The Common Good
September/October 2007

Sacred Refuge

by Alexis Salvatierra | September/October 2007

With comprehensive immigration reform off the congressional agenda, the New Sanctuary Movement steps into the breach.

When the immigration agent came to deport Liliana, her 7-year-old son William was confused and furious. "My mama is not a bad mama; she is a good mama," he said. "Why are you taking her away?" Because Liliana was nursing 2-month-old Paulito when he arrived, the immigration agent took pity on her and gave her a week to return to Mexico and leave her husband and three children (all U.S. citizens) behind. In hopes of staying with her family, she called her church and asked for sanctuary.

 

When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, select some towns to be your cities of refuge to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before standing trial before the assembly.

— Numbers 35:10b-12

 

 

Human beings have always had a tendency to demonize. In biblical times, when someone died by another's action, even if it was unintentional or unavoidable, the typical reaction was a blood feud. The family of the deceased treated the one responsible for the death as a murderer and sought vengeance—a life for a life. But in the book of Numbers, we find a creative strategy for counteracting this human tendency.

Those who claimed to have killed another by accident could be protected until they could receive a fair hearing. The people of God created sacred places of refuge, or sanctuary, in which the fugitive could find safety and the assurance of justice.

Over the centuries, the church often has recalled the concept of sanctuary. We witnessed this practice in the early 1980s, when Central Americans fled to the U.S. from repressive regimes that were heavily funded by American tax dollars. These refugees were unable to receive a fair asylum hearing because different standards were set for asylum-seekers from countries allied with the U.S. (such as El Salvador) and countries seen as opponents of the U.S. (such as Cuba or Russia). To avoid deportation and the threat of assassination, Central American refugees asked Christian congregations for refuge, evoking the ancient practice of sanctuary. Congregations, upon hearing their stories, agreed that they had received unjust treatment and refused to turn them over to federal immigration agents until they could receive a fair hearing. As a result, pastors and lay leaders were prosecuted. But in the process a significant number of church members were moved to participate actively in the legislative process. The laws were changed and many of the refugees received justice.

In December 2005, a bill passed in the House of Representatives that would have turned all 12 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. into felons and made it a felony to help or serve them. When Cardinal Roger Mahoney, in his 2006 Ash Wednesday sermon, called upon Catholics throughout the country to continue to serve immigrants regardless of their level of legal documentation—no matter what the personal or legal consequences—his words had a tremendous impact. Many say he awakened the moral imagination of the country; certainly, his words changed the public and legislative debate by making immigrant families visible as children of God.

Religious leaders and congregations who had experienced the 1980s Sanctuary Movement heard the echoes. In Los Angeles, an interfaith coalition of religious leaders staffed by members of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California (CLUE) began to pray about how God might be leading them to contribute the unique gifts of faith communities to immigrant families' struggle for justice.

By November 2006 they had a plan. The coalition members were inspired by the example of Elvira Arellano (see "Living in God's House," p. 15), a Methodist lay leader in Chicago who received sanctuary from her church when deportation threatened to separate her from her son. In the same spirit, they decided to offer sanctuary to a few representative families who would become the face of the immigrant reality—the living story of the families broken by a broken system. The story's framework would be the ancient, ringing moral imperative from the book of Leviticus: Treat the stranger as you would the native-born, because you too have known the experience of being strangers in Egypt.

The plan to offer sanctuary to a few representative families, rather than flinging open the doors to all, was a carefully discerned response to modern realities. Under the Patriot Act, harboring undocumented persons could have very serious legal consequences, far more severe than under the laws of the 1980s. However, lawyers informed the coalition that they believed the term "harboring" requires the intent to conceal. If the families told their stories publicly, then the congregations would not be violating any law. Nonetheless, the new sanctuary coalition knew these families risked a great deal by going public and committed to minimize unnecessary suffering for their courageous act.

Saving a family from deportation is no easy task under current law; the coalition quickly realized that it would take three or four congregations per family, working for months, with expert legal support, to prepare a legal and advocacy case with any chance of success. The family would also need to be sustained—spiritually, emotionally, and financially—for an indefinite period of time.

