Ancient Israel was commanded by God
to establish 6 "cities of refuge" to which a person could go if he or she accidentally caused the death of another person. These cities would provide sanctuary from the victims' families, so that the community could determine the truth of the matter, if it was indeed an accidental killing or not. If the killing did happen accidentally, then the person who did it was required to live in that city until the death of the current high priest. When the high priest died, then that person could leave the city of refuge and go back to his lands. If that person for any reason left the city before the death of the high priest, then the victim's family could kill that person and not be charged with murder.
Certainly our understanding of sanctuary has changed. For hundreds of years in Christian societies, criminals could claim sanctuary within a church's actual sanctuary, and eventually this expanded to the church grounds and even the bishop's residence. There was, and is, a strong idea that the Church is above earthly laws. If I remember correctly, there's something to do with church sanctuaries and vampires, or perhaps werewolves. When I was in seminary, I was presented with a fictional case study about illegal immigrants taking up residence in my church's sanctuary. My professor unfortunately decided to do other case studies instead. I was looking forward to hearing what everyone had to say about the issue.
But we don't have to resort to fictional case studies to find illegal immigrants taking sanctuary
in churches. Indeed, the LA Times
article is about churches that are deliberately building housing units connected to the main church building that will publicly house illegal immigrants. They must have at least one child who is a US citizen, a good work history and be in the midst of deportation proceedings.
This type of thing has happened before. In the 1980s church workers were arrested and charged with crimes for hiding illegal immigrants. This time around, they're taking the opposite tack; not only will they not hide people but will actually push them in front of cameras, so to speak, in order to publicize their stories, to put real faces upon the US policy to break up families in the name of enforcing a misdemeanor
The churches doing this know that there is no actual protection under the law for those who claim sanctuary in a church. They know that federal officers are just as able to raid a church as they are anywhere else. The hope is that they will not be as willing to do so. I'll admit surprise at this idea, this 2007 application of one of our more ancient, and outdated, ideas. But as you'll notice in the Yahoo! News article linked above, when faced with deportation Elvira Arellano ran with her son into a church's sanctuary. She's been there for eight months now.
It's always thorny when churches involve themselves in things like this. I certainly have not advocated the idea that the Church is above the law - I have said that they should no longer enjoy any tax exemptions, I have criticized pastors and churches that skirt the law or have even the appearance of unethical behavior.
But this is different, this is where it's legitimate for the Church to claim a higher authority than the US Congress or the Executive Branch. In this the Church is protecting the powerless from the powerful. In this the Church is providing sanctuary to the least, standing up to this world's authorities and stating very plainly that a thing might be legal, but that doesn't make the thing moral.
*Notice that those charged with a felony are entitled to a jury trial and an attorney if they cannot afford one on their own. Note also that those who overstay their visas are guilty of a civil offense, not a criminal offense. That's why those who overstay visas have a process to go through while those caught with no documentation are able to be rounded up, placed in jail and deported without ever consulting with a lawyer or even seeing a judge. The bill mentioned in the linked article would have criminalized overstaying a visa, subjecting those who do that to the same type of treatment. Also remember that littering is a misdemeanor, as is speeding. When we get charged with a misdemeanor, we go on our way and wait for a bill in the mail. Illegal immigrants exist in a legal limbo, a place in our legal code that provides huge consequences for what is technically a minor offense.