What Should We Make of the Sanctuary Movement?

Across America a group of Christians have banded together to promote a movement to protect illegal aliens from deportation. This is not a new phenomenon at all. What is a little different, at least about some aspects of this renewal of an older movement, is that it has now focused primarily on protecting Mexicans, who are living illegally in the U. S., from deportation. A celebrated case is unfolding day-by-day here in Chicago so I hear a great deal about this on a regular basis. I am not entirely sure how to think about the movement or this particular case. (As is true with many similar issues there seems to be no simple, single, obvious answer.) I see some things clearly here but then there are some issues that seem less clear to me. 

The Chicago story is a pretty straightforward sanctuary case. Elvira Arellano, 32, came to America as an undocumented Mexican alien in 1997 to find work. She was deported shortly thereafter and then returned and worked at several different jobs, including child care. She moved to Illinois in 2000 because she had friends in Chicago. Here she took a job cleaning planes at O’Hare International Airport. While she was in the U. S. illegally she got pregnant and had a son, Saul, who is now eight years old. This means Elvira’s son Saul is a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birth place.  Elvira was arrested in 2002 at O’Hare and later convicted of working under a false Social Security number. Last August, 2006, she was to surrender to authorities but decided to take refuge inside a Methodist Church in Chicago. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials consider her a fugitive because she failed to surrender for deportation.

Elvira now intends to leave her sanctuary at the Methodist Church and lobby Congress for immigration reform, even if it means she will be arrested and deported. She says that if she is deported her son will stay in the U.S. Her plans for D.C. are to pray, with a group of immigration rights people, for eight hours on the National Mall on September 12th.  Her supporters have invited others to join her in prayer and to participate in a boycott from work, school and shopping on that specific date. However, on Monday, August 20, she was taken into custody in Sacramento, choosing to come out of her church Chicago sanctuary sooner than she had at first stated. Deportation plans are now in the works as of today.

The proposal that Elvira supports by her efforts is one that says there must be immigration reform which would include a safe-harbor visa program for illegal immigrants parents who have U. S. citizen children and a five-year temporary visa for those who qualify under national security standards. She adds, “Families should not be separated. I understand fear because I fear being torn from the arms of my son.”

Consider this issue as dispassionately as possible. (I doubt this can be done by most of us if we are really, really honest.)

1.    This woman is willing to leave her son in the U.S. and return to Mexico without him. This says several things to me, some good and some very troubling. Is economic opportunity so important to her that she would give up rearing her son so he can have greater financial security? Is this heroism or selfishness? Strong feelings will exist on both sides. Since I do not know what conditions she escaped in Mexico I do not know what to make of her stance in some ways.

2.    There is no question that this woman is here illegally. Further, there is no question that she has defied U.S. authority by her actions. The argument is that she has done so out of conscience because the laws, in her case and others, are not just, either in the U. S. or Mexico.

3.    She has already made a choice that has impacted her son’s life profoundly, living in the second floor of a church while she cannot go outside and he can. The emotional stress of this has to be immense.

4.    She is very serious about her cause or she would not risk deportation by going to Washington, or to Sacramento where she was arrested on Monday. You have to admire Elvira for her courage. How many of us would take a stand on anything that might bring us real inconvenience?

5.    Her illegal status does not make her a criminal, at least not in the proper sense of the term, thus it would be helpful if this just distinction was made by strong anti-illegal immigrant conservatives. Emotions run high on both sides of this issue and a lot of this response is filled with fear language, especially on the conservative side. The liberal side offers us a lot of promises with little to back up the real reform needed with regard to this difficult problem.

So, is the sanctuary movement a good or just one? Is Elvira right to stay and fight the laws that she thinks are unjust? Is she right to risk the raising her own son under her care as his mom so that he can have a “better” life by staying in America even if she is deported back to Mexico? And is the church right to support this, why or why not?

While this debate rages emotions still run very high on the problem of Mexican illegal workers within America. The estimates of how many there are run as high as 12 million. Congress has debated and argued and nothing has been done. We remain in a state of limbo and personally I think the strong conservatives are as much to blame for this impasse as any group. The conservative movement has opposed all proposals for immigration reform so strongly that we are left with nothing for now.

I don’t have a simple solution. I do know that we need to have this conversation among thoughtful Christians and we need to learn how to listen better and think this through more dispassionately than we seem able to do. The church, in general, disappoints me in that it either runs away from this tough issue or it adopts a polarizing position on one side or the other. This makes people like Elvira newsworthy and semi-tragic. What do you think?

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