Acton Institute Powerblog

Evaluating the New Sanctuary Movement

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Across America a group of Christians have banded together to promote a movement to protect illegal aliens from deportation. This is not a new phenomenon at all. What is a little different, at least about some aspects of this renewal of an older movement, is that it has now focused primarily on protecting Mexicans, who are living illegally in the U. S., from deportation. A celebrated case is unfolding day-by-day here in Chicago so I hear a great deal about this on a regular basis. I am not entirely sure how to think about the movement or this particular case. (As is true with many similar issues there seems to be no simple, single, obvious answer.) I see some things clearly here but then there are some issues that seem less clear to me. 

The Chicago story is a pretty straightforward sanctuary case. Elvira Arellano, 32, came to America as an undocumented Mexican alien in 1997 to find work. She was deported shortly thereafter and then returned and worked at several different jobs, including child care. She moved to Illinois in 2000 because she had friends in Chicago. Here she took a job cleaning planes at O’Hare International Airport. While she was in the U. S. illegally she got pregnant and had a son, Saul, who is now eight years old. This means Elvira’s son Saul is a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birth place.  Elvira was arrested in 2002 at O’Hare and later convicted of working under a false Social Security number. Last August, 2006, she was to surrender to authorities but decided to take refuge inside a Methodist church in Chicago. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials consider her a fugitive because she failed to surrender for deportation.

Elvira now intends to leave her sanctuary at the Methodist Church and lobby Congress for immigration reform, even if it means she will be arrested and deported. She says that if she is deported her son will stay in the U.S. Her plans for D.C. are to pray, with a group of immigration rights people, for eight hours on the National Mall on September 12th.  Her supporters have invited others to join her in prayer and to participate in a boycott from work, school and shopping on that specific date. However, on Monday, August 20, she was taken into custody in Sacramento, choosing to come out of her church Chicago sanctuary sooner than she had at first stated. Deportation plans are now in the works as of today.

The proposal that Elvira supports by her efforts is one that says there must be immigration reform which would include a safe-harbor visa program for illegal immigrants parents who have U. S. citizen children and a five-year temporary visa for those who qualify under national security standards. She adds, “Families should not be separated. I understand fear because I fear being torn from the arms of my son.”

Consider this issue as dispassionately as possible. (I doubt this can be done by most of us if we are really, really honest.)

Update: Arellano has been deported to Mexico. Read Brooke Levitske’s July 11 Acton commentary on the New Sanctuary Movement here. — Ed.
1.    This woman is willing to leave her son in the U.S. and return to Mexico without him. This says several things to me, some good and some very troubling. Is economic opportunity so important to her that she would give up rearing her son so he can have greater financial security? Is this heroism or selfishness? Strong feelings will exist on both sides. Since I do not know what conditions she escaped in Mexico I do not know what to make of her stance in some ways.

2.    There is no question that this woman is here illegally. Further, there is no question that she has defied U.S. authority by her actions. The argument is that she has done so out of conscience because the laws, in her case and others, are not just, either in the U. S. or Mexico.

3.    She has already made a choice that has impacted her son’s life profoundly, living in the second floor of a church while she cannot go outside and he can. The emotional stress of this has to be immense.

4.    She is very serious about her cause or she would not risk deportation by going to Washington, or to Sacramento where she was arrested on Monday. You have to admire Elvira for her courage. How many of us would take a stand on anything that might bring us real inconvenience?

5.    Her illegal status does not make her a criminal, at least not in the proper sense of the term, thus it would be helpful if this just distinction was made by strong anti-illegal immigrant conservatives. Emotions run high on both sides of this issue and a lot of this response is filled with fear language, especially on the conservative side. The liberal side offers us a lot of promises with little to back up the real reform needed with regard to this difficult problem.

So, is the sanctuary movement a good or just one? Is Elvira right to stay and fight the laws that she thinks are unjust? Is she right to risk the raising her own son under her care as his mom so that he can have a “better” life by staying in America even if she is deported back to Mexico? And is the church right to support this, why or why not?

