A sanctuary for immigrants


Before Elvira Arellano was arrested by federal immigration officials on Aug. 19 outside Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, few Americans were aware of the New Sanctuary Movement and its efforts to shelter illegal immigrants in this country.

Arellano had taken refuge in a sanctuary church in Chicago about a year earlier, after a judge ordered her deported -- making her the first immigrant to do so since the 1980s. But Arellano’s story was mostly ignored by the Spanish- and English-speaking media until she was arrested and subsequently deported to her native Mexico. (She had decided to risk arrest by appearing in public in L.A.) Her personal plight -- she left behind her 8-year-old U.S.-born son in Chicago -- spotlighted one of the movement’s key issues: the separation of families because of deportation. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 3.1 million children of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants are U.S. citizens by birth.

Arellano’s case has served as a new rallying cry for immigration reform and has brought the New Sanctuary Movement into the forefront of the immigration debate.


The movement’s roots go back to the 1980s, when civil wars ravaged many countries in Central America. Nearly a million victims of kidnapping, rape and other violence sought refuge in the United States, the majority of them arriving here illegally. Politicians in Washington resisted calls by human rights groups to give the displaced people protected status or to classify them as refugees so they could remain temporarily in the U.S. until the situation improved in their homelands. In protest, civic and religious groups -- St. John of God Catholic Church in San Francisco, the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson and Wellington Avenue Church in Chicago among them -- organized a grass-roots movement to shelter immigrants in churches on the assumption that federal authorities would not arrest people inside a church. Called the sanctuary movement, it became one of the most important organized acts of resistance in the latter part of the 20th century.

From its beginnings in 1982, the movement grew to include more than 200 churches, temples and synagogues, including Dolores Mission, Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church and the Proyecto Adelante of the United Methodist Church inLos Angeles. While only a small number of immigrants actually took refuge at religious sites, the public debates sparked by the sanctuary movement helped bring about several significant changes, including the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and the 1989 Central American Studies and Temporary Relief Act. These laws gave Central American refugees certain protection from deportation and created opportunities for them to legalize their status and become citizens.

In the 1990s, social and economic inequities in Mexico and other Latin American countries continued to push people north. Unable to find well-paid work at home or in maquiladoras along the U.S.-Mexico border, millions of immigrants risked capture by illegally crossing the border to find a better life. Their presence in this country has fueled an ever more strident anti-immigrant backlash, which helped scuttle Congress’ attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform this summer. Since then, border enforcement has been stepped up, workplace raids have increased and deportations have more often been carried out in inhumane ways.

Even before the latest crackdown, representatives from 18 cities, including Los Angeles; 12 religious traditions; and seven denominational and interdenominational organizations met in Washington in January to form the New Sanctuary Movement. More than 50 churches, synagogues and temples have joined the coalition, at least 35 of them in Southern California. Among the more prominent local churches are Immanuel Presbyterian Church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach, Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, Echo Park United Methodist Church and Angelica Lutheran Church. These institutions pledge to harbor undocumented people and to contribute resources to churches actually sheltering them. The idea is to move the immigrants from church to church to share responsibility, minimize risk of arrest and bear witness within different communities.

Such community-based organizations as the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of L.A., the Korean Immigrant Workers Assn. and Hermandad Mexicana also have joined the movement to educate undocumented immigrants about their rights, provide legal support and offer counsel to employers.

Seven undocumented people have taken refuge in sanctuary sites, five of them in Southern California.


The New Sanctuary Movement was not formed to provide refuge for all unauthorized people. Rather, by showcasing the circumstances of a few individuals who voluntarily come forward to claim sanctuary, it hopes to call attention to the plight of the millions of immigrants who live in fear of arrest and separation from their families. By appearing in public, as Arellano did in Los Angeles, these individuals risk arrest and deportation.It takes courage and a willingness to serve a larger cause to play this role. Although immigration is more frequently debated in economic and political terms, the New Sanctuary Movement seeks to spotlight the human, ethical and moral dilemmas it poses.

Some worry that the movement risks tarnishing its moral authority by embracing Arellano, who was convicted of identity theft in the U.S. But movement leaders insist that she and others like her still have basic human rights and that the right to keep their families together is paramount among them.

Last weekend in Los Angeles, hundreds of people marched in support of immigrant rights. Organized primarily by the New Sanctuary Movement, the event was a protest against the deportation of Arellano and also served to draw attention to the increasingly heavy hand of immigration enforcement. We asked a boy of about 9 who was marching down Broadway why he was there. This march, he said, is “for my mom and dad to get papers. . . . The police are going to get them and send my parents to Mexico. . . . I’m scared.”

His and other immigrants’ cries have galvanized religious leaders who believe that everyone, regardless of their legal status, has basic rights, among them due process, respectful treatment and, in the case of children, the right not to be separated from parents.

As Moises Escalante of the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights said, Arellano’s deportation woke them up. Church leaders are now talking about justice from their faith perspective. “These people whose voices were never heard began to be heard,” Escalante said.

Grace Dyrness is an adjunct professor in USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. Clara Irazábal is an assistant professor of urban planning and design in the school. Both are studying the New Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles.