Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Elvira Arellano

I have let the story about Elvira Arellano go by for a while now without comment. She is the woman who invoked sanctuary in a United Methodist Church in Chicago in order to avoid deportation. I haven’t written anything yet mostly because I’m still processing the whole story, and I don’t really have anything new and helpful to contribute to the conversation. But here’s where I am at this point.

First, I notice the words we use. Some news sources identify Ms. Arellano as an “activist” and others as an “illegal immigrant,” which are both accurate descriptors, but each shades the story in very differing lights. An activist is likely to be a heroic figure who is taking a principled stand against a large, unjust system. An illegal immigrant is a criminal who is defying the law of the nation. The power of the words we use to talk about one another cannot be minimized. I even read one story that kept referring to her as a “deportee,” which isn’t accurate, but paints a great “innocent victim” picture for the reader.

Secondly, I have seen how some news sources highlight the fact that she is a mother doing what she thinks is best for her son. This perspective stirs yet another emotional response, because except for the test tube babies among us, every one of us has a mother. If Ms. Arellano is cast as a strong mother acting on behalf of her child, like a mother hen gathering her chick under her wing, it becomes a bit more difficult to flat out condemn her actions. “I hope my mom would do the same for me,” we think to ourselves.

And then thirdly, there’s the role of the church to consider. The idea of a church “sanctuary” as a safe haven for someone who has gotten into trouble with authorities is ancient. Part of the reason many church doors are painted red, in fact, is tied to this notion. There is a wonderful episode of M*A*S*H in which Father Mulcahey takes a stand against the M.P.s who are pursuing a soldier who has gone a.w.o.l. In doing so, he declares the mess tent, where worship service is held each week, a sanctuary and forbids the authorities to enter.

I may have missed it somewhere, but I don’t find any official statement in the Book of Discipline about the United Methodist Church’s stance on providing sanctuary – one way or the other. I interpret that to mean that it would be the decision of the local congregation whether or not to take such a step, since it is not forbidden. So I pose the question – “How would I, as pastor of First UMC, North KC respond to a request for sanctuary?” The only answer I can give is, “It depends.”

Clearly, Adalberto United Methodist Church has made it a big part of their identity to be in ministry with the immigrant community, so we are talking about two different contexts here. But we have begun a Hispanic Ministry based in our congregation, and held one immigration forum earlier this summer, so we are at least somewhat involved with the issue. So it would not be entirely out of the question for an undocumented immigrant to show up in Northtown some day and say, “Sanctuary.” What would I do?

I kinda sorta think that the church should provide sanctuary when it is requested, no matter what. But I most definitely think that what happens next is vitally important. There must be a focused, intentional pastoral response. The only option, really, is to respond pastorally, if I am to be faithful to my call. That may mean standing in the door denying entrance to INS officers, I suppose. But it also means confronting the sanctuary seeker with the perhaps harsh realities of the situation they are in, as well as the situation into which they have put the church by their chosen course of action. It’s not my role to squeal to the cops, but it’s not my role to enable destructive behavior, either.

I served as Music Director for a church in Illinois that was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Do you ever wonder what that must have been like? Harboring a fugitive slave, providing sanctuary from the authorities seeking to deport them back to the south, in essence receiving stolen property and keeping it hidden – all illegal activities at the time, and a very interesting parallel to the situation at hand, I think. I imagine that there were some decent, hard working church people who disapproved of such activity, just as there are people in today’s world who disapprove of assisting immigrants in their struggles.

Of course, today slavery is almost universally condemned, but at the time it most certainly was not. Harboring a runaway was a crime that carried serious consequences, even for a church. Will there be a time somewhere down the road when the criminialization of immigration is similarly condemned, and churches that provided sanctuary for people avoiding deportation are celebrated as historic sites, the way Underground Railroad sites are in some places?

I don’t know Elvira Arellano, and I’m sure I’ll never meet her or anything, but if she really is just a hard working single mom trying to live her life as best as she can while providing opportunity for her son to flourish, all the best to her. I pray that everything gets worked out with justice, kindness, and humility.

13 comments:

Larry B said...

