How Churches Can Give Sanctuary to Undocumented Immigrants and Still Support the Law

800 congregations are working to protect undocumented immigrants. A leader with the New Sanctuary Movement says yours should be one of them.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Alexia Salvatierra was a young adult involved in the early Sanctuary Movement, which rallied churches to protect Central American immigrants fleeing civil war in their home countries. Roughly 20 years later, Salvatierra cofounded the New Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith effort that now includes 800 congregations in 30 cities committed to protecting and standing with undocumented immigrants. “People who never thought much about the immigrant community before now really care,” says Salvatierra, a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “It’s a beautiful, Christlike outpouring of love, and I am so moved by it.”

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Salvatierra grew up hearing immigrant stories from her grandparents, who came to the US from Mexico and Russia. “I always had empathy for what courage it takes to be an immigrant, and I naturally gravitated towards other immigrants as I got older,” she says. “I felt injustice happening everywhere as if it was happening to me—it was my fire in the belly.” She became a Christian as a teenager during the Jesus Movement of the ’70s and discovered hope as she read in the Bible of God’s passion for justice.

Salvatierra now serves as an advisor to the New Sanctuary Movement and also works with Matthew 25, a bipartisan Christian movement (which she co-founded) that seeks to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus. From her home in California, Salvatierra spoke with CT about the need for immigration reform, how deportations impact kids, and how churches across the country are getting involved.

How does your faith inform your work?

I teach and train about faith-rooted organizing, and the fundamental principle is that faith doesn’t just motivate us, it guides us. If we define organizing as bringing people together to create systemic change, then faith-rooted organizing is bringing the people of God together in a way that is completely rooted in our faith. It forces us to really look at our underlying assumptions: What do we believe about power? What do we believe about human motivation? What do we believe about human community? We are not taking a secular system and modifying it. Faith-rooted organizing requires us to go to the roots of our faith to understand the answers to these questions and then to work out the full implications.

So we have to be humble and bold, for example, not either/or. We have to believe that prayer has real power. We have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We must look at people’s sin honestly, but we must also believe people can change in a moment, that everyone is made in the image of God and is capable of sudden acts of sacrificial love and moral courage. We must believe people can be transformed. All these presuppositions come out of letting our faith guide and shape our work. And in that way, we bring all of our unique gifts as Christians to the larger movement for justice, which I believe is God’s movement.

Can you give us an example of the hardship some people experience in Latin America that brings them to the US?

I met a woman who was a small business owner in El Salvador and who had distant relatives in the States. Gang members, who often extort small businesses in the country, came to her and said, “We want $500 from your rich relatives.” She couldn’t get money from the States, but she scraped together everything she owned and gave them $500. They immediately responded with a demand for $1,000 and the threat that if she called the police, they would “get her.” She left the house, went a distance away, and called the police. Then, the gang members and the police showed up at her house and raped her multiple times.

Her eight-year-old was in the next room and they told her, “Your daughter is really pretty. She’s perfect for selling.” So they ran. The mother and her eight-year old fled El Salvador and entered the US. They are still not safe. They think they are safe because they made to the States, but they are not. We have been working with them to get a lawyer so they can apply for asylum, but it’s very difficult because their story is not unusual. She’s an evangelical Christian, and they’re being helped by a church, but she’s one of thousands in that situation. Her story struck me so deeply because it’s so common, and yet it was so vivid.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today – Sarah Quezada

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