While this debate rages emotions still run very high on the problem of Mexican illegal workers within America. The estimates of how many there are run as high as 12 million. Congress has debated and argued and nothing has been done. We remain in a state of limbo and personally I think the strong conservatives are as much to blame for this impasse as any group. The conservative movement has opposed all proposals for immigration reform so strongly that we are left with nothing for now.

I don’t have a simple solution. I do know that we need to have this conversation among thoughtful Christians and we need to learn how to listen better and think this through more dispassionately than we seem able to do. The church, in general, disappoints me in that it either runs away from this tough issue or it adopts a polarizing position on one side or the other. This makes people like Elvira newsworthy and semi-tragic. What do you think?

John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening." His home blog is located here.

John Armstrong John H. Armstrong is founder and director of ACT 3, a ministry aimed at "encouraging the church, through its leadership, to pursue doctrinal and ethical reformation and to foster spiritual awakening."


  • Mike

    1. Shame on the Church
    – She is a criminal.
    – The church only wants these illegals for their money and head count.

    2. Why is the child still here in the US, he should be with his mother in Mexico.
    – He is her responsibility and not TAX payers.

    3. Illegal workers wages are raising and that means more legal Americans are being pushed out of jobs.

    4. Illegal’s all do not work in the fields or clean our office buildings. They are factory workers, nurses, truck drivers, welders, and even some in IT.

    5. We are being pushed out of our own country and our political leaders are letting them, because business wants cheap labor here at home.

  • Dan VandeBunte

    We should start by not getting duped by the subtle changes in language.

    “Elvira Arellano, 32, came to America as an undocumented Mexican alien in 1997 to find work.”

    The use of the phrase “undocumented … alien” is nothing more than a euphemism for “entered the country illegally”.

    We should also not get caught up in the spin.

    “Elvira now intends to leave her sanctuary at the Methodist Church and lobby Congress for immigration reform, even if it means she will be arrested and deported. She says that if she is deported her son will stay in the U.S.”

    This means that poor little Saul will be separated from his mother by his mother’s own choice.

    We should also stop to consider exactly what this proposal means.

    “The proposal that Elvira supports by her efforts is one that says there must be immigration reform which would include a safe-harbor visa program for illegal immigrants parents who have U. S. citizen children.”

    This means that on top of all of the pre-existing (and, eh-hem, legal) ways to become a US citizen we must also add; “sneak in and have a baby”.

    We should also pay close attention to the duplicitous way in which the woman defends her position.

    “She says that if she is deported her son will stay in the U.S.” + “Families should not be separated.” = contradiction. Where I come from, if you have to contradict yourself to defend your position, then your position is wrong.

    We should never reward people for breaking our laws.

    The United States is a sovereign nation whose government has been given its authority by God. There are legal ways for people from other countries to become legalized citizens. Immigration laws in this country are reasonable (even if some people do not like them). I find it deplorable that any Church claiming to be a church of God would overlook this simple fact. God’s church is in the United States and in Mexico. The Church, in my opinion, has no stake in this.

  • Mark E Roberts

    Progress is possible if we work on pieces of the problem rather than insisting on attempting to fix everything at once. Please see [url=]”Getting Reform Right: The White House’s Immigration Initiative”[/url] by Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., (August 10, 2007).

  • Chris

    She is a criminal. period. She delibrately broke several laws and expects to get away with that because she wants to. She is no hero or icon or anything except a woman who with forethought broke laws to get here, stay here and work here. It is not a right. It is a priveledge and she and those like her should think of it in that way. No doubt she had a son, not because she wanted a child but, as an anchor for her to stay. She certainly has no qualms about using him. That is true pornography to me – using a child to bolster her aims, hers, not his. If she says that Mexico is “her” country, then let her stay there. I for one, do not want a liar(using someone else’s SS#), a cheat (using someone else’s SS#), a thief (SS# again and all other services including hospital care to have the child presumably)to think she has the “RIGHT” to do what she wants with no consequences. Since she did all of those things I do not understand why anyone can say she is not a criminal. I bet the person whose SS# she used thinks of her as a criminal – after all that person had to pay taxes on her pay. Unless you lived in that person’s shoes – don’t say what she did is not criminal. Been there, done that, got the bill – trust me, she is a criminal.