I think what bothers me most in this situation, is that the church seems to have gone beyond providing sanctuary to someone in need. If a criminal or refugee shows up at the back door and asks for sanctuary, providing shelter and some level of discreet protection certainly seems like the approprate thing to do in the context of our understanding of Christianity.

What I think has happened in this situation, is the church has chosen to provide not only sanctuary, but seems to be willing to become a hyperbolic mouthpiece for one frustrated illegal immigrant who's problems aren't much different from millions of others. The fact that there is some high profile press surrounding the issue along with the willingness of the members to be "put on display" when/if the "bad old INS" shows up to take her away seems to point at a politically motivated agenda rather than a real concern with solving an illegal immigration problem. Without knowing the full motivation of the Church, it appears that the Church is using this incident to grind an axe with authorities over what amounts to not much more than a political disagreement, which is using the body of the church in a way that I'm not particularly convinced Jesus advocates.

The laws of our land are clear regarding who can reside here legally, and unfortunately this person chose not to do so. Yes she needs some help, but allowing her to use the church to publically protest the laws on her own behalf is wrong.

I think your approach to having a "pastoral" response as you describe it does produce the best result. You provide for the immediate needs of the person, and provide counsel for proceeding forward in the given situation.

Henry Neufeld said...

That's an excellent post, Andy. I think, however, that we would be better off with a little bit of definition of what churches are to do. Circumstances, length of time, and so forth. A more serious question, of course, is whether the church believes it should support the moral position of the person seeking sanctuary.

larry b said:
The laws of our land are clear regarding who can reside here legally, and unfortunately this person chose not to do so. Yes she needs some help, but allowing her to use the church to publically protest the laws on her own behalf is wrong.

I don't think this is the right argument to apply. Those who ran the underground railroad were also hiding people who were violating very clear laws of the land. They just believed those laws were wrong.

I don't believe the escaping slave and the illegal immigrant are in equivalent moral positions, but I think the moral position is what must be argued. If one believes the illegal immigrant is persecuted (and one might use a different term if one thought that--thanks Andy!), then one could allow the use of the church as a platform for protest. If not, then not so much.

Larry B said...

Hi Henry,

I thought about this a little more and I'm still a little confounded by this issue. If I take your recommendation that we should argue the moral principle, I can't quite put my finger on what moral issue(s) is truly at play here.

I guess I don't know enough about the situation to really decide. It's not clear to me, that she can't take her child back to her home country with her. That is the only major moral issue I can see in this situation.

It's my understanding that Jesus never once made any move to change anything about the ruling Roman law and even made it clear that those laws should be obeyed. In His Sermon on the Mount He is recorded as advising to "resist not evil".

So wouldn't it be a better witness for the church to perhaps provide a mission fund or some other financial assistance to this person being deported to care for her and her childs needs in her home country which enables all parties involved to respect the laws of their lands, yet we carry out our mission to provide for those in need?

Sally said...

Challenging post here, I have to say I back up Larry on the being avai;lable to help issue, but wonder where the instances are that we need to step in... is sacnctuary an option?
Good question

Henry Neufeld said...

larry b said:

I thought about this a little more and I'm still a little confounded by this issue. If I take your recommendation that we should argue the moral principle, I can't quite put my finger on what moral issue(s) is truly at play here.

I'm not sure either. I'm not prepared under current circumstances to say that there is some sort of right to immigration. But there would be such a principle in play with the underground railroad.

My problem was simply that we can't answer the question by saying "it's illegal" because it might be morally right, but nonetheless illegal, as in the underground railroad. A more controversial case would be helping young men avoiding the draft get to Canada. I could see a major fight erupting on that one. :-)

I'm sure individuals would disagree, but I'm thinking that if we view it as a moral issue, there would not be a good reason to give the church's voice, and also the church's protection of sanctuary.

My understanding thus far of the specific situation is similar to yours.

I do think it's important to identify the moral issue involved, then the question is this: What precisely is a church fighting for? Much energy and goodwill is being put on the chopping block--something should be accomplished in turn.

So wouldn't it be a better witness for the church to perhaps provide a mission fund or some other financial assistance to this person being deported to care for her and her childs needs in her home country which enables all parties involved to respect the laws of their lands, yet we carry out our mission to provide for those in need?

I think that's a good possibility and one I would definitely look at.

Anonymous said...

