Revolution #110, November 25, 2007
“Taking a Stand with Humanity” Liliana and the Immigrant Sanctuary Church in Simi Valley
In May of this year, Liliana heard a knock on her door. It was Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “We’ve come for you,” said the 5 ICE agents that were there to take her from her home in Oxnard, California and deport her back to Mexico.
Liliana had applied for legal residency years ago, but her application was denied because she had been detained trying to cross the U.S./Mexico border when she was 19 years old. She was put on a deportation list, and years went by without her hearing anything from immigration—until that morning in May.
Liliana, 29 years old with three kids, remembers pleading with the agents not to take her from her children. She told them that she was still nursing her 2-month-old, Pablito. They didn’t arrest her on the spot, but ordered her to report to an immigration center to be deported within five days.
Liliana is now seeking protection from deportation at the United Church of Christ in Simi Valley, California. She and Pablito live in a house on the church premises 24/7. Since the church decided to take a stand as a sanctuary church, Liliana, her son, and the church have been at the center of ugly anti-immigrant persecution.
Church Hit with
Simi Valley is a predominantly white, middle class suburb with a reputation for being very conservative. In 1992, it was the site of the trial and acquittal of four white LAPD officers who were caught on video brutally beating a Black man, Rodney King, after he was pulled over for speeding.
The United Church of Christ is one of more than 50 churches in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and San Diego that are part of the New Sanctuary Movement. Its goal is to “protect immigrant families who are facing the violation of their human rights in the form of hatred, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation” (newsanctuarymovement.org). The New Sanctuary Movement was inspired by the movement of the 1980s in which churches all over the country opened their doors to give sanctuary to and protect people from Central America who were fleeing U.S.-sponsored death squads in countries like El Salvador.
Every Sunday for weeks, vigilante forces like the Minutemen have protested outside the church. When Liliana first took sanctuary there, the protests were heated on both sides. An immigrant rights activist was even pepper-sprayed by a Minuteman outside the church and taken to the hospital. Skinhead youth carried signs that read “Unchecked Immigration—A Wildfire That Will Consume Our Nation…Stop the Invasion.” Other anti-immigrants held up signs that said: “Don’t Attend This Lawbreaker Church” and “Defend Our Borders.”
These Minutemen and other anti-immigrants have things totally upside-down. It’s your country that invaded Mexico—twice—once to steal half of Mexico’s territory in 1846 so that it could expand slavery and then again against the Mexican Revolution in 1916. It’s your country that has caused the destitution of the Mexican people by dominating their country and devastating agriculture to a point where people can’t even afford to grow their own food, because if they did they would end up in terrible debt. It’s your country that forced people to work in maquiladoras (sweatshops) so they could eat—and then moved those factories to China because the slave wages are even cheaper there, leaving many of these workers and millions of others with no alternative but to cross the border in search of jobs. It’s your country that viciously exploits these immigrants once they’re here—the very people who put food on your table by slaving away in meatpacking plants in the South, the fields in the Central Valley, and in Liliana’s case a food packing plant in Oxnard, even as they are viciously hunted down like animals by ICE agents and vigilantes. Minutemen, skinheads, and others who are helping to enforce all this: You’re standing on the wrong side of right and wrong.
The Mayor of Simi Valley, Paul Miller, has repeatedly stated that he does not want his city to be known as a sanctuary city. He sent the United Church of Christ a bill for $40,000 for the cost of added police presence around the church after the weekly protests. Reverend June Goudey at the church commented that this “places the burden of the current unrest on the church’s stand as a sanctuary congregation rather than on the reaction of extremist groups from outside the city who by their actions are a threat to public safety.”
Then the Mayor sent a letter to Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, asking him personally to resolve this matter. His letter asked Homeland Security to “provide final adjudication of the individual’s status and either allow [Liliana] to stay or deport her.”
While ICE has not yet attempted to forcibly take Liliana from the church, immigration officials say they reserve the right to do just that at any time. Chertoff said, “We reserve our options, and we take the action that we feel is appropriate.” He added, “We don’t give people assurance that they have a sanctuary, nor do we necessarily indicate when we’re going to do something. They’re on their own if they’re going to defy the law.”
Transforming What People Think About Immigrants
Liliana came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1998 when she was 19 years old. She applied in Mexico to get a student visa to go to school in the U.S., but was denied the visa because she didn’t “qualify.” So, like millions of other immigrants, she made the journey across the border. The first time she crossed, she was detained by the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol routinely takes pictures and personal information, as well as fingerprints, of the detainees and enters it into a database before sending people back to Mexico. Liliana tried to cross again a few weeks later and was able to make it. She made her way to Ventura County and started to work in a corn-packing factory near Oxnard. She married soon after and applied for legal residency, and her husband became a U.S. citizen with the hopes of strengthening her application for legal status. Now she is being threatened with being ripped apart from her family, leaving her children and husband behind—or being forced into a situation where the whole family must leave the country so that they can stay together.
Reverend Goudey and members of the United Church of Christ say that being a sanctuary for immigrants is uncharted territory that initially brought out feelings of uncertainty and fear among some members of the congregation who were worried about the negative consequences of taking such a stand. But they say that through getting to know Liliana, they have transformed what they think about immigrants.
Reverend Goudey said, “Immigration is complex and huge, but Liliana has, which is part of the focus of the New Sanctuary Movement, now put a face on the movement. Just being with her in the house has been transformational…there’s a quality and dimension to Liliana that is very moving when you are with her.”
One member of the congregation commented, “I wish that people could put themselves in the shoes of a person like Liliana and think about what they would have done if they were in a situation like her.”
Another member of the congregation talked about a man who raised a lot of concern about the United Church of Christ being a sanctuary church—but at the same time, he wrote a substantial check toward the renovation of the house Liliana is now staying in with her baby. She said, “It’s been amazing where the contributions have come from… [People have called] and said ‘Hi, I’m not a member, but I never knew about the immigration laws, but now I’m looking at my neighbor as a human being. And I want you to know how important it is what you are doing’… There are people sending $40 and saying, ‘I’m retired, I don’t really have a lot of money, but I want you to know how important it is that you’re taking this stand.’”
This congregation member said, “I’m proud to be taking this stand with humanity.”
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