A local Hispanic advocacy group on Wednesday called on Las Vegas Valley churches to band together to help create a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants seeking to avoid deportation.
"We want to be a city in which we fight for and support the rights of immigrants, because we depend on them," said Evelyn Flores, a community organizer for the United Coalition for Immigrant Rights, one of the groups that helped organize some of last year's local protest marches in support of sympathetic federal immigration reform.
The group's brief news conference in both English and Spanish at St. Anne Catholic Church was inspired by the case of Elvira Arellano, an illegal immigrant who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid deportation and separation from her young U.S.-born son. Arellano was deported to Mexico on Sunday after being arrested near a Los Angeles church.
"She is just one example, one symbol of how families are being destroyed and being separated by unjust immigration laws," Flores said. "We are here today to call for an end to it."
Flores said the group has begun "a dialogue, a conversation with churches across the valley."
But no church has yet pledged its support for the idea, she said.
St. Anne simply agreed to let the group use the church for a news conference, an official there said.
The group's "sanctuary city" idea for churches is not the same as the so-called "sanctuary cities" that have adopted policies discouraging municipal workers, including police, from asking for individuals' immigration status and reporting illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is a Republican candidate for president, recently criticized the "sanctuary policies" of "cities like Newark, San Francisco and New York" in a campaign radio ad, saying such policies encourage illegal immigration.
Dozens of communities nationwide have adopted such sanctuary policies, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Asked whether the group planned also to approach city leaders about creating a "sanctuary city," Flores said it would "address and pursue any avenue" to stop the separation of families.
Sen. Bob Beers, R-