were going to declare ourselves a sanctuary before the press conference. In response, they asked us not to say anything about illegal immigrants but that we are providing hospitality,” he said. Mr. Quiroga’s cellular phone is a lifeline for immigrants needing bail. The church has raised $15,000 to $20,000 to spring immigrants out of jail.
The Archdiocese of Seattle did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
A U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops official said he has received calls from bishops’ staffs on whether to offer sanctuary.
“Our advice would be not to do it, but our goal is to reform the law in legislatures so immigrants don’t have to hide in church basements in fear,” said Kevin Appleby, the USCCB’s director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Policy.
Painted a light blue, the Northwest Detention Center sits in an isolated industrial area near the Tacoma waterfront. Immaculate, golf-course-style grass surrounds the 1,034-bed facility housing solely people on immigration violations. Many will not walk the streets of the United States again.
Former inmates complain about the lack of cold water there, and on Aug. 12, 300 people became sick because of food poisoning, according to the Associated Press.
Pablo Lopez, 37, wore prison-issued dark blue jumpsuit and white T-shirt. Deputized to mop the prison floors, the mustachioed Mexican was clearly bewildered by the American legal system.
He had felt adrift for some time. When his wife died of stomach cancer several years ago, she left him with four boys ages 7 to 13, all of whom are U.S. citizens.
But he was not, having sneaked in with the help of a smuggler 16 years ago from Colima, Mexico. He worked as a cook until police stopped him, ostensibly because a light was not working in his car. A brother in Fresno, Calif., took custody of the boys.
He chanced upon Mr. Quiroga’s cell phone number and called it, asking St. Mary’s for help in raising $1,500 bail. The average stay in the center is 27 days, but he had been there five months, waiting out his days in a drab, noisy common room filled with 80 restless men.
“I am worried as I’ve not heard from my brother; I’ve not been able to get ahold of him,” he said.
The church was unable to come up with any money. An immigration judge ordered him out of the country on Jan. 5.
“Washington state is still immigrant-friendly compared to other states,” said Carlos Marentes, director of the Seattle-based Committee for General Amnesty and Social Justice.
“Individuals I know are skipping California and coming here,” he said. “But it’s bad in rural, isolated areas. Churches are helpful on various levels. They are the fountain of the base of our organization. Illegals do not want to expose themselves to the public, so they feel safe in the churches.
“They’ve also provided us with lots of allies and contacts. Churches have been a gateway to bring the immigration issue to the English-speaking community.”
One of the first churches in the country to declare itself a sanctuary congregation was St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Auburn, 20 miles south of Seattle.
Homes there are shabby and tired. Strip malls predominate. The area is a wide, flat valley once filled with farms, but members of Seattle’s working class, including many Hispanic and Russian immigrants, now live here.
In 2000, St. Matthew’s hired Diane Aid, who had been doing Hispanic ministry in Ellensburg, Wash. Ensconced in a wheelchair, with long, ash-blond hair and a blue shawl draped around her, she is a mother figure to the illegals who seek her out. Her phone number is broadcast on local Spanish radio and her presence has drawn adherents to the 130-member church.
Increasing immigrant raids in the area have drawn in even more people, said Susan Armer, the rector.
“Three or four of our families are Japanese, and they remember the internment camps,” she said. “The United States is a nation of immigrants, but there is a nastiness that so goes against who we are. Immigration needs to be on the front burner for anyone who calls themselves American or Christian.”
The two women dole out sympathy to immigrants who gather in a sparse parish hall to say why they are afraid to walk the city’s streets.
Francisco Espinosa, of Federal Way, said he was an unemployed construction worker who had lived here illegally for 10 years. He came to the church for help after being pulled over by police for a lane violation, then sent to the detention center. He was there for 24 days until his sister bailed him out.
When told that he had to be out by Dec. 28, he came to the church for help. An attorney tried to help him appeal his case, but when the appeal was denied he left Feb. 26.
“In the media, people attack us so much, they talk about catching us, about taking pictures while we’re working,” said Antonio Flores, a parishioner from southern Mexico. “We are not here to fight. We are here to support this country. They need our work and we need to work.”
Rene Martinez was working as a horse trainer at Emerald Downs, a local racetrack, when ICE swept through March 14, arresting everyone without a work permit. He had applied for one but because of an ICE backlog, it had not arrived.
Sent to the detention center, he was there five days until his boss spent $15,000 bailing him out. He lost his job and now lives off the small wages his wife, Maria, makes at a local restaurant.
“If I lose my case in court, I will have to move into the church,” he said. “St. Matthew’s is a place where the community can come and give support to each other and where we feel safe.”
He finally got his work permit in November. He will appear in front of an immigration court in July, but if his request to stay here is rejected, he plans to ask for sanctuary.