Five immigration agents rapped on Liliana’s front door one morning in May. “We’ve come for you,” she recalls them saying.
Liliana, a 29-year-old factory worker from Mexico who crossed the border illegally in 1998, begged and pleaded. “What about my children?” she asked. “I have a baby. I’m nursing.”
The agents softened when they heard Pablito crying, she says, and gave her a reprieve. They ordered her to report to a detention center five days later to be sent back to Mexico.
Instead, Liliana hid at the home of a Catholic deacon and his wife. Last month she emerged from hiding and took up residence at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which has pledged to protect her from deportation.
St. Luke’s and Liliana are central characters in the New Sanctuary Movement, a small but growing coalition of churches, synagogues and other houses of worship that is challenging the immigration system, despite legal risk, as the nation debates how to deal with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA.
The congregations say the immigration system mistreats immigrants and breaks families apart. They want to end raids of job sites that have led to the arrest of thousands of undocumented workers, and they’re lobbying for policies that would help keep the families of illegal immigrants together and in the USA.
Drawing on the tradition of sanctuary, in which churches declare themselves safe havens for those fleeing violence or prosecution, congregations from New York to San Diego have begun to view supporting illegal immigrants—and occasionally sheltering them from deportation—as a moral and religious duty.
“We don’t accept a broken law that causes separation of families,” says Richard Estrada, an associate pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Los Angeles. “We will protect families, those in danger of being separated. … We’re doing what we think is the right, moral thing to do.”
Congregations in about 50 cities have joined or expressed interest in the sanctuary movement, says Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor and one of the national coordinators. Churches in Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and New York are helping and housing immigrants, and congregations in Miami, Kansas City and Phoenix plan to start soon, she says.
Salvatierra and others acknowledge their protection is mostly symbolic because the government has the legal authority to send agents into a church and detain immigrants. But they’re betting the government won’t.
“It doesn’t make good press for the government to go into churches,” says Julia Wakelee-Lynch, associate rector at St. Luke’s. “Many media outlets have called and said, ‘Please call us the minute something happens.’ “
Groups: No one above the law
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff agrees that immigration officials want to avoid “a media circus and a confrontation.” Even so, his department must enforce immigration laws “whether people are happy or unhappy” with them.
“We reserve our options, and we take the action that we feel is appropriate,” Chertoff says. “We don’t give people assurance that they have a sanctuary, nor do we necessarily indicate when we’re going to do something. They’re on their own if they’re going to defy the law.”
The sanctuary movement is drawing criticism from groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes limits on immigration. Dan Stein, president of the group, calls the family separation argument “ridiculous” and says the movement acts like it’s above the law.
“You leave your family behind when you make the decision to come (to the USA), and then you break the law to do it,” he says. “If people come illegally, they’re taking certain risks.”