Churches face dilemma when offering support to migrants

Churches face dilemma when offering support to migrants

June 17, 2007
Written by Bennett Guess

It's a question that vexes many in the often-silent middle of the immigration debate: What is legal -- and what is right?

That dilemma permeates discussions in churches in Portland, Ore., after 167 suspected illegal workers were detained in a June 12 raid at Portland's Fresh Del Monte Produce plant. In community-room meetings and in pulpits, Portland's church leaders are asking whether they should provide sanctuary for illegal immigrants.

Some church representatives have started an e-mail list of churches with entries like "open to those needing shelter" or "can provide food, money."

Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland has officially signed on with the New Sanctuary Movement, a national effort to shelter people facing deportation. Others are contemplating that move.

Some churches have decided not to offer help, citing their members' discomfort with legal or liability issues or a lack of space and resources. But the raid appears to be a tipping point, said David Leslie, a UCC minister and executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

"In every congregation there are people sitting in the pews who have different opinions and life experiences, from `open borders' to `it's the law,'" Leslie said. "This raid has made the abstract real."

Against a backdrop of stepped-up immigration enforcement nationally, church leaders in recent months have had regular discussions about joining the New Sanctuary Movement, a national interfaith coalition modeled after a 1980s initiative by churches that sheltered Central Americans who were fleeing death squads.

The movement asks churches to sign a pledge to give shelter to those facing deportation, particularly those who could be separated from children who are American citizens. It emerged in response to the August 2006 case of a Chicago woman, Elvira Arellano, who took refuge in a Methodist church while facing deportation and separation from her 7-year-old son born in the United States.

When that action became public, other churches around the country began to declare themselves sanctuaries. Participants believe providing humanitarian assistance does not violate the law as long as they do so openly and do not hide illegal immigrants. Immigration police historically have not entered places of worship.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hasn't taken action in Arellano's case or against the movement. A spokeswoman provided a statement saying that while the agency has authority to enforce the law at any place and any time, "we do it at appropriate times and at appropriate places."

In the aftermath of the Portland raid, a few dozen of those detained at the plant who have children were temporarily released on humanitarian reasons, and advocates are negotiating on behalf of more parents.

Andrea Cano, a UCC member and executive director of Oregon Farmworker Ministries, said accounts of families divided -- and the prospect of American-born children having their parents deported to Latin America -- moved many congregations on the fence.

"Now, they have no choice. They have to decide," Cano said. "For many, this was the time to be a good Samaritan."

The Rev. Lynne Smouse Lopez, pastor of Ainsworth UCC in Portland, said her congregation is on the verge of becoming an official New Sanctuary site. In the meantime, they are offering housing and help to those affected by the Del Monte raids.

But the process to decide was long and painstaking, a discussion that covered everything from the church's liability for families to Jesus' civil disobedience in Scripture.

"Certainly our church isn't unanimous in this," Smouse Lopez said. "For me, it's a clear faith issue. Jesus believed that an extravagant welcome and love were called for, without drawing borders.

"How can we draw the line?"

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