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Churches Providing Sanctuary for Illegal Immigrants

June 18, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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WALTER “SLIM” COLEMAN, Chicago Activist: No child should have to go through this kind of pressure.

JIM LEHRER: Every weekday afternoon for the last nine months, longtime Chicago activist and minister Walter “Slim” Coleman has driven 8-year-old Saul Arellano home from school. Saul’s home during this time has been a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of Coleman’s storefront church, Adalberto Methodist in Humboldt Park on the city’s near west side.

Saul and his mother, Elvira, have lived here ever since she defied deportation orders last August. In this country illegally since 1997, Arellano was convicted in 2003 for using a false Social Security number, and deportation orders were issued. She was granted three extensions in order to treat her son’s hyperactive medical condition, but when the last expired, instead of reporting to immigration authorities, Arellano took sanctuary in the church apartment.

Surveillance monitors are mounted in the living room in case the church is raided. Arellano has not left the church once since she arrived.

ELVIRA ARELLANO (through translator): When I arrived at this church, they opened their doors to me. They made me feel welcome to become part of this church, and the most important thing is, they gave me space to be able to continue to struggle to be able to stay here with my son.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Arellanos’ experience at Adalberto Church has helped inspire a larger sanctuary movement across the country. Last month, a coalition of faith-based organizations from five major cities, including Chicago, announced it would shield undocumented immigrants from deportation, offering legal help, financial support, and, if needed, sanctuary.

MARTHA PIERCE, Chicago Metro Sanctuary Alliance: It’s a big thing for a congregation to take on, because we regard it really as a real commitment to supporting these people and walking with them in whatever happens with them.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Martha Pierce of the group Chicago Sanctuary is helping coordinate church involvement in the new effort. At a recent meeting, several local religious representatives discussed the need to step in where they think the nation’s immigration laws have failed.

MICHAEL MCCONNELL, American Friends Service Committee: Mexico, tremendous hospitality to us coming there. Why can’t we have that same hospitality here for people who are forced to leave their country, in this case, economic refugees, rather than political refugees?

SIDNEY HOLLANDER, Kam Isaiah Israel Synagogue: Welcoming the stranger in the Hebrew Bible really refers to welcoming, you might say, resident alien, the foreigner who lives in your midst, in our midst. And this applies absolutely precisely to the undocumented immigrants we’re talking about now.

Dangers of providing sanctuary

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But harboring undocumented aliens is a crime, and current and former federal immigration officials we talked with say these churches and activists are traveling down a very dangerous road. Brian Perryman is the former federal immigration director for the Chicago region.

BRIAN PERRYMAN, Former Immigration Official: I think that they need to consider the fact that they might place themselves in jeopardy, in terms of violation of federal law, and I'm not talking about misdemeanors. I'm talking about felonies. So I think that congregations need to think long and hard about that. If they have a person that they believe should be assisted, then they need to pursue every provision of the law to try to get their situation corrected under the law.

KIM BOBO, Interfaith Worker Justice: We believe what we are doing is really calling forth a higher law, which is really God's law, of caring for the immigrant.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Activist Kim Bobo, of Interfaith Worker Justice, connects immigrants in fear of deportation with those churches providing sanctuary. On her office patio outside Edgewater Presbyterian Church on Chicago's north side, Bobo declared that the notion of providing sanctuary is rooted in American tradition.

KIM BOBO: Throughout our history, when systems and laws have been so broken, the religious community has challenged those in some public ways. So under slavery, we saw congregations being a part of the underground railroad; during the civil rights movement, we saw congregations challenging the laws; and so again today, and also in the '80s, we saw congregations stepping forth and providing sanctuary for immigrants and refugees coming in from Central America.

Chicago's sanctuary program

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In fact, Chicago was a central front in a sanctuary movement in the mid-1980s, when churches and synagogues helped resettle refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Five hundred congregations across the country sheltered some 1,000 people who had been denied political asylum in the United States.

Many of those asylum-seekers protected by the '80s movement are still in the country today.

JOSE OLIVA: My dad literally had to sell blood, sometimes on a weekly basis, just for extra cash because we didn't have money to buy clothes or we didn't have money to pay the gas bill and that kind of thing.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Jose Oliva was a 13-year-old in 1985, walking the north side streets of Albany Park, searching for work and food with his father. His family fled war-torn Guatemala after government forces threatened Jose's mother with death for trying to improve the learning environment in the school where she taught. Unable to get political asylum in the U.S., the family entered on a tourist visa and stayed.

Today, Oliva is a permanent resident and one of Kim Bobo's staffers at Interfaith Worker Justice. He credits the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, or JRC, on Chicago's north side, for providing his family with invaluable support.

JOSE OLIVA: When we came here and we lived in this building, we actually didn't have enough money to buy food every week, so my parents got most of the food that we got donated through a variety of different congregations that were part of the sanctuary movement. The JRC was particularly important in connecting us, both with an apartment that we could afford, and with other individuals that were able to support us.

New sanctuary movement

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Today, many of those who stand to benefit from the new sanctuary movement likely will come from the Hispanic-dominated west side neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village. Taquerias and food vendors dot the landscape here, as do colorful murals painted by a growing number of local artists.

Many small, unmarked art studios have popped up, including this one, called Polvo, "Dust" in Spanish. Elvia Rodriguez Ochoa is a teacher-activist and an artist who shares space here. She said several neighborhood raids by machine-gun-toting immigration agents in recent months have startled the community and sent many into hiding.

And so news of a new sanctuary movement has been celebrated on the streets here, where the number of undocumented immigrants is unknown, but estimated to be very high.

ELVIA RODRIGUEZ OCHOA, Teacher-Activist: A lot of these families felt very afraid and felt that there was nobody they could turn to that would understand what they were going through. And with the sanctuary movement surging, then all of a sudden, it's like, "Oh, well, I can go to this church. They're trying to help out. They're trying to understand."

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Though Elvira Arellano is the only person in sanctuary here whose case is publicly known, activists estimate there may be as many as 100 others being sheltered here as part of this new sanctuary movement. Arellano said she and her son, Saul, will stay in hiding for as long as necessary, that God is on their side.

That's not how former immigration official Brian Perryman sees it.

BRIAN PERRYMAN: I think she's exploiting her son. And I think that she really has -- and most immigration experts will tell you -- that she has absolutely no chance at prevailing in litigation. And, In fact, she has attempted to prevail in litigation and lost. So I don't really see her as a sanctuary person, per se. She's a person who is trying to use her son to protect herself from removal.

ELVIRA ARELLANO (through translator): Why would I take him to a country that he doesn't know, that is not his country? This is his country, and here is where he'll have the opportunities that don't exist in my country.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Arellano, who only goes as far as her back garden, could be arrested at any time, according to immigration officials, but they consider her a low priority. It remains to be seen how the authorities will react if more undocumented immigrants choose to follow Elvira Arellano's lead and seek sanctuary.