New sanctuary movement challenges consciences

Beatriz Ramirez and her two young children moved into Chicago’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission in September. Rosa Robles Loreto has lived in Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church since August. In Philadelphia, the Indonesian Mennonite Philadelphia Praise Center and the Jewish Tikkun Olam Havurah stand ready to welcome immigrants seeking sanctuary. They are part of a new sanctuary movement, with religious groups from Maine to California committing to shelter immigrants in danger of deportation. Besides offering sanctuary to immigrants, they challenge the country’s leaders to change harsh and punitive immigration laws.

Sanctuary has no legal standing in the United States, though its historic roots run back through English law, Christian and Jewish religious practice, and Greek and Roman traditions. Those laws and traditions promise safety from retribution or punishment to accused criminals who take refuge in a church or designated place of sanctuary. Today’s sanctuary movement offers refuge to undocumented immigrants in danger of deportation by the U.S. government.

The first person living in sanctuary in Southside Presbyterian Church was granted a stay of deportation. Now the focus is on Rosa Robles Loreto and the church’s website describes her plight:

“Rosa Robles Loreto has two beautiful boys, a loving husband, and has lived in Tucson since 1999. She is an active member of the community, volunteers at her church, her sons’ school, and their baseball teams. But she was ordered to be deported after a minor traffic violation. Like millions of other undocumented immigrants in the United States, Rosa’s case is considered low-priority for ICE—she has no criminal history, is a caretaker for minors and has long-standing community ties. But she was in detention for 53 days and fought her immigration case through the courts to no avail.  Now, Rosa lives with an order of deportation hanging over her head and is not safe to move freely in her home community of Tucson.”

The Huffington Post recently described Robles Loreto’s daily routine:

“Robles Loreto’s two young sons stay with her on weekends. During the week, she wakes up around 5 a.m. to prepare her husband’s lunch, goes back to sleep, and awakes again by 7:30 a.m. She helps clean the church. Southside officials make sure there is someone at the church at all hours to ensure Robles Loreto is safe.”

Immigration agents have the authority to invade churches and take away the families, but generally avoid making arrests in churches and schools. Instead, the immigrants wait, hoping for a stay of deportation in some cases, for a grant of asylum in others.

Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson is a veteran sanctuary church, having led the 1980s sanctuary movement, which sheltered refugees from Central American wars. The Migration Policy Institute describes the earlier movement:

“The defense of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marked a new use of international human rights norms by U.S. activists. Citing the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, religious activists claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of U.S. laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century U.S. abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new ‘Underground Railroad.'”

More than 150 congregations sponsored Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugees during the 1980s, with hundreds more supporting the movement.

In Minnesota, St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church in Wayzata resolved that it would “actively resist the immoral and illegal policy of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service by declaring this church… to be a ‘sanctuary’ for refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala.” The church sheltered Salvadoran Rene Hurtado for six weeks, and continued to support him through legal battles that lasted for 25 years.

Today’s sanctuary movement has a broader scope, including not only refugees but also people who have lived in U.S. communities for years and have never had access to any path to legalization. With deportations reaching another record high in 2013, and with no progress toward immigration reform, the new sanctuary movement offers a tiny sliver of space to some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in fear in the United States. More importantly, the growth of the new sanctuary movement could awaken the consciences of millions of Americans to demand comprehensive immigration reform and a path to legalization for people who are part of the fabric of our communities.

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