In the 1980s and ’90s, Alexia Salvatierra was a young adult involved in the early Sanctuary Movement, which rallied churches to protect Central American immigrants fleeing civil war in their home countries. Roughly 20 years later, Salvatierra cofounded the New Sanctuary Movement, an interfaith effort that now includes 800 congregations in 30 cities committed to protecting and standing with undocumented immigrants. “People who never thought much about the immigrant community before now really care,” says Salvatierra, a pastor with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “It’s a beautiful, Christlike outpouring of love, and I am so moved by it.”
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Salvatierra grew up hearing immigrant stories from her grandparents, who came to the US from Mexico and Russia. “I always had empathy for what courage it takes to be an immigrant, and I naturally gravitated towards other immigrants as I got older,” she says. “I felt injustice happening everywhere as if it was happening to me—it was my fire in the belly.” She became a Christian as a teenager during the Jesus Movement of the ’70s and discovered hope as she read in the Bible of God’s passion for justice.
Salvatierra now serves as an advisor to the New Sanctuary Movement and also works with Matthew 25, a bipartisan Christian movement (which she co-founded) that seeks to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus. From her home in California, Salvatierra spoke with CT about the need for immigration reform, how deportations impact kids, and how churches across the country are getting involved.
How does your faith inform your work?
I teach and train about faith-rooted organizing, and the fundamental principle is that faith doesn’t just motivate us, it guides us. If we define organizing as bringing people together to create systemic change, then faith-rooted organizing is bringing the people of God together in a way that is completely rooted in our faith. It forces us to really look at our underlying assumptions: What do we believe about power? What do we believe about human motivation? What do we believe about human community? We are not taking a secular system and modifying it. Faith-rooted organizing requires us to go to the roots of our faith to understand the answers to these questions and then to work out the full implications.
So we have to be humble and bold, for example, not either/or. We have to believe that prayer has real power. We have to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. We must look at people’s sin honestly, but we must also believe people can change in a moment, that everyone is made in the image of God and is capable of sudden acts of sacrificial love and moral courage. We must believe people can be transformed. All these presuppositions come out of letting our faith guide and shape our work. And in that way, we bring all of our unique gifts as Christians to the larger movement for justice, which I believe is God’s movement.
Can you give us an example of the hardship some people experience in Latin America that brings them to the US?
I met a woman who was a small business owner in El Salvador and who had distant relatives in the States. Gang members, who often extort small businesses in the country, came to her and said, “We want $500 from your rich relatives.” She couldn’t get money from the States, but she scraped together everything she owned and gave them $500. They immediately responded with a demand for $1,000 and the threat that if she called the police, they would “get her.” She left the house, went a distance away, and called the police. Then, the gang members and the police showed up at her house and raped her multiple times.
Her eight-year-old was in the next room and they told her, “Your daughter is really pretty. She’s perfect for selling.” So they ran. The mother and her eight-year old fled El Salvador and entered the US. They are still not safe. They think they are safe because they made to the States, but they are not. We have been working with them to get a lawyer so they can apply for asylum, but it’s very difficult because their story is not unusual. She’s an evangelical Christian, and they’re being helped by a church, but she’s one of thousands in that situation. Her story struck me so deeply because it’s so common, and yet it was so vivid.
What is the Sanctuary Movement?
The concept of sanctuary comes from Numbers 25, which is a prescription for the people of God to act when someone has committed a crime, but the response to that crime is cruel and unusual punishment. In Numbers, the crime committed was manslaughter. People who had killed someone accidentally were being punished as if they had killed intentionally. The Scriptures instruct the people of God to protect people in that situation until they can get a fair hearing. This passage is the basis for sanctuary work, protecting those who have committed a crime, but where the punishment is cruel and unusual.
In your opinion, what in particular is cruel and unusual about the punishment?
Most people in this country have known that our immigration system is ineffective. Get one step closer, and it’s illogical, making the DMV look really good in comparison. Get another step closer, and it’s really, profoundly inhumane. It has needed reform for a long time, and two fully bipartisan pieces of legislation received 75 percent support from average Americans but never reached the floor in the House. It was expected to pass if it had been voted on, but there was not the political will to address immigration. So in the meantime, a regulatory safety net has developed that softens some of the worst, negative impacts of our broken system.
