In the wake of the May immigration raid of a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa, St. Bridget’s Catholic Church in Postville was immediately reborn as an emergency shelter for detainees’ families who wanted to be close to their loved ones or were afraid to go home. Children whose parents had been arrested also received help from the church.
Like St. Bridget’s, other houses of worship locally and across the country are opening their doors as sanctuaries — be it literally, or through support — to those without citizenship, including many who are faced with deportation.
The churches are seen as safe places free from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Even though they aren’t legally off limits, ICE officials have said they wouldn’t enter the churches.
ICE spokesman Tim Counts reiterated the agency’s stance on the matter, via e-mail: “ICE has authority to arrest anyone in violation of U.S. immigration laws anywhere in the country. Having said that, we understand that there are particular sensitivities surrounding locations such as churches and schools. Like all law enforcement agencies, ICE prioritizes enforcement efforts and we make arrests at the appropriate time and place.”
The churches’ centuries-old practice, in its latest form, has been dubbed the New Sanctuary Movement, building on the earlier Sanctuary Movement of the ’80s and ’90s.
Historically, the Sanctuary Movement was a means of countering disturbances throughout Central America. Some faith leaders went to great lengths, including federal prosecution, to deliver refugees across the Mexican border into the U.S. for safety. Additionally, nearly 500 congregations nationwide volunteered to house refugees.
By contrast, the new movement has gained momentum in response to the Bush administration’s increased measures against illegal immigration. The movement’s leaders attribute a 2006 speech from Cardinal Roger Mahoney of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles with inspiring the new movement when he called for priests and others to willfully disobey laws that would “criminalize providing humanitarian aid to persons without first checking their legal status.”
Elvira Arellano, a Mexican who, on the brink of deportation, sought sanctuary in Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church in 2006 is one high-profile example of how the movement has played out elsewhere. (Arellano was later deported after being arrested in Los Angeles, outside of another church. She remains active on the issue through an organization she founded, United Latino Families.)
Matt Gladue, executive director of the Workers Interfaith Network (WIN) in Minneapolis, which acts as a go-between for faith-based organizations that want to join the movement, agrees with Mahoney’s sentiments. The church’s role is to “lift up moral dimensions of a questionable focus,” Gladue said, which means looking beyond someone’s present status. “Usually, all we know is that someone is here, but we don’t know what brought them here. We need to pay more attention to their stories,” he remarked.
Through WIN, St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Wayzata has an agreement to stand in solidarity with immigrants. St. Luke has been on the forefront of the Sanctuary Movement: In the 1980s, it harbored Renee Larin, a war refugee from El Salvador whose U.S. citizenship was finally secured last spring. (He lives with his family in South Minneapolis.)
The man’s six-week stay at the church made national news, including a segment on “60 Minutes.” Though its more recent actions haven’t gained as much notoriety, the Rev. Brad Frostlee says the congregation has remained committed to the cause. This year it sent a group of members to Tucson, Ariz., to meet with residents, border agents, civic leaders and others to discuss U.S. border issues. “We’re dealing with a broken immigration system,” said Frostlee. “We need to be mindful in terms of taking care of all people, including those residents who aren’t citizens.”
Patrick Ness, public policy manager for the office of social justice at Catholic Charities in St. Paul, brings groups such as St. Luke together with others in regular monthly meetings to build awareness and lobby for comprehensive immigration policy reform. “A lot of our work is about connecting Anglo Catholics, building solidarity,” he said. Two decades ago there was a lot of energy around the topic. “Now it’s bubbling up again,” he vouched.
Naturally, not everyone is supportive: Last year, a church in Simi Valley, Calif., received a bill for $40,000 from the city — the amount that officials claimed the city needed to cover the price of police security deployed for protests against its sanctuary for a woman and her son, reportedly. (The fine was eventually voided.) Meanwhile, Ness testified, “Some people don’t agree that the church should even be involved in social justice advocacy.”
But others are passionate about the cause. Barbara McIlquham, a White Bear Lake resident, is involved in the effort through her work with the Sisters of St. Joseph, the founders of St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul. Being the descendant of first-generation immigrants from Germany and Ireland has instilled empathy in her. “I grew up with people speaking with accents,” said McIlquham, who teaches English to immigrants. “I want to stand up for those who have no place, no voice, wealth or language skills because that’s where I come from.”
Bob Radecki, who attends Risen Savior Catholic Church in Burnsville, where a Spanish-language mass is held on Sundays, participates in an immigration action team through the church. His wife serves on the board for Project Puente in El Paso, Texas, which takes people on immersion trips to learn about the U.S. border. “My wife and I both believe that the mission of the church is to support and do what we can for those in need,” he said. “It concerns rights for immigrants and for all people. If the church won’t stand up for people who are trying to make a better life, who will?”