 

Sanctuary families. Initial interviews with potential families reinforced the worth of these significant risks and investments. For example, a man named Juan had fled Guatemala after his father suffered a political kidnapping. Juan's mother received asylum in the U.S. But Juan encountered an incompetent lawyer who left him with an order of deportation. Juan had built a successful small business in the U.S., paid taxes, owned his home, had never received a traffic ticket, volunteered in his community, adored his citizen children, and was active with his extended family in his church—but he lived each day waiting for the knock on the door that would end it all. The new sanctuary coalition knew that Juan's story needed to be surrounded by the word of God as it was told to the widest circle possible, so that it might be heard from the heart.

Less than a month after the Los Angeles coalition made its plan, interfaith coalitions in 10 cities began to work toward the same goal. In some of these cities, such as New York, the faces of the immigrants in sanctuary were strikingly different—Chinese, Haitian, even European.

Now more than 50 U.S. cities are working to establish a sanctuary program. Los Angeles, New York, and San Diego are up and running, with a strong and diverse network of congregations caring for several families. There have been more than 1,000 media inquiries and more than 400 full stories. CNN held a debate about the New Sanctuary Movement—and the popular TV show Boston Legal aired an episode in which a priest offered sanctuary to a family in his congregation.

As a spokesperson for the New Sanctuary Movement, I'm often asked why we advocate for undocumented immigrants to stay with their families in the United States after they've entered the country illegally: "Don't you respect the law? They shouldn't have immigrated without documents in the first place!" In response, I recount the passage in Mark 2, when Jesus and his disciples are called out for breaking the Sabbath—a grave breach of Jewish law. Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath." And so it is with the law: It is made for humankind, not humankind for the law. When laws fail to justly serve the most basic human needs (as with eating or healing on the Sabbath), they are flawed and incomplete.

As religious leaders, we respect the rule of law as a good and holy gift. However, there are those moments in history—from the Holocaust to Rosa Parks—when the only effective way to change an unjust law is to break it. We also understand that breaking the law should and does carry consequences, but the core biblical concept of sanctuary is a response to situations in which the proposed punishment is excessive. In the book of Numbers, the occasion for providing sanctuary is when an act of manslaughter is being treated as murder. The one who committed the crime is given the opportunity to be protected from any harm until he or she can receive a fair hearing and a judgment that takes into account all the facts of the case. Current immigration legislation does not take into account all of the facts of the case and does not provide the immigrant with a fair hearing.

 

A broken system, breaking families. Before the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986, any parent of a U.S. citizen had the possibility, over time, of attaining legal status in the United States. After 1986, having a U.S.-citizen child was no longer sufficient legal cause to begin the immigration process. However, you could still apply for legal status if you could prove that it would cause hardship to the child to either leave her or take her out of the U.S.

After 1996 it became legally acceptable to cause hardship to an American citizen child if his or her parents were born in another country, rather than allow them to be considered for immigration. Now one must prove that a minor U.S. citizen would suffer extreme, exceptional, and unusual hardship in order for her parents to qualify to move toward immigration. The trauma that Liliana's children would suffer from watching her be taken away by the police and the loss of growing up without a responsible, caring mother are not considered hardship enough to allow Liliana a chance to secure legal status.

And if a child has grown up in the U.S. but was actually born in another country, the barriers are even more formidable. Joe arrived here when he was 2 years old. He only speaks English. He did well in high school and now, at 22, works at a restaurant where he was recently promoted to assistant manager. He coaches Little League and is a faithful member of his church. Since he was 16 he has worked under a false Social Security number, which means that he has faithfully paid taxes into a Social Security account that he can never use for his retirement. Last year he married his childhood sweetheart, who is a U.S. citizen. After she became pregnant with their first child, she petitioned to legalize Joe's status.

They ran into the "bar." Since 1996, if anyone has been in the country illegally more than a year, they are barred from immigrating until they first return to their home country for 10 years. Joe now faces the prospect of being forced to leave his pregnant wife to live for 10 years in a country foreign to him.

In his work ethic, ambition, faith, and family values, Joe is not very different than the immigrant grandparents or great-grandparents of many Americans—but most in past generations never faced these barriers to family unity.

For now, Liliana is in sanctuary in Los Angeles and remains with her husband and children. It is unlikely that the New Sanctuary Movement will affect legislation that will protect her family's unity—at least this year. Religious communities don't calculate in years; we count by centuries. The impact of highlighting the humanity of those children of God who society rejects and vilifies is not easy to measure, but—thanks be to God—it is impossible to ignore.

Alexia Salvatierra is the executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles. For more on the New Sanctuary Movement, visit www.newsanctuarymovement.org.

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