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The Nation

Sanctuary movement still has a heartbeat

Both sides watch the case of a woman sheltered in a Chicago church so she can stay with her U.S.-born son.

November 24, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Three months ago, Elvira Arellano and her son Saul walked into the Adalberto United Methodist Church with nothing but the clothing they were wearing and a plan: to hide in the church's second-story apartment until the U.S. government granted her permission to stay in this country.

Elvira, a Mexican immigrant, and Saul, who was born in the United States, also had an unusual cheerleader in their defiance of the federal government: the city of Chicago.

This spring, the City Council unanimously supported Mayor Richard M. Daley's executive order stating that no city official or agency will aid federal immigration investigations unless ordered to do so by federal law or court order.

"Mayor Daley even wrote a letter to immigration officials" on Arellano's behalf, said church pastor Walter Coleman.

As the 2008 presidential contest begins to pick up steam, and immigration promises to be a key point of contention, a growing number of local agencies and state officials are debating the issue of providing sanctuary for illegal immigrants. The goal? To find a balance between enforcing federal law and protecting the needs of their immigrant communities.

Critics say towns and cities that offer sanctuary wrongly obstruct federal law. Proponents say cities are simply shifting the burden back to the federal government.

"Securing the borders is not the job of our police," said San Francisco Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval, who spearheaded a measure to endorse the city's 1989 sanctuary policy.

Today, dozens of cities and counties -- including Los Angeles, Detroit and New York -- have some sort of sanctuary ordinance on their books. Often, these laws outline when city workers and the police can, or cannot, alert federal officials to a person's immigration status. Some also limit aiding federal investigators on cases involving immigration issues.

Many law enforcement agencies are restricted from asking an individual's immigration status, said Joan Friedland, an immigration policy attorney with the National Immigration Law Center.

"It's a privacy and public safety issue," Friedland said. "If people fear that they are being targeted for racial profiling, they'll be afraid to report crimes or be a witness."

In some instances, these laws are largely symbolic. Elsewhere, the ordinances are aimed at courting an increasingly influential demographic.

In September, National City Mayor Nick Inzunza issued a proclamation declaring the San Diego County town an immigrant sanctuary. In 2000, nearly 60% of the city's population was Latino, according to U.S. census statistics. "That number is far larger now," Inzunza said.

The proclamation, he said, underscored existing ordinances that prevent police from reporting a person's immigration status to federal border agents.

The laws also allow the creation of community groups among local undocumented workers. These groups, which elect their own leaders, regularly meet with the National City Council to talk about the immigrants' concerns -- without fear of being deported.

"I see this as granting amnesty to future Americans," Inzunza said.

The current sanctuary laws are loosely drawn from a centuries-old idea: to offer a place of protection in sacred places, where fugitives are immune from arrest. The modern sanctuary movement gained national attention in the early 1980s, when a group of Arizona clergy and lay workers faced felony charges for shielding, harboring and transporting illegal immigrants. Their arrests led to scores of churches declaring that they were havens for immigrants fleeing turmoil in Central America.

Under President Reagan, many of these immigrants were deported on grounds that they left for economic reasons and not because of political persecution. But driven by local voter pressure and the consolidated church effort, cities passed legislation that sided with the churches.

The current buzz over local sanctuary status also has sparked opposition.

Escondido, Calif., passed an ordinance that fines landlords if they rent properties to undocumented workers. In nearby Vista, employers of day laborers must register with the city and hand out material detailing work conditions -- or face up to six months in jail and $1,000 in fines.

Georgia has rolled out a law that requires police officers to try to establish a person's immigration status if they are arrested on felony charges. And the Colorado governor signed a law that would withhold state funding from municipalities that had established themselves as sanctuary cities.

"Every city was sent a letter for the mayor to sign to certify that they weren't a sanctuary city," said Douglas Lyon, mayor pro tem of Durango, Colo. "Our previous City Council had passed a resolution that some people had interpreted as saying we were one. We clarified the law, so now we're not, and I signed the letter."

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