  • I wrote this blog to stir discussion and to listen to voices from within the Church. I am profoundly concerned that we do not listen well when some issues become hotly political and fiercely emotional. The presence of millions of Mexicans (illegally) within our borders is a watershed issue for many of us. Strong feelings run very deep, as was demonstrated by the President’s attempt to get something done on this issue in the Congress.

    When I read many these responses I actually find myself more saddened by the rhetoric and response than I expected. A friend wrote: “In the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy 28 & 29, God warns that it we don’t obey Him, a people of an unknown tongue will increase and we will decrease; they will be the head and we will be the tail. This is definitely happening in America. It is just a logical conclusion to our actions.” We have sown the wind and we are now reaping the whirlwind. Admittedly, the immigration issue is very complex and won’t go away by the next election for sure. I believe that a major concern for Christians should be to be free ourselves so we that won’t be in a position of having to oppress strangers contrary to God’s will. The issue of divine hospitality is so biblical so ancient, and so connected that I wonder if we know our Bibles nearly as well as we think we do.

    Another person wrote on my person blog spot this comment: “John, as someone who has built long term friendships with many Mexicans, this is not just an issue of having greater financial security. This is a life and death issue for many. Move to America and increase your life span by decades or stay in Mexico and face hunger, drink dirty water, contract disease and face death. Torah is clear, preserving life trumps almost all laws even if lesser laws have to be broken. Walk a mile in any Mexican’s shoes and I have no doubt the majority of Americans would make the same choice that they have. Choose life! Or is that just a cheap slogan [we] like to throw around for political gain?”

    I find much in these comments to make me search harder for a solution to this issue that doesn’t embrace the reductionism I see in the neat, simple and so-called “conservative” response that are too often associated with the question of illegal alien Mexicans in our midst. Anger, in this case, does not work the work of God.

  • Karl Helft

    The article and the subsequent comments walk around he central issue that barely never gets mentioned,it is a third rail, i.e. intent, motivation to wantonly break the law, forget passports, borders, visas, I simply have a right to squat down in the US because I have decdided it. This thumb in our eyes has to stop but will not until the population shows a will to interdict it. Eventually we will have to criminalize illegal entries and overstays.

  • You would have a hard time demonstrating this argument from the justice and mercy themes that run like a thread through the Deuteronomic law codes of the Bible. Again, this might seem like justice but we should also adopt an approach that seeks mercy and compassion or we have missed the purpose of law, at least biblically informed law.

  • Leo Toby

    As a Roman Catholic of 67 years an an inactive Catholic for the last three years it is amazing that Church leadership on the one hand talks about the rule of law and on the other ignores the law. The Bishops and many politicians refuse the enforcement of current laws on immigration, which if had been enforced all along we would not be in the current situation. Demanding that new laws be inacted will result in the same non-enforcement.
    Enforcing current laws to the full is all we need to resolve the problem but the elites cannot see the forest for the trees.

  • Dan VandeBunte

    Your comment stinks of “heaven-on-earthism”. The Church exists in Mexico and can show Elvira Justice and Mercy and Compassion there. She does not have to be in the United States for the Church to meet its moral obligation. Why aren’t the Churches who are part of the Sanctuary movement working harder to make life in Mexico better instead of working so hard to circumvent the laws of a nation whose sovereignty and authority are given by the very God they are claiming to serve?

