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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  1. Steve Scott August 21, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    John, as one who lives in California, immigration is an every day issue for us. Here’s how I see it. God tells His people not to oppress the stranger within our gates. Since illegal aliens don’t follow our “laws” they essentially live in freedom. But we don’t because we allow our government to oppress us by regulating every detail of our lives. It’s human nature for some reason for people to favor oppressing others to the extent that they themselves are oppressed over and above demanding a relief from oppression to the lesser extent that others are oppressed.
    In the blessings and curses of Deut 28 & 29, God warns that it we don’t obey Him, a people of an unknown tongue will increase and we will decrease; they will be the head and we will be the tail. This is definitely happening in America. It is just a logical conclusion to our actions. When we sow the wind, we reap the whirlwind. Now, the immigration issue is very complex and won’t go away next election. But I think the key is to be free ourselves so we won’t be in a position of having to oppress strangers contrary to God’s will.
    Let’s start by demanding the same freedoms as the illegals. Demand cash wages under the table with no tax accountability, demand no government regulation for anything and elimination of ID cards. Until then, we get the fruit of our labor.

  2. George C August 22, 2007 at 1:21 pm

    Here in Colorado this is also a hot topic.
    I can empathize with the illegals. Even IF things were very good in Mexico, I might be tempted to jump the fence in order to get ahead and provide better for my family.
    Apart from the secrity risks, I would not care so much if, for all practical purposes, we let anyone and everyone in. The problem is that they are stealing from Americans by using our social services and giving nothing in return. Unfortunately that is a problem cause not only by illegals, but also by many citizens.
    I think a big step in the right direction would be to eliminate all handouts, including those given to corperations and such. If that revenue was bak in the hands of private citizens it would be used much better (as it was in pre welfare state times) than the miserable government programs we have going now.
    This alone would not deal with immigration, but it would take some of the bad taste out of peoples’ mouths.

  3. mark sullivan August 22, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    God commanded not to oppress the alien in our land. but he also commanded them to obey the laws. Also there are limited resources even in the U.S. Much of the world would like to come here. How do we handle that? there are many problems with too much illegal immigration that some, people never think about. For instance, Mexico loses it’s most hardworking, intelligent, people every time someone crosses the border. What do you think would happen to the United States, if the best and brightest of every community went away to Canada. I don’t think we would prosper much. Also, all this immigration just keeps Mexico from making reforms to it’s society that are needed. I grew up along the Mexican border. Latin American culture on the personal level is wonderful. The civil culture is another thing altogether. We don’t need the corruption, and other problems these societies create here. Has it occurred to anybody why none of the countries south of our border has really worked well in the last 500 years? We are importing millions of people who often show no attempt to become Americans.
    We need to slow down immigration, and get the people already here integrated into our society. Hispanics who are American by historical birth have been important citizens in our history. But they wanted to BE Americans. Many of the new immigrants want to be here on their own terms. I’m sorry, but I and other Americans want to have a say in how our country ends up. Not just ethnic pressure groups, Corporations looking for cheap labor, religious groups trying to be holier than thou, and politicians looking for votes. The rest of us matter too.

  4. JamesR August 23, 2007 at 8:32 am

    Regarding point #5 – “Her illegal alien status does not make her a ‘criminal’…”
    Her identity theft of someone else’s SSN certainly makes her a criminal.
    Her tax evasion by not filing and paying taxes on her wages makes her a criminal.
    If she wants to come back to the USA, let her renounce her Mexican citizenship, let her bring her son’s father with her, require that she has the proper documentation to enter legally, and hold her accountable for the fines and penalties she owes for her criminal acts here.
    From her statements when she was deported, she didn’t seem to express any sentiment that she wanted to be here. She only talked about her “beloved Mexico”. If her home country is so dear to her, why did she leave it in the first place and why would she want to come back here?

  5. Glenn August 24, 2007 at 10:05 am

    “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?” John, as someone who has built long term friendships with many mexicans, this is not just an issue of having greater financial security. This is a life and death issue for many. Move to America and increase your life span by decades or stay in Mexico and face hunger, drink dirty water, contract disease and face death. Torah is clear, to preserve life trumps almost all laws even if lesser laws have to be broken. Walk a mile in any Mexican’s shoes and I have no doubt the majority of Americans would make the same choice they have. Choose life! or is that just a cheap slogan evangelicals like to throw around for political gain?

