More than a hundred activists from both sides of the illegal immigration debate faced off Sunday outside a church where an illegal immigrant and her U.S.-born infant son are being sheltered.
The anti-illegal immigration group Save Our State, which organized the rally of about 120 protesters and counter-protesters in Simi Valley, Calif., said its members had hoped to make a citizen's arrest of the woman, who has identified herself only as Liliana.
"I'm here because I'm for the movement for the illegals to go home," protester Dee Barrow said, according to The Associated Press.
Liliana, who lived in nearby Oxnard before taking shelter at the United Church of Christ, has been living in the church's former parsonage as part of the New Sanctuary Movement – the effort of churches in five big U.S. cities to protect illegal immigrants from deportation, offering their buildings as sanctuary if need be.
While some have called the effort "radical hospitality," others have called it misguided.
The faith groups "don't seem to realize that they are being charitable with someone else's resources, and that's not charity," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors limits on immigration.
"We are talking about illegal immigrants taking someone else's job, filling up the classroom of someone else's child," he said, according to AP.
Save Our State, which has only been around for about two years, describes illegal immigration as "disastrous" and promotes "aggressive activism and advocacy."
A statement on the group's Web site says that California is filled with people "who are weak and unwilling to wage battle against the Mexican racialists and the vast open borders lobby."
Daniel Smallwood, one of the counter-protesters at Sunday's rally, accused the anti-illegal immigration activists of racism and said members of his group joined the rally because they didn't want their ideological opponents "to get all the attention."
During the confrontation, one immigrant-rights advocate was reportedly injured with a chemical spray. Police Capt. John McGinty said police were investigating allegations that an opposing protester was responsible.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, and at least 3.1 million children who have one or more parents in the country illegally, according to a 2006 report by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Earlier this summer, President Bush and a group of bipartisan senators had tried to push through Congress an immigration reform bill that would have provided a pathway for illegal immigrants to gain legal status while beefing up border security and enacting penalties for those crossing the border illegally.
Fierce opposition to the bill from conservative Republicans who called the legislation amnesty had derailed the legislation, however, leaving the emotionally-charged immigration problem as a potential key issue during the presidential race and a matter for the next administration to contend with.
In response to the immigration problem, the New Sanctuary Movement launched in May, and states in its web site that it "will enable congregations to publicly provide hospitality and protection to a limited number of immigrant families whose legal cases clearly reveal the contradictions and moral injustice of our current immigration system while working to support legislation that would change their situation."
The faith-based effort is loosely based on a movement in the 1980s, when churches harbored Central American refugees fleeing wars in their home countries. Organizers of the current movement include members of the Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and other faiths.
Participating churches in the five major cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Chicago and New York – won't all house illegal immigrants. They will, however, help in other ways such as providing legal counsel and accompanying them to court hearings.