Francisco Aguirre isn't the first illegal immigrant to be given sanctuary by a church, but he might be the most egregious scofflaw to secure such protection. His two-decade-long migration saga tells us just about everything we need to know about our Keystone Cops system of immigration enforcement and how scofflaws gain a sense of entitlement thanks to misguided persons and institutions who don't care about the rule of law or the message that a no-consequences and no-penalties immigration system sends to aspiring migrants around the world.
According to the Associated Press, Aguirre, a 35-year-old native of El Salvador, has lived illegally in the U.S. for most of the last 19 years. He was deported in 2000 following a conviction for drug trafficking but apparently slipped back into the U.S. illegally. Aguirre, who has two children who were born in the U.S., apparently didn't come to the attention of the authorities again until August, when he was arrested for driving under the influence. He was dubbed a "priority removal" case by ICE, but when ICE agents came to his home, he didn't let them in and apparently they didn't break the door down to remove him. (Aguirre claims they had no warrant.) Aguirre sought and received sanctuary at the Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Ore.
The case brings back memories of Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant who received sanctuary in a Chicago church for a year back in 2006 before being deported. Earlier this year she came back to the U.S. and sought asylum. She now travels the country advocating for the rights of illegal immigrants. Aguirre is also described as a "community activist," and, according to the AP, works as a coordinator at the Voz Workers' Rights Education Project, a Portland nonprofit that describes itself as "a worker-led organization that empowers immigrants and day laborers to gain control over their working conditions through leadership development, organizing, and community education."
The Arellano and Aguirre cases prove that even serial immigration offenders can often live here for many years, bolstered by our system of second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, an enforcement apparatus that is overwhelmed and undermanned, and their own sense of entitlement. Let's assume for the sake of argument that Aguirre has turned his life around, and that the recent DUI charge isn't indicative of his character. Let's say that he's an asset to his community. Should he be allowed to stay?
Without knowing more about the details of his case, I wouldn't argue that he should be barred from ever returning to the U.S., but if you fail to deport a repeat offender like him it makes a mockery of the legal immigration process. It sends the message to would-be offenders that we aren't serious about enforcing our laws and it would prove the point that migrants can take the law into their own hands – essentially deciding for themselves if they have a legal right to live here.
Institutions like the Lutheran church that is giving Aguirre sanctuary claim the moral high ground but the fact that many of these sanctuary churches are simply trying to court Hispanic parishioners is pretty transparent. But why assume that most Latinos want a shambolic, no-consequences and no-penalties immigration system? It's an insulting assumption to make. The question of whether Aguirre, and thousands of others in his same situation, should be allowed to live here should be resolved while he/they reside in his/their home countries. Even if Aguirre is eventually deemed to have a lawful right to return here, sending him back to his home country, at least for some significant period of time, sends a message that there are consequences to breaking the law, even if they come decades late.