May 18, 2007 by Lee Sustar
A NEW faith-based movement to “awaken the moral imagination
of the country” hopes to provide sanctuary for undocumented
immigrants whose deportation would break up families.
Calling themselves the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM)--a nod
to the 1980s effort to assist refugees from Central America
fleeing the carnage of U.S.-sponsored wars--churches and
religious activist groups held press conferences around the
U.S. May 9 to announce plans “to protect immigrant workers
and families from unjust deportation” by giving shelter
and material aid to the undocumented.
The initiative comes in the wake of efforts by immigrant rights
activists to pressure local governments for sanctuary city policies
of non-cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.
On May 8, Watsonville, Calif., became the latest city to declare
itself an immigrant sanctuary. In other cities like Chicago,
San Francisco and Oakland, activists have pressed city officials
to reaffirm existing policies of refusing to cooperate with
federal immigration officials.
A key inspiration for the NSM organizers is the struggle of
Elvira Arellano, a Mexican immigrant who last year made
international headlines for publicly defying a deportation
order that would separate her from her U.S.-born son,
Arellano last year moved into Adalberto United Methodist
Church in Chicago, and religious leaders and activists from
around the city came to express their support. International
media covered the story, and solidarity messages poured into
Adalberto from around the world.
“We’re all inspired by the example of Adalberto United
Methodist Church, of Elivra and her family, and the courage
of that congregation,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of
the Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, a key organizer in
Since Arellano took her stand, the threat of detentions and
deportations that break up immigrant families has become more
urgent as the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
(ICE) steps ups its raids.
The detention of a nursing mother after a raid on a factory in
New Bedford, Mass., in March, put the issue of immigrant family
unity back into the national media spotlight. By holding
coordinated press conferences, the NSM aims to keep it there.
“Families are being broken by a broken immigration system,” Rev.
Alexia Salvatierra, of the Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United For
Economic Justice, said in a statement. “Under current policies,
detention and deportation are ripping apart parents from children,
husbands from wives and sisters from brothers. Through our
sanctuaries, we can help change the laws to create policies that
are effective and humane.”
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THE CALL to join the movement was made by groups affiliated with
a range of Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church, and
Muslim and Sikh organizations.
To participate, individual places of worship must pledge to
host immigrant families in which a family member is facing an
order of deportation. According to a document posted to the NSM
Web site, eligible immigrant families are those with adults with
a “good work record,” a “viable case under current law,” and
“American citizen children.”
Bobo points out that NSM participants are free to support other
undocumented immigrants who don’t meet all the criteria. The
framework was agreed upon by a broad coalition; others are
prepared to go further in providing assistance to the
undocumented, she said.
And while the movement hasn’t taken a formal position on
proposed immigration reform legislation, most are critical of
current proposals. Interfaith Worker Justice, she said, opposes
the enforcement provisions being discussed in Congress--“and
the proposals on the table would establish a very large guest-worker
program, which have been proven to be detrimental to workers.”
While the outcome of the legislative debate is uncertain, ICE
raids are sure to escalate, and the NSM is preparing for the
consequences--an increase in attempted deportations.
The NSM, based on a brief from the Center for Constitutional
Rights, takes the position that its sanctuary efforts don’t
violate the law, since they are being offered publicly and,
as in the case of Elvira Arellano’s vigil, there will be no
effort to hide the immigrants’ whereabouts from ICE officials.
While Bobo doesn’t believe laws will be broken, “ICE may take a
different point of view,” she said.
Once faith communities agree to host a family, they will be
asked to provide material aid in a variety of ways, starting
with “legal triage”--help, including financial assistance,
in the most urgent cases.
Families will be hosted for up to three months, and hosts
agree to provide assistance in various ways--including meals
and transportation to and from work or school. In addition,
the faith communities agree to directly support the NSM itself
through fundraising or donations of food, clothing and
NSM participants are also asked to support immigrant workers
against the racist backlash. “The immigration reform agenda
is just inseparable from worker justice at this moment in our
history,” Bobo said. “The absolute worst abuse of workers that
we see around the country is the abuse of immigrant workers,
because they have no path to citizenship, and there’s
no strong protection of workers’ rights for immigrant workers.”
An NSM statement spells out the operational conclusion:
“Despite society’s ongoing desire for the services of day
laborers and immigrant domestics, the climate of racism and
harassment has reached a fever pitch. Faith communities are
called to offer support through: being publicly present at
existing day labor pick-up sites as a peaceful presence in the
face of racist and hateful demonstrators; serving as an
alternative labor/employer match site; and/or being advocates
for worker issues.”
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THIS PLEDGE to defy the federal government and right-wing
groups recalls the original sanctuary movement of the 1980s,
when a coalition of some 500 churches and religious organizations
helped refugees from Central America fleeing from death squads
and counterrevolutionary forces aligned with the U.S. government.
That movement--in which activists helped refugees cross the
border and live underground in the U.S.--was the target of
repeated high-profile prosecutions by federal authorities. All
failed but one: the conviction of the movement’s co-founder,
Rev. John Fife of Tucson, Ariz., along with five others,
including a Catholic priest and a nun, who were
convicted on felony charges and given five years’ probation.
In a 1986 trial of sanctuary activists in Arizona, it emerged
that two sanctuary volunteers were actually undercover agents
of the Immigration and Naturalization Service--the forerunner
of ICE--who drove a family of five refugees from El Salvador
on a trip from Phoenix to Albuquerque, N.M., as they carried
out a public speaking tour for the movement. This was part of
the INS’s Operation Sojourner, an effort to infiltrate the
But sanctuary activists had expected as much. “We intend to
make it as widely known as possible that we are in violation
of the law, an immoral and illegal law,” Fife told the Tucson
Citizen in 1982.
Today, Fife, now retired as a pastor, is still active in
support of immigrants. He’s a founder of the group No More
Deaths, which provides water, food and assistance to undocumented
immigrants crossing the border, often in defiance of the Border
Patrol and right-wing vigilantes like the Minutemen.
Two student activists in the group, Shanti Sellz and Daniel
Strauss, were arrested in 2005 for taking three undocumented
immigrants to receive medical care, although charges were
“These efforts are not only humanitarian aid efforts, they’re
communities of resistance to the kind of violations of human
rights the government policy is involved in,” Fife said in a
recent interview with Amy Goodman on the Democracy Now! radio/TV
“And active resistance involves direct aid to the victims.
It also involves speaking out and trying to get...border
enforcement policy changed so that we’re no longer involved
in massive violations of human rights and all that death and
The Interfaith Committee’s Bobo said that she expects the NSM’s
organizing to dovetail with efforts to implement sanctuary city
policies, pointing to the organizing work to get the Washington,
D.C., City Council to pass legislation strengthening the city’s
The sanctuary movement, moreover, provides a counterweight to
the spate of anti-immigration legislation at the state and local
level--most recently, the law passed in a referendum in the Dallas
suburb of Farmers Branch, which seeks to prevent landlords from
renting housing to undocumented immigrants.
By going national and highlighting the sanctuary work already
taking place at the local level, the movement aims to alter
the terms of debate over immigration, its leaders said. “Through
our sanctuaries,” said Rev.Salvatierra of Los Angeles, “we can
help change the laws to create policies that are effective and