Yolanda, who--for now--has taken the last name of Sanctuary, does not cry easily; but today is unusual. An essentially merry 52-year-old from Guatemala, a deacon in her church who is more likely to break into her favorite song (Dios Es Aquí) than complain, she calmly recounts the long story of bad luck and worse lawyers plaguing her 18-year attempt to get U.S. papers. She is impassive while reporting a judge's ruling that her daughter Anabella, 17, would "not be affected by my deportation." But then she recalls the sudden sense of being hunted that put her on her current path. "After I got my final deportation notice," she says, "a friend called and told me there were unmarked police cars in front of my building." There was no raid, but that night there was a video of one on TV. She holds her hands together as if cuffed. "I saw how people were being tied like animals," she says, "and I thought, When it happens to me, my daughter will watch as the agents carry me off like a slave." Now tears well up.
She weeps again, sitting by Anabella before a group of priests, ministers, a rabbi, a cantor and a Muslim Koranic chanter in the Angelica Lutheran Church in Los Angeles' Pico-Union district. Her pastor, the Rev. Frank Alton of nearby Immanuel Presbyterian, is preaching her into her new life here under a kind of benevolent house arrest. Alton's text is Leviticus 19: 33: "The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Alton concludes, "The New Sanctuary Movement is a light in the darkness, water in the desert. We need to model what it means not just to give the minimum but to treat immigrants like citizens and love them like we love ourselves."
The New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), founded in May, has coordinated what it calls prophetic hospitality (there is no legal right to asylum in churches, but immigration authorities tend not to raid them) for eight undocumented immigrants in five cities. Each, like Yolanda, has a story of personal integrity and family unity under attack by immigration enforcement. They have drawn considerable press, but they also seem a bit packaged: focusing on eight undocumented immigrants out of 12 million allows for intense cherry-picking and hardly suggests a mass movement. An anti-immigration blogger derided NSM as a "bed-and-breakfast dog-and-pony show."
Yet a closer look at the group's campaign suggests that it has both substance and significant promise. Four new host congregations will announce themselves in August, and more are in the pipeline: NSM has received hundreds of calls from interested congregations and participated in 33 phone conferences and 15 visits working out the details. The movement draws from an actual grass-roots network but has also garnered support within bodies as big as the United Methodist Church. Its solid biblical underpinnings make its issue particularly promising for the resurgent religious left, and it may peel conservative Protestant Hispanics from the right. It speaks in absolutes--God calls believers to tend to the unfortunate, however they got to the U.S.--but so do pro-lifers and anti-death-penalty activists. "I think it's an issue where churches can take the lead," says Bishop Beverly Shamana of the United Methodist California-Nevada Conference. "We are taught to follow Jesus and risk transformation--and risk changing the status quo."
The movement was inspired by a prelate and a single mother. In 2005 Roger Mahony, Los Angeles' Roman Catholic Cardinal, stirred immigrants' rights activists by vowing to disobey a congressional bill that, had it become law, could arguably have criminalized any kindness toward someone who turned out to be undocumented. The bill failed, but Mahony's words helped spark nationwide pro-immigrant demonstrations. Then last August, Elvira Arellano took sanctuary in a Chicago church rather than leave her 7-year-old son. (She is still there.) At this point, says NSM co-founder the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, several activist Los Angeles clergy wondered, "We can't ignore this. What can we do?" They found their answer in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when congregations risking arrest by harboring Central American political refugees helped change public opinion in their favor. Salvatierra, a Lutheran, opened her house as a young seminarian and felt that the movement "awakened the moral imagination of the nation." Now she hopes to achieve the same with the undocumented. "We want to make visible these families' status not as faceless border jumpers but as children of God," she says. "And when they are ripped apart by raids and deportations, they become the suffering 'strangers within your gates' that the Bible tells us to aid."
NSM congregations may provide hospitality, legal or material help, or advocacy. Thus in San Francisco recently a nun and five ministers accompanied the parents of a desperately ill infant to request a humanitarian stay of deportation (they received it), and a Seattle group sent out an alarm about a coming raid to fellow believers in Portland, Ore., who then videotaped it for possible human-rights violations.
On a grander scale, the 1.2 million-- member United Church of Christ has resolved to work in conjunction with NSM, and Shamana's Methodist conference has committed to educate congregations on how they can participate in its actions. An official with the General Board of Church and Society for the 8 million--member United Methodist mother church, while stressing that he is not quoting church policy, says his office recommends sanctuary as "an option for a lot of churches and necessary for some situations."
Some of this receptivity may reflect biblical viability. On immigration (as opposed to, say, gay marriage) it is liberals who get to cite specific verses to sanction their cause, while anti-immigration conservatives must fall back on a "sense" of Scripture. "In the Old Testament, God speaks of being the God of the aliens about 103 times. That's a lot," says Paul Lim, a Vanderbilt University Divinity School professor writing a book on the theology of immigration. The New Testament, he notes, features not just Jesus' famous criterion for the saved--"I was a stranger, and you welcomed me"--but, in its original Greek, an endorsement of philoxenia, xenophobia's antonym. Sanctuary foes must turn to Paul's much more general advice in Romans to "let every person be subject to the governing authorities."