Giving Shelter From The Storm Of Deportation

Giving shelter from the storm of deportation

The New Sanctuary Movement is offering illegal immigrants the protection of its churches, nationwide and in L.A.

By Louis Sahagun,
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
May 9, 2007

The government must listen; they are tearing apart families. It's not right.

Jose, an immigrant seeking sanctuary A graphic designer, a gardener, a religious icon salesman, a busboy, a maintenance worker each of them facing deportation and separation from their families.

These are the faces of the New Sanctuary Movement, which launches today with a goal of underlining the need for making immigration law more humane and curtailing immigration raids that have torn apart hundreds of families nationwide.

The first faith-based sanctuary movement in 25 years is scheduled to be announced today at news conferences led by congregants in Los Angeles, San Diego and New York who are offering their churches to serve as homes for undocumented families.

But the “movement,” as organizers call it, is in its infancy.

Only two individuals both fathers will be taking physical refuge at churches in downtown Los Angeles and North Hollywood. The three other participating families two in New York and one in San Diego plan to continue living at home with the understanding that they can move into designated sanctuary churches if they feel it's necessary.

“We would have loved to have started with more families,” said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, one of several organizations supporting the effort. “But we just didn't know that the process would be so complicated and demanding.”

The effort was conceived late last year amid a sense of urgency by religious workers alarmed by immigration raids that were detaining as many as 300 people a week in New York alone. For source material, they studied the sanctuary movement of the early 1980s, which housed hundreds of Central Americans seeking refuge from deportation to their homelands, where they faced death squads and war. For inspiration, the organizers turned to the case of Elvira Arellano, 31, an undocumented single mother who took refuge in a Chicago church in August and vowed that if authorities wanted her, they would have to come and get her.

But no sooner had they committed to a new sanctuary movement than they discovered that immigration laws had changed dramatically in two decades, with more immigrants than ever subject to detention. In addition, the nation's undocumented population has since become more diverse, with growing numbers of illegal immigrants not just from the Americas but also from Asia, Africa and Europe.

As if all that were not enough, a key strategy meeting in New York was delayed by bad weather. The original mid-April launch date was pushed back a month.

Although organizers hoped to unveil the movement with about 100 immigrants taking shelter in dozens of churches nationwide, they discovered it wasn't easy finding families and churches willing to tell their stories to reporters, or accept the legal risks of publicly defying federal law.

Take Juan, a 37-year-old Guatemalan in Los Angeles who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisals that could jeopardize the safety of his two young daughters.

“Once, I was interviewed by reporters for a Spanish-language television program,” he sheepishly recalled, “and I was so nervous on camera that I came down with a bad fever.”

Today, the diminutive, painfully shy man who 20 years ago illegally entered the United States with dreams of becoming a gardener, emerged as a spokesman for “12 million other people out there facing similar problems.”

“I want a good future for my children,” he said in an interview, “a future with me, their father, a hardworking man and the light of their lives.”

The sanctuary organizers highlighted three other cases, providing only partial information on two of them, as they argued for their cause.

In San Diego, Marco Castillo, 25, recalled being voted Crawford High School senior class president and homecoming king, then working his way through San Diego State.

He worked because, lacking a Social Security number, he was rejected for a full-ride scholarship. Bad legal advice bungled his effort to obtain legal status. As an illegal immigrant, he still can't get a driver's license.

Now, he is fighting deportation to Mexico.

In New York, a Chinese couple, Joe, 27, and Mei, 25, are raising two toddlers. They are seeking asylum because of their homeland's strict family planning law. Mei fears she could be sent to prison or sterilized.

With a deportation case hanging over their heads, Mei is caring for the children while Joe works as a busboy seven days a week.

Three Lutheran churches in Brooklyn have offered them sanctuary.

Also in New York, Haitian-born Jean, 39, and his African American wife, Jani, are fighting to stave off deportation and protect a 30-year-old Brooklyn religious icon business, as well as the unity of their family, which includes an infant and four other children, all American citizens.

Jean, who entered the U.S. with a green card, was marked for deportation because he was convicted of drug possession in Maryland in 1989. His wife fears his deportation would force her to take the children to impoverished Haiti or struggle in New York as a single mother.

“There's no escaping the fact that undocumented parents share some responsibility for their predicament when they face deportation and family separation,” said immigration attorney Peter A. Schey, president of the board of directors of the Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law Foundation.

“On the other hand,” he added, “there should be proportionality between a violation of law and the punishment extracted. Pulling a mother away from her children as penalty for an administrative violation committed a decade or more earlier through her illegal entry just seems barbaric.”

Sanctuary as a sacred right of a church is an ancient and widely held principle, but it has no legal standing in the United States. Movement supporters believe federal officers are less likely to barge into a church and drag out undocumented families than in a home or workplace.

That was the motivation behind the sanctuary movement of the early 1980s, organized to prevent Central American refugees from being deported.

Today, facing a more diverse immigrant population, organizers are offering spiritual support, financial and pro-bono legal services and, if necessary, a physical space that guarantees compassion and protection.

“It's a broader definition of sanctuary, that's for sure,” the Rev. Salvatierra said. “The families and congregations we're starting out with are only the first heroes; there are waves and waves more right behind them.”

In the meantime, Jose, a 42-year-old maintenance man who asked that his last name not be used, settled into a sacristy behind the altar at Our Lady Queen of Angels, a 188-year-old parish in downtown Los Angeles also known as La Placita. His two teenage boys are living with relatives in Inglewood.

“It took three months and many sleepless nights to decide to move into the church,” he said. “The government must listen; they are tearing apart families. It's not right.”

In a statement, Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said, “Those who willfully violate U.S. immigration laws face the consequences of their actions.”