Members of the U.S. religious community are reviving the "sanctuary movement" of the 1980s by launching a national drive to protect undocumented workers who face possible deportation from the United States.
The sanctuary movement two decades ago offered protection in the United States to refugees fleeing wars in Central America. The new effort will be based on local congregations, and will provide assistance to undocumented workers who face the threat of being deported because they do not have the proper papers to work legally.
"We are responding to a broken system that is increasingly creating broken families, and broken lives," said the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, a leader of the New Sanctuary Movement, which was launched on May 9.
The movement is multi-faith, with Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups involved. More than 50 congregations in the US have committed themselves to the campaign.
According to some estimates, there are about 12 million undocumented persons in the United States. Places of worship that will participate in the New Sanctuary Movement say they hope to offer shelter, financial help, assistance from immigration lawyers, and, in some cases, actual physical sanctuary. Qualifying families will be those with at least one parent facing a deportation order.
However, Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group, criticized the latest sanctuary move. "Churches and religious workers, like everyone else, are subject to the laws of the United States, and what they are engaged in is harbouring of fugitives," Mehlman told Ecumenical News International. "They certainly have a right to their points of view but they are not above the law."
The announcement of the new initiative came the same week that a newly formed coalition, Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, called for changes to U.S. immigration legislation.
The coalition said changes were needed to allow undocumented workers "to come out of the shadows and pursue the option of an earned path towards permanent legal status and citizenship upon satisfaction of specific criteria."