  6. John H. Armstrong August 24, 2007 at 10:47 am

    This is an interesting and very important discussion so far. I am honestly asking the questions to get your response. I have to say that both Steve Scott and Glenn get a lot closer to the biblical text, so far as I understand it, than the others who comment. I am, I say again, not promoting Elvira or the sanctuary movement. I am willing to ask the questions and listen and this discussion reveals the very deep fault lines I knew existed. I wonder how many churches could have an open discussion without this degenerating into chaos. I fear this in itself reveals the state of the church is far too politicized into comfortable categories that keep us apart in Christian love.

  7. Juana August 29, 2007 at 4:21 pm

    This is a very complex issue, with NO easy answers, and which requires on our part as “Christians” to seek God and His Word before we join the “hatemongers” in spewing their divisive rhetoric which is driven by fear. As a protestant mexican I can only tell you that this is a very painful time for many of us. I also want to add that my focus is less on the 12 million undocumented, and more focused on the 25+ million English speaking Hispanics that are U.S. citizens and are not going anywhere. There is a huge void. There are very few men and women of faith addressing them in a relevant manner, and as a result many are lost. This has greater consequences for this country than any other issue.

  8. ColtsFan September 4, 2007 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks John for your post.
    I see the negative effects of illegal immigration daily.
    I have compassion on the children of illegal aliens, for they are the ones who suffer most. I have many friends who are illegal aliens from many countries around the world.
    Here are my thoughts:
    1.) Biblically, government is in a different sphere or Kingdom (“Kingdom of man”) than the church (“Kingdom of God”). The purpose of government in Romans 13 is separate and distinct from the purpose of the church. The God-ordained purpose of government is to enforce our laws and punish evil. God does not ordain government to “redistribute wealth” or to “show compassion” or to promote “forgiveness for law-breakers.” God ordains government to punish evil and enforce laws. The purpose of the church is to spread the gospel only, and not to distract the government from doing its God-ordained function.
    2.) Rewarding illegal aliens with the gift of USA citizenship has ***already been done SEVEN separate times since 1986.*** Google, “Numbers USA” for documentation.
    “Amnesty”, or “pathway to USA citizenship” has already been given (“rewarded”) to illegals 7 times in the past since 1986.
    Rewarding law-breakers with USA citizenship only encourages more and more future law-breakers.
    Biblically, it is always wrong to reward people who break the law with the gift of USA citizenship.
    3.) For those of you, who like John Armstrong, who tend to be libertarians and free market theorists, illegal immigration is a negative threat to free market economics. The economist Milton Friedman opposed amnesty for illegals and illegal immigration for this very same reason.
    4.) From my experience, country club Republicans, who tend to be wealthy, and white, are the ones who profit from illegal immigration. These same employers fire USA citizens and hire illegal aliens for BELOW THE MINIMUM WAGE, and the employers keep the profits. This is wrong. These same greedy employers provide no health insurance, no benefits, and send the illegal alien employees to the local Emergency Room for all of their outpatient (non-critical health care needs) and inpatient (critical care) health care needs. But hospitals often are unable to collect any payment. In my area two hospitals have closed down due to the negative financial effects of massive illegal immigration.
    Again, rich employers are profiting from illegal immigration by firing USA citizens and hiring illegals who will work for immorally low wages (below minimum wage). I have seen this myself many times.
    5.) Many of my friends are here illegally. I have shared Christ with them several times. But I have learned that identity theft, credit card theft, Social Security Number theft, or document fraud is a common behavior among illegal aliens. This is wrong. If SSN fraud or credit card theft happens to you, then you are right to be mad about it because it will cost you thousands of dollars to fix. And yet McCain-Ted Kennedy-Lindsey Graham solution is to reward illegal aliens who commit document fraud with the gift of USA citizenship. This is wrong.
    For more information on a Christian perspective, see the very interesting piece below.
    The government needs to enforce the laws.
    The church needs to reach out and share Jesus Christ with all people, including illegal aliens. We should never provide sanctuary because that would be wrong and usurping the function of government. But the church needs to be pro-active regarding evangelism among illegals, while at the same time holding steadfast to the Biblical view that God-ordained government’s role is to enforce our laws.
    Unless everyone wants a Sanctuary Nation. But if this is true, then why in the world should we even have borders? Let everyone come in for free!!!!
    Biblically, I believe in a Sovereign nation, not a Sanctuary nation.

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