It's Time for a New Sanctuary Movement

The aftershock of hundreds of Middle Eastern men and boys arrested by federal officials after they dutifully obeyed orders to appear for a new registration program continues to ripple through California.

The television image of a keening mother racked with fear and guilt outside a government building still sears memory. Her 16-year-old son had disappeared into the federal jail system after she encouraged him to comply. "I gave him to them," she cried.

This is a face of homeland security.

Most arrested before Dec. 19 have been set free, after humiliating jail time, when their families had no idea where they were taken or why. Even immigration officials admitted that many had submitted the required paperwork to extend visas or become residents. These were not terrorists lining up.

This could be only the beginning of such scenes. Soon, other Middle Easterners and men and boys from designated North African countries will have to meet new registration deadlines. The historical memory evokes pictures simultaneously far-fetched and disturbing: that of dutiful Jews lining up at offices to comply with Nazi orders to register, people playing by the rules on the assumption cooperation means protection.

Twenty years ago, refugees arrived every week in small U.S. towns, fleeing the death squads and massacres of the wars in Central America. With no legal status, they found protection in church basements and among families who took them in out of an impulse to save lives. Those who broke the law by harboring illegals also believed U.S. policy wrongly supported governments that were massively killing civilians in El Salvador and Guatemala in the name of fighting leftist terrorism.

By the time those wars ended in the l990s, the "sanctuary movement" included hundreds of churches and thousands of persons across this country who put themselves on the line, refusing to cooperate with a policy they deemed injurious to human life and downright un-American.

If the impulse to declare a spirit of solidarity and protest still exists, this is a good time to revive it. Ecumenical -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Moslem -- statements have appeared against war on Iraq, most notably out of Chicago and San Francisco, aimed at changing Washington policy. But it will be more difficult for local faith-based groups to protest sweeps of immigrants or plan ways to protect neighbors.

New anti-terrorism legislation allows for infiltration of the congregations of churches and mosques, a seal of approval on domestic spying even more egregious than the system that planted federal moles in church, black and anti-war organizations in the l970s and l980s. Roman Catholics are often caught up these days in their response to the clergy sex-abuse scandal, which leaves less time for other efforts. Moslem citizens are feeling they must keep a low profile in civic debate. And how much will taking advantage of President Bush's "faith-based initiatives," which pave the way for religious groups to receive government grants and contracts, compromise bold action?

As shadows grow and religious groups ponder, about 24 U.S. cities have declared themselves "civil liberties safe zones," effectively jumping ahead of churches on activism. The issue is on the table in dozens of other towns. Residents have pushed city councils from Northampton, Mass., to Oakland, Calif., to reaffirm rights they believe threatened by the swift passage of the Patriot Act, including rights to counsel, due process and protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.

Declarations ask local police not to cooperate with federal agents when actions such as profiling infringe on constitutional rights.

The town councils may be part of a growing grassroots movement to protect local prerogatives and protest controversial national policy, but they are also part of a tradition of "communitarian" sanctuary that goes back thousands of years. Roads to Old Testament cities of refuge were to be clearly marked and carefully maintained, so those fleeing might find them. Meanwhile, "altar" sanctuary, the privilege of houses of worship, is an ancient tradition that sometimes leads to a clash between church and state, as it did in the l980s on foreign and domestic policy about Central Americans.

The moment has come to connect to those traditions in a truly American, no-nonsense way.

Mary Jo McConahay is a journalist and filmmaker with long experience in Central America and the Middle East.


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