May 25, 2008
SAN ANTONIO — A group of faith-driven activists is trying to organize a network to help illegal immigrants who fear new local immigration-related laws and massive raids.
The advocates — all Catholic — hope to provide places to stay, food and health care for immigrants. They have a few families who have volunteered to host immigrants, but ultimately want to open a shelter.
If the project is successful, immigrants seeking sanctuary would simply need to ask for "Romo."
The name refers to Toribio Romo, a Mexican priest who was killed in the 1920s and later canonized as a saint. Many crossing the border illegally invoke Romo when praying for safe passage into the United States.
"We are the new Sanctuary Movement in San Antonio," said group member Victor Ruiz, 63, who works for the immigration division of Catholic Charities. "If immigrants need help, we will do all we can to help them out."
The original Sanctuary Movement was a religious effort started in the 1980s to help Central Americans fleeing the region's civil wars.
Similarly, New Sanctuary Movement coalitions have formed nationwide to offer refuge to parents whose pending deportations would split them from their U.S.-born children.
"What they're doing over there is incredibly powerful," said Kristin Kumpf, a national organizer with Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago and a national spokeswoman for the New Sanctuary Movement. "I'm grateful that people of faith in San Antonio are welcoming our immigrant brothers and sisters."
Members of the Romo group in San Antonio point to an increasingly anti-immigrant atmosphere in the country and cite the New Testament's Matthew 25 as a religious requirement to help the stranger or outsider.
"Immigrants need to know that they're not alone, that not everyone in this country is their enemy," said Father Donald Bahlinger, 79, a priest at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church who spent nearly a decade in Central America in the 1990s.
For now, the group visits day laborers to offer them breakfast and small cards bearing a picture of Saint Toribio Romo on one side and a prayer and phone number on the other. The number connects people with a prepaid cell phone dubbed the "Romo line" that will be the contact point for immigrants seeking help and for supporters who want to volunteer or donate.
Authorities warn that while they support people acting on political and religious convictions, they can't ignore the breaking of immigration laws against transporting or harboring unauthorized immigrants.
"I'd caution them that good intentions could make them criminally liable," said Jerry Robinette, director of investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Antonio. "They have to make the decision whether they want to violate the law or not."
Even Archbishop Jose Gomez, who leads the Archdiocese of San Antonio, questioned the Romo group's stance, saying sanctuary for immigrants historically has been a political statement and not only religious charity.
"We respect the laws of this country," said Gomez, who's originally from Monterrey, Mexico. "We're not promoting illegal immigration or any kind of sanctuary movement."
Group members understand they're flirting with violating federal immigration laws. Some are more willing to risk arrest than others, but all say religious and moral tenets surpass what they think are unjust laws.
"We're accomplices if we don't speak out against this injustice," said Lee Theilen, who works at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.