For example, if you’re an Assemblies of God pastor for a thriving church, married to a citizen, 50 years old, but when you were 17, you came to this country and were deported, you have that “crime” on your record. This man has had what’s called “deferred deportation” for years [which allows him to stay in the country], but now he can’t get it again because the new administration is not offering stays of removal.
These are some of the many situations we see all the time. There are people in this country who are contributing members to our society, and our immigration system should make a place for them. Instead, we’ve relied on regulatory workarounds and allowed people to stay in this country from year to year in a gray area. But that has all changed.
The new executive orders allow immigration agents to go after people who’ve never been accused of a crime, and a couple of weeks ago, immigration agents admitted that 25 percent of the people they’d picked up in LA had never committed a crime. So we have what feels like a reign of terror, particularly for children. Now, many are terrified to go to school, worried that their parents may be taken while they’re at school. And so when we say “vulnerable people,” I think of those children—children who are citizens, who are having trouble learning in school or having trouble with their health because of their intense anxiety.
What’s happening right now with the movement in California and in other states?
I’ve been so encouraged by the wave of passion and compassion in the church. Churches really want to help and have been asking, “What can we do? How can we provide legal help, discourage the worst abuses, bring light to the stories of what’s happening?” Churches have been working to get power of attorney for children so they don’t go into foster care if parents are deported. Some pastors are choosing to be present near their local schools to offer comfort for families, and also to potentially discourage immigration officials from targeting families trying to attend school.
Regarding the Sanctuary Movement, there are people in public sanctuary, living inside churches while we try to arrange assistance. One of the reasons for public sanctuary is the opportunity to tell their story. And the participation of nonimmigrants standing with and suffering with someone in sanctuary encourages other citizens to take a second look and not accept the assumptions that immigrants are a threat or a drain, but to begin to see them as brothers and sisters. Others are in private sanctuary for a temporary break. It’s an opportunity to try to find legal help or to give them a reprieve as they figure out next steps. Sanctuary is one way that we are seeking to stand with the vulnerable, but our real desire and need is to change the system.
There are also churches forming rapid response teams, where the goal is to arrive at the scene when immigration officials are trying to detain someone. Rapid response teams can show up and pray, or even after someone is detained, members of the church can document what happened and serve as trusted witnesses, collecting reports from family and neighbors. Also, rapid response can mean showing up in large numbers at a detention center, advocating for someone to be released.
How do you respond to critics who see the New Sanctuary Movement as not much more than a plan to harbor criminals?
Harboring is concealing someone with the purpose of furthering their illegal presence in this country. First of all, in public sanctuary, we don’t conceal people. It is not illegal for the church to offer humanitarian services or to allow someone to sleep inside their building. And secondly, we’re not attempting to further their illegal presence in this country because we’re working to legalize their status. We’re both trying to change the laws and working with them individually to see if there’s a way for them to stay legally. So far, immigration agents have never come inside a church to apprehend someone. And no one has ever been convicted for harboring in a church.
What has encouraged you most about how churches have responded to immigration in recent months? What has discouraged you?
I am encouraged by the numbers and the passion of those seeking to be involved, and I’m inspired by the engagement of immigrant and nonimmigrant churches working together. It’s in these partnerships that you witness the exchange of hope and passion. Immigrant churches become more hopeful because they see they have supporters and friends and allies. And nonimmigrant churches grow in passion as they work with immigrant churches.
What’s been a challenge is some of the passion without a lot of careful thought or planning. Everyone wants to do something dramatic. But really what’s needed is the hard work of legislative advocacy, of finding people lawyers, the willingness to take on children whose parents have been deported. This work is not very fun or exciting, but it’s crucial.
At a personal level, how do you sustain advocacy work without hitting burnout?
When I was a missionary in the Philippines, I witnessed what I perceived to be incredible, ongoing heroism from believers living under a dictator. And I began to understand that their example was not necessarily incredible, ongoing heroism but the Christian life. We just are very soft, and we struggle to carry our crosses. People everywhere else in the world and throughout the ages know a lot more about that practice than we as American Christians do. But God is faithful, and our spirituality is deepened as it’s tested like gold.