Friday, May 11, 2007

Churches as Sanctuary for Illegal Immigrants


According to an AP article out of Los Angeles, "Churches in five big U.S. cities plan to protect illegal immigrants from deportation, offering their buildings as sanctuary if need be, as they pressure lawmakers to create a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants." It further reports that "On Wednesday, a Catholic church in Los Angeles and a Lutheran church in North Hollywood each sheltered one person, and churches in other cities plan to do so in coming months as part of the 'New Sanctuary Movement.'"

This 'movement' according to the AP is "loosely based on a movement in the 1980's, when churches harbored Central American refugees fleeing wars in their home countries." In an on-line newsletter for the "New Sanctuary Movement," they state that,

"In the early 1980's, thousands of Central American refugees poured into the United States, fleeing life-threatening repression and extensive human rights violations by their governments.

At the time, federal immigration policy would have denied the majority political asylum simply because their governments were allies of the U.S. Many of these refugees had actively participated in the liberation theology movement and naturally sought protection from congregations.

Many Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations and temples responded positively -- offering these refugees social services and advocacy support as well as engaging actively in efforts to change federal immigration policy. These congregations, united under the banner of the Sanctuary Movement, also pledged that they would not reveal the identities of these refugees, even if they were arrested or jailed for doing so.

The Sanctuary Movement was ultimately successful both in changing national policy and in protecting tens of thousands of individuals and families, enabling them to start a new life in the U.S.

Now, over 25 years later, religious leaders across a broad spectrum of denominations from 10 states are coming together to begin a New Sanctuary Movement to accompany and protect immigrant families who are facing the violation of their human rights in the form of hatred, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation."

Here in the Northwoods immigration is not a burning issue as it is for the southern boarder of the country or in the larger metropolitan areas. We have some migrant workers who come to the larger dairy and potato farms, but I suspect the numbers are insignificant compared to the overall population. Thus, churches here probably have only a cursory interest at best.

Still, the theological rationale for such a movement does impact the church regardless of where it is located. Technically the Sanctuary Movement is a form of civil disobedience, and thus should be examined as to whether it is scripturally justified. Historically the church has been far more involved in such civil resistance in the latter half of the last century, it would appear, than in the first half. The thrust of such resistance seems to stem heavily from the 60's onward as churches became involved in the anti-war movement as a reaction against policies in Viet Nam. Such resistance, however, came more from the liberal denominations and sectors of the church than from the conservative, which became political 'insiders' in the 1980's with the rise of the New Evangelicals.

Immigration and the status of illegals is a hot-button topic at present, even polarizing in its strongly held views on both sides of the issue. As a conservative Lutheran I am admittedly cautious of such a movement, especially since it involves the possibility of directly opposing legitimate legal statutes. I can understand the desire of some to protect the innocent and victimized from further trauma. However, there are also good reasons why there is a structured policy for immigration. Any country has the right to limit the number of people who wish to be citizens, and they have a vested interest in protecting their own security, especially now in a time of increased terrorism.

I would be very supportive of doing everything legally possible to protect immigrants and allow them an opportunity to enjoy the land I call home. But to use my church as a sanctuary to deliberately shield them from the law? I know that immigration policy is far from perfect. But is it such that it actually runs counter to God's will, or is it simply a case of bureaucratic complexities? Civil disobedience is not prohibited to the Christian, and historic examples can be provided which show how it has indeed influenced policy in the U.S. But we must be cautious in our use of such 'disobedience.' For God has appointed the governing authorities as his servants for our good (Romans 13). This we dare not ignore or overlook.


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