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Reminiscent of a 1980s network of churchs that sheltered Guatemalan, Salvadoran, or Nicaraguan refugees escaping conflict in Central America partly or directly sponsored by the Reagan administration, a new interfaith network of religious communitues is emerging to support undocumented immigrants caught up in the nation's contemporayr immigration reform politics.
Arguing that many families are being unjustly targeted for deportation as the collatorral damage of immigration reform politics, this interfaith, muti-ethnic coalition pledges "to open their doors, hearts and collective actions to the 'moral imperative' of immigrant rights.
A statement at the New Sanctuary Movement website reads: "At a moment when large scale immigration with its attending social and economic consequences demand reform, the faith community has united to call for policies that are both effective and humane. They are embracing sanctuary seekers threatened by imminent deportations, detentions and the severing of family ties. In most cases the undocumented immigrants have American citizen spouses and children. The movement considers the sanctuary seekers the human face of a cause committed to arousing the voice of people of faith and awakening the moral imagination of the nation." The movement began as an echo of the 1980’s sanctuary campaign, but has gained momentum as stepped up raids, detentions and deportations spotlight what religious leaders call a “cruel and broken system.”
The New Sanctuary Movement was inaugurated on May 9th with events organized by interdenominational congregations representing a rainbow of racial, ethnic and faith communities. Activities are scheduled in Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago, San Diego and Seattle. A number of other cities will hold prayer vigils in solidarity.
The sanctuary seekers include Joe Liang, 26, and his wife Mei Xing, 25. They have two American children ages 2 and 15 months. The couple fears being forced to return to their native China. They applied for asylum in New York but are both facing pending deportation orders. “There is nothing more important than giving my children a world where the possibilities are not simply a dream,” says Chen. The family is being given sanctuary at New York’s Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul the Apostle, at 405 W. 59th Street (Columbus Avenue), Manhattan.
Three immigrants have sought sanctuary in Los Angeles including Juan Humberto. Juan sought refuge in the United States after his father was kidnapped during the conflict in Guatemala. He runs a successful gardening business and is the father of two citizen children. His mother, who also arrived as a refugee, is a U.S. citizen. However, because he lacked effective legal support at a crucial moment, he faces an order of deportation. Juan will receive physical sanctuary in St. Paul’s Lutheran church and will receive legal advocacy and pastoral support through a cluster of congregations which includes Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Echo Park United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Cathedral Center, All Saints Episcopal Church and a Mennonite House Church.
The inaugural New Sanctuary Movement events will be followed by a rolling series of launches in other cities across the country. Congregations will collect signatures for the New Sanctuary Pledge and have committed to material, spiritual and physical support in their sanctuaries and among congregants.
The New Sanctuary Movement pledge outlines three goals including taking a public, moral stand on behalf of immigrant families and workers; opening the American people’s eyes to the suffering of immigrant workers and families under current policies; and protecting immigrants against hate, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation. They aim to enlist millions of people of faith through signing of the News Sanctuary Movement pledge and other moral and material support.
“A sanctuary is more than a physical place for the faithful to worship. It is a sacred space that guarantees compassion, protection and the love of God,” said Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a leader of the New Sanctuary Movement and director of CLUE-CA. Rev. Salvatierra underscored the importance of family values as a cornerstone of American beliefs. “We are responding to a broken system that is increasingly creating broken families, and broken lives.”
Coordinated by networks in California, New York and Chicago, participating congregations will provide the sanctuary seekers with a range of support services including expert immigration lawyers, transportation to the work place, shelter, and financial assistance. Sanctuary will be offered to families where at least one parent has a deportation order that would separate them from their children and homes.
Steering committee member Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, notes that the New Sanctuary Movement is an outgrowth of a longstanding commitment to immigrant rights. “Immigrants are an integral part of the faith community. Few Biblical messages are as clear as Leviticus which says, ‘the alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt.’”
Rabbi Laurie Coskey, also a member of the steering committee, agrees. “Churches, mosques and synagogues across the country have always opened their doors and embraced those who are new to our country. In turn, immigrants have given their time, energy and resources to grow communities of faith. Now we are called to shed light on those long hidden by shadows. God calls us to use our prophetic voice to denounce unjust laws that separate rather than unite people of faith.”
It is estimated that more than 222,000 immigrants have been subjected to deportation over the past year in the stepped up campaign by Immigration Customs and Enforcement. According to recent data, nearly one in 10 American families is of mixed immigration status in which at least one parent is a non-citizen, and one child a citizen. An estimated 3.1 million US citizen children have at least one parent who is undocumented.
According to a press release from the movement: "In the early 1980’s, thousands of Central Americans sought refuge in this country’s churches after fleeing human rights violations at the hands of US backed governments and death squads. Twenty-five years later the urgency and demands have given life to a new movement. Today, the immigrant populations are not confined to individuals fleeing political repression. They are workers who pay taxes, law abiding citizens and families seeking refuge from intolerable economic and social conditions. They have been in this country for many years, have citizen children and contribute to the society."
The leaders of the New Sanctuary Movement acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead of the campaign. “The largescale immigration of workers and their families is complex,” says Rev. Reginald Swilley, a member of the Steering Committee and former board member of the San Jose, Ca NAACP. “The current immigration crisis is rooted in historical, global and economic causes that cannot be answered with simplistic or purely reactive public policy solutions.”
By lifting the veil of silence, telling the stories and providing a sanctuary, the faith leaders say they aim to contribute to national immigration reform. “Silence is complicit,” says New York City coordinator Father Juan Carlos Ruiz. “Through our actions we are calling for policies that are effective and humane.”