Immigration activist arrested after year in refuge

August 24, 2007

Does offering sanctuary place churches in ‘Illegal’ territory? Co-author of Cal-Nev immigration reform resolution says ‘No’

The concept of sanctuary has been widely disputed since the August 19 arrest in California and subsequent deportation of Elvira Arellano – an illegal immigrant who had taken refuge in her United Methodist Church in Chicago for one year. But it is precisely on behalf of illegals that sanctuary was ever established, according to a California-Nevada member of clergy.

The Rev. Phil Lawson, retired, co-authored a resolution calling for a “just and compassionate immigration reform,” adopted by the Cal-Nev Annual Conference Session in June. He told Instant Connection the concept of sanctuary was established in Numbers 35:9-15, 22-29.

Please note that sanctuary is for persons who break the law, but cannot get a fair hearing about the circumstances. So sanctuary is exactly for so-called ‘illegals!’” he said.

Are churches breaking the law when they offer sanctuary?

God decided that such an institution was necessary because there are many times when we humans injure – or even kill – another, accidentally, innocently. In a time of blood revenge, an eye for an eye, such accidents would be further harmed by relatives avenging the death without a just hearing of the reasons for the hurt or death.

“Most of the families [seeking sanctuary] within our congregations and communities are persons who may have ‘broken’ a law, perhaps years ago as a youth, or by over-staying a visa. They cannot get a fair hearing. Homeland Security is picking them up without fair hearings of the circumstances, present realities, that might call for mercy, forgiveness,” he said.

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, episcopal leader of the United Methodist Northern Illinois Annual Conference, agreed, affirming that his Conference stands behind Arellano and Adalberto UMC.

“We have supported this church in prayer as it offered Elvira the chance to practice the centuries-old tradition of sanctuary, which draws upon a tradition of non-violent protest and civil disobedience,” he said.

Seeking refuge

Arellano, 32, is a member of Adalberto UMC. She and her eight-year-old son, Saul (who is a U.S. citizen) were granted sanctuary there on August 15, 2006. On the one-year anniversary of their life inside the church walls Arellano announced that, after several weeks of praying and fasting, she had decided to leave the church and begin a nationwide campaign for immigration reform.

She added that she was fully aware of the risks of possible arrest, jail time or deportation.

“I accept whatever God gives me to accept, but I ask my community to join me as we walk together for our dignity,” she said.

The following day she slipped out of the church unnoticed and traveled to California. Three days later she was arrested after leaving a Los Angeles Catholic church where she had urged people to lobby the California delegation in Congress and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to take up immigration reform after the summer recess.

Chicago immigration activist Emma Lozano, wife of the Rev. Walter Coleman, pastor of Adalberto, was with Arellano and her son when she was arrested, according to news reports. Coleman told The Chicago Tribune that Arellano was deported to Tijuana, Mexico, but was in good spirits and ready to continue the struggle against separation of families due to the exportation of illegal immigrants. Her son remained in the United States and was under the care of Coleman and Lozano, according to news reports.

Crossing borders

Arellano began her journey in Michoacán, Mexico, where she was the youngest of five children. Her father was an agricultural laborer who lost the land that he had farmed. Arellano moved to a bigger city in Mexico, hoping to find work as a secretary to help support her family.

“I had a very beautiful life there,” she said, “but tough economic [conditions].”

She walked across the border into the United States in 1997 with hopes of earning enough money to support her family in Mexico. She gave birth to Saul and was working cleaning airplanes at O'Hare International Airport when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested her and ordered her deportation in 2002.

“This country says that I broke the law by crossing the border and working without proper papers. I did that,” Arellano acknowledges. “Yet I am a worker, and you offered me work. I am a consumer, and you accepted my hard-won earnings. I am a taxpayer, and you took my taxes.”

Lawson noted, “The current immigration crisis is heightened because of the large numbers of Latinos from Mexico, many of whom have been forced off their farms because of economic policies and the Free Trade system. So it is our policies that have forced millions to seek jobs and wages to support their families.

“When our borders were less armed,” he added, “these workers would go back and forth with goods and money for their families. As we have restricted entrance at the borders, now families are forced to stay here and not risk traveling back and forth.”

Arrest decried by faith community

At the time of her arrest, Arellano was in Los Angeles to join forces with New Sanctuary Movement families. The New Sanctuary Movement is a national interfaith coalition of organizations dedicated to comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. It pledges to open congregation doors and hearts to immigrants and their families who face deportation.

Charlene Tschirhart, Director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Northern California, forwarded to Instant Connection reaction to the arrest by two of New Sanctuary’s coordinating organizations, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice-California (CLUE-CA) and Interfaith Worker Justice.

“We are deeply saddened by ICE’s [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] action and we are praying for Elvira and the hundreds of thousands of families that are in jeopardy of being ripped apart,” said Kim Bobo, Executive Director, Interfaith Worker Justice. “We call on ICE to stop raids and deportation until the Congress enacts fair and comprehensive immigration reform.”

Alexia Salvatierra, Interim Executive Director, CLUE-California, added, “We invite people of faith to join the New Sanctuary Movement.”

Citing increased ICE raids in many cities in the Conference this spring, particularly in Latino communities, the resolution adopted by the California-Nevada Annual Conference calls for “an immediate stop” to raids “that terrorize our communities” and for “a critical examination of ICE’s detention and removal plans.”

The resolution also establishes formation of a Special Immigration Taskforce to address the long- and short-term needs of immigrants living in our communities, and pledges Conference efforts toward education of congregations on the New Sanctuary Movement.

Lawson said, “It was because of the suffering of so many people … that I was moved to assist in preparing the resolution on immigration.”

- UMNS contributed to this report. UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey.