Written by Bennett Guess
Liliana and her five-month-old son Pablito have found sanctuary from deportation at the Simi Valley UCC in California.
Liliana [last name withheld] and Pablito arrived at the church on August 28, 2007, after previously finding refuge by Deacon Manuel Valencia of St. Rita's Catholic Church in Sierra Madre and from St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Long Beach.
Liliana's family immigrated legally to the United States in 1998. However, Liliana decided to stay in Mexico to finish high school. After completing her studies Liliana applied for the same visa her family received but was told it would take several years for approval. Rather than endure prolonged separation from her family, Liliana obtained a false birth certificate and entered the U.S. illegally.
Since that time, Liliana has married and had three children. She and her husband own their home, work, and pay taxes. Her husband and children are all U.S. citizens, yet – fearing deportation – Liliana had not applied for residence status.
Earlier this spring Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials finally located Liliana.
She and her husband were preparing for work as an agent arrived to arrest Liliana. Liliana's husband pleaded with the agent, asking him to grant a few days for the family to prepare for her deportation. The agent agreed, ordering Liliana to report to the deportation center within three days.
Rather than report to the deportation center, Liliana sought support from the Los Angeles chapter of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA). CLUE-LA had formulated plans to participate in New Sanctuary Movement activities and this was their call to action.
The New Sanctuary Movement is a revitalization of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. That movement offered asylum to political refugees escaping wars and regime change in Central America. The concept of sanctuary is even more historical and comes from the biblical account calling for "cities of refuge" found in the book of Numbers 35. Calling upon these principles, the New Sanctuary Movement is specifically offering refuge to immigrants falsely accused or wrongly deported.
The Rev. June C. Goudy, pastor of Simi Valley UCC and a board member of Ventura County CLUE, became aware of Liliana's predicament in June. She and two of her parishioners had attended a New Sanctuary Movement orientation in May which started the process of discernment for their church.
"The congregation shared their stories - almost all American's have immigrant roots," Goudy said. "We came to understand, 'I am the other. I am the person you are talking about.'"
On June 17, the congregation voted to receive a proposal from Ventura County CLUE on becoming a New Sanctuary Movement entity. The congregation overwhelmingly approved the proposal on July 8, leading the way to the reception of Liliana into their on-site parsonage in August.
While Simi Valley UCC has received some community support for their actions there is also opposition. Goudy said four members of the Minutemen vigilante group have protested in front of Simi Valley UCC during Sunday services. They promised to return on Sept. 16 and "come out in droves," Goudy said.
New Sanctuary Movement organizations have no legal right to prohibit ICE agents from entering their grounds to search or remove someone receiving sanctuary. However, it seems unlikely that seizure will occur given public perception of federal agents storming church grounds.
"[Offering sanctuary] is not without risk." Goudy said. "As far as we can discern ICE is honoring sanctuary."
It's not the first time that Goudy has witnessed her congregation's courage.
"When you take stands for the right reasons you feel a presence – the energy of God – and everything has fallen into place."
When asked about Liliana's entry into the U.S. on false documents, Goudy replied, "Documents aren't the real issue, it's a question of reaching out."
That’s the motivation for Simi Valley UCC, Goudy said, and why the church has chosen to extend radical hospitality.