A mother’s plight revives the sanctuary movement

Times Staff Writer

Sanctuary, in antiquity the practice of providing refuge in a sacred place, has been revived in a rather dramatic fashion by an undocumented Mexican cleaning woman trying to evade deportation by holing up in a Chicago church.

Elvira Arellano, 32, said she invoked the ancient right of sanctuary in a desperate effort to avoid being separated from her 7-year-old son, Saul, an American citizen.

That was nine months and 18 days ago. Since then, her act of civil disobedience has helped spark a new sanctuary movement and transformed her into a leader in the effort to create a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.


Exactly how Arellano’s case will end remains to be seen. In the meantime, her maneuver has focused renewed attention on a concept used through the ages to hold back the force of government.

In a telephone interview, Arellano said in Spanish, “I never planned for this.

“When the order for deportation came down, I was desperate,” she said, “I remembered how Joseph and Mary were given sanctuary. I asked my church for sanctuary, and they agreed.”

Arellano became a focus of international attention when, from the safe haven of the little church, she began dispatching high-profile rebukes of immigration authorities.

One of her first letters posted on the Internet said, “If Homeland Security chooses to send its agents on the Holy Ground to arrest me, then I will know that God wants me to be an example of the hatred and hypocrisy of the current policy of the government.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities issued a brief comment: “ICE has the authority to arrest illegal aliens in all locales and prioritizes its enforcement efforts based on investigative leads and intelligence.”

In the distant past, the practice of religious sanctuary was common throughout the world.

In antiquity, cities and surrounding territories were dotted with religious sanctuaries surrounded by walls or border stones separating the abode of the divine from the world of human struggle, the sacred from the profane, the holy space within from the reach of local laws.


Fugitives of every stripe found refuge in certain sacred shrines of the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. Ancient Hebrews had “cities of refuge” described in the Bible’s books of Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Numbers 35:9 through 11 of the King James Bible reads, in part: “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When ye be come over Jordan into the land of Canaan, then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you.”

These cities essentially were a way to prevent vigilante action against someone who had accidentally killed another person. But the refuge wasn’t indefinite. The refugee was allowed to stay until he could face proper judgment by the community.

In the 4th century, Christian churches in Europe were considered sanctuaries. The practice continued through the Middle Ages as a check on vengeance during a time of social tumult.

“Around the 10th century, Catholic bishops instituted ‘The Truce of God’ as part of an effort to put a damper on the violence that was tearing society apart,” said Daniel McGuire, professor of theology at Marquette University in Milwaukee. “The idea was that you could go into a church and be safe from the killing going on all over the place.”

Felons who sought sanctuary in 13th century England could stay up to 40 days or, before that deadline, agree to leave the kingdom. If they stayed beyond 40 days, they risked being forced out of sanctuary by starvation.


In the 15th century, several parliamentary petitions sought to restrict the right of sanctuary in England. In the next century, King Henry VIII reduced the number of sanctuaries by about half.

Starting around 1750, various countries began abolishing sanctuary as civil judicial systems arose to try those accused of crimes. It took about 100 years for sanctuary to disappear.

Today, the right of sanctuary has no legal standing in the United States. Nonetheless, it was invoked in the early 1980s to prevent thousands of Central American refugees from being deported. Supporters believed federal officers were less likely to barge into a church and drag out undocumented people than to enter a home or a workplace.

“It was a much different human-rights crisis than the one we are faced with now,” the Rev. John Fife, a leader of the 1982 interdenominational sanctuary movement in Tucson, said in a telephone interview.

Fife was among 10 members of the sanctuary movement who were convicted of violating federal immigration laws in 1985 and served probation sentences of up to 10 years.

The new sanctuary movement inspired by Arellano was a response to immigration raids that have broken apart hundreds of families. Participants are offered financial, spiritual and pro bono legal services by supportive congregations and, only if necessary, a physical space that offers compassion and protection.


So far, three people have taken physical refuge in churches in downtown Los Angeles, North Hollywood and Long Beach.

Organizers expect the number of participants to grow. Although the movement is still new, Arellano’s remains “a compelling, heart-wrenching story,” said Beverly Hills lawyer Eli Kantor, spokesman for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn.

Critic Barbara Coe, founder of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, dedicated to ending what she described as “the immigration invasion destroying our nation,” disagreed.

“These churches are harboring criminals, and they should lose their federal nonprofit tax status, which strictly forbids engaging in political activity with tax dollars,” she said. “If their point is to prevent separation of undocumented families, I have a simple solution: These families can take their entire families with them.”

That kind of talk worries Arellano, who spends most days tending a small “garden of hope” -- cilantro, jalapeno peppers, onions, tomatoes and flowers -- and, as she put it, “spreading the word on the Internet and in daily interviews with reporters from around the world.”

Over the last nine months, she has been visited by more than 7,000 people, some of whom traveled from as far away as South Korea, where the Roman Catholic Church has played an important role in a sanctuary movement.


Through more than three decades of military dictatorship, the landmark Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul was not only the site of pro-democracy protests but also a refuge for activists evading authorities.

During the height of the democracy movement there in the late 1980s, hundreds of dissident students sought safety inside the cathedral atop a hill in downtown Seoul, a stone’s throw from trendy shops and restaurants.

“Sanctuary is a powerful tool,” Arellano said.

“I will remain in this church for as long as necessary.”


Times staff writer K. Connie Kang contributed to this report.