    You also make an appeal to “biblically informed law” but you have made no attempt to show that simply allowing illegals to stay here is anything other than biblically informed anarchy. It would seem to me that a biblically informed immigration policy would not necessarily be a free for all. How would a policy which was fair and reasonable be unbiblical? In order for such a policy to rise to the level of biblically informed law that policy would also need to be enforced.

    Also, the increasing economic cost of allowing so many illegals to stay here, with the myriad of benefits the United States has inexplicably lavished them with, would seem to be unjust and discompassionate to actual US citizens who end up paying for it all. Please explain how that is biblically informed?

    I understand your desire for biblically informed laws, but you have done nothing to explain why you think biblically informed law implies an amnesty policy. Why could biblically informed law not imply an immigration policy that is fair for all potential immigrants? This “biblio-amnesty” you seem to hope is the right solution would benefit Mexicans almost exlusively. A fair (and IMO a biblically informed) policy would be a reasonable policy that applies to all and is enforced for all.

  • Harry Winters

    John, I am quite disturbed about the level of anger and hatred people have expressed in response to your blog. It seemed to me that you attempted to keep a civil tongue and to honestly look at the issue. Almost everything that followed was completely uncivil. I find it interesting to hear how deep fear and hatred are in Americans, especially when we like to view ourselves as loving and strong.

    Anyhow, Christians everywhere should think more about the Kingdom of God than they do the earthly kingdoms in which they were born. What does it mean for Christians to have brothers and sisters everywhere in the world, even within countries that we call our enemy? How should churches in particular countries support the Church universal, or particular denominations in other countries? What role does the theological idea of hospitality play in how we think and act? What truly is mercy and justice? For example, I can imagine that the immigrants who leave countries are a “brain drain” from their countries; perhaps even a “labor drain”; creating a vacuum.

    I hope that Christians will begin to look at their Lord and Savior as the model of grace that they are to be in this world. It doesn’t matter if you think illegal immigrants should stay or go, we all should respond to them in love.

  • William Garland

    She entered the United States twice in violation of 8 U.S.C. 1325. The first entry is a federal misdemeanor, which some contend is not a “crime” in the technical sense of that term, but second and subsequent illegal entries are without doubt crimes. However, she is not, in a formal legal sense, a “criminal” since there has no conviction, but certainly is one in the common useage of the term. She seeks a profit or advantage as a result of wrongdoing, i.e., to remain in the United States permanently without having applied for a visa and waited her turn, thereby being preferred over those who have obeyed the law. No one should be permitted to obtain an advantage as a result of wrongdoing. Had she obeyed the law she and her child would be Mexican citizens. She is properly deported and should apply for a visa and wait her turn. If she is permitted to obtain an advantage by her wrongdoing this will encourage others to do so in anticipation of being likewise advantaged. The same rationale applies to all who entered the United States illegally.

  • William Garland

    Please note that entering the United States without proper authorization is already criminalized, though a first offense is only a misdeneanor. Plesase see 8 U.S.C. 1325. Commentators often say that illegal immigration is not a crime, but fail to distinguish between: (1) those who entered lawfully and then stayed after their visa expired, which is not now a criminal offense, and (2) those whose initial entry is without authorization which is a criminal offense.

  • Liz

    I am trying to get a dialogue started in my own church community about the issues and injustices facing immigrants. I live in a fairly conservative, upstate NY area, so I suspect it will take some time. Like the writer, I see this as a very complex issue, one on which I am not yet clear where I stand. I do know, however, that dialogue and true reflection, rather than political posturing, are the only way that we will address this issues with compassion and moral clarity.

  • William E. Garland

    A dialogue involves a give and take, considering differing views, so in addition to injustices facing immigrants please also consider the injustices they perpetrate. Most disfavor not immigrants but the conduct of those who, having violated US law, now seek to be advantagted over those who obeyed it. I think you will find conservative leaning participants well informed on the issues and capable of addressing them with moral clarity, though their resolution of the issues may not comport with what you deem “compassion.”