Under Illinois law, law enforcement officials have a right to enter a church even if it claims that it is a sanctuary. Elvira can be pulled out at any time.

Second - she has said that she entered the country illegally and that she has used another's SSN for employment. She was deported once and immediately returned.

She's a criminal and should be treated as such.

Anonymous said...

I guess coming from a white person, I am considered racist whenever discussing illegal immigrants. My problem is not with immigration, it is with ILLEGAL immigration. I married a Mexican, who I petitioned with immigration and have done everything the right way. After thousands of dollards have been paid out and years of stupid interviews, I am highly offended by anyone living here illegally and claiming to have any rights whatsoever.

If you come here illegally and have kids here, then yes, they are American Citizens. But that does not give the parents any rights until those kids are 21 years old and can legally petition for them. So, we are not separating parents and children. If you want to raise your kids, great, take them with you to whatever country you are from. Then, when your child is 18 they can return as an American Citizen and a few years later even petition for family members. If you want your child to stay in the USA, then you chose to separate yourself from your child(ren) -- the government didn't decide that for you.

Who decided that illegals (criminals) get to have the same rights as everyone else? They do not have civil rights and we need to return them all immediately to whichever country they came from. We never had the serious problem of identity theft until now, and who is it that are stealing identities? Yeah, I know the argument, they just want to work hard and provide for their families. Guess what, find another way. I'm tired of paying my taxes so they can provide for their families with free lunches in school, welfare, fake paperwork and jobs under the table and even free medical care when I am going broke over trying to provide for my family while keeping the law.

I love the USA, but if you love the laws of a country, you shouldn't have to break its laws to be there.

Anonymous said...

What has happened to this country? Where is our backbone? Yes this is America, land of the free but there're rules and regulations that has been made for EVERYONE to keep. We've lost our identity. We stand for nothing and fall for everything. When are we going to draw the line and say enough is enough. This lady knowingly entered this country illegally more than once. After being deported she's back again, ILLEGALLY. She has once again knowingly involved herself in a criminal act. If someone stole food because they were poor, hungry and homeless (in this fine land) it's still wrong and many times are prosecuted for their deeds. The law is the law and it's clear from her own actions of entering this country illegally more than once, she has no regard for keeping the laws of this land she doesn't agree with. As US citizens, if there's something we don't agree with we can start by writing our congressman for a change but still upholding the law that's in place. The government can't break/alter our laws to accomodate everyone who doesn't agree. If we do it for her then we should do it for everyone, then where would our country be?!?

She needs to remove herself from this country and go through the proper channels for re-entry. In times like these we need to protect our borders ensuring that all who enters have done so LEGALLY!!!

Anonymous said...

Using someone's SSN to gain employment is not a "victimless" crime as the wages will eventually be discovered by the IRS and the owner of the SSN will be billed for additional income tax. Yes, the owner of the SSN will be able to sort out the problem but who wants to fight the IRS on this? Let me tell you, it's not easy.

Anonymous said...

Well I'm not am Black and I totally agree with the White person who says that Arellano should be sent back to Mexico. She is indeed a criminal. All of those in this country illegally are criminals who should be deported. Any church that harbors these illegal criminals should have their not-for-profit status revoked as well. People are being murdered, raped, children are being molested and a very resistant strain of TB has come to our country as well. In light of the fact that corporations and the top 1% are reaping the benefits of their illegal presence if they want them to remain in this country then they should foot their medical/educational and other social service costs.

As for the 14th amendment IT SHOULD BE REPEALED YESTERDAY!

Anonymous said...

Let the illegal dirtbags stay at the church or whoever wants to pay for them. As long as they don't come out and work or obtain any benefit from America.

Anonymous said...

Just found this blog and Elvira was arrested today in Los Angeles. It's about time.

Anonymous said...

Elvira apparently told the news media (I read it) that she was happy to be back in "my country, Mexico". We are doing the rotten nations of the world a disfavor by keeping their activists. Let activists stay home and change THEIR COUNTRIES, and not ours. Let them take their children with them so they have an interest in changing THEIR COUNTRY. WHITE LIBERALS ARE DESTROYING OUR NATION. THE POLITICALLY ACTIVE CHURCHES SHOULD BE TAXED.nbsscwfaupd