My friend Craig and I took a train today to meet at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church with the Faith/Activism Collective and the New Sanctuary Movement to meet and hear the story of Yolanda, an immigrant from Guatemala who has taken asylum in the church.
Yolanda left Guatemala which was suffering all kinds of problems, due especially to a violent civil war, and came to the U.S. in 1989 seeking a better life for herself and especially for her family. For years she struggled to make it in the U.S. and worked to get proper documentation. After spending well over $5,000 (I actually think it was closer to $10,000), while working marginal jobs, on lawyers in order to get proper documentation and more permanent status in the U.S. she was still ordered to deport and leave the country. Faced with the choice of leaving the country alone and leaving her daughter behind (who was born in the U.S.) thus breaking up her family, bringing her daughter back to Guatemala to live in poverty with her, or staying in the U.S. together as a family and giving her daughter a better chance at life, she chose to accept asylum from her church and the New Sanctuary Movement. Thus far, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has not come in to deport her (this might be because it would make for bad press) but nothing is keeping them from doing just that. Because of "separation of church & state" there are no laws protecting churches from having their front doors busted in (I thought it would be the opposite). The New Sanctuary Movement is working with "pro-bono" attorneys to get Yolanda permanent status but this will be a long process because of all the red tape and bureaucracy. Yolanda is theoretically safe as long as she stays inside the church. She hasn't left the church building in a long time, but she does have a garden on the roof.
Yolanda was a great story teller (especially if you can understand Spanish), and she had an absolutely delightful personality. I think we all fell in love with her fast. This trip was a sad reminder of some of the enormous problems with immigration in the U.S. But it was also an inspiration to hear from the heart of such an amazing woman who, to most people who haven't met her and to American policy, is just an "illegal."
The New Sanctuary Movement is an encouraging and beautiful example of a healthy ecclesiological response to a very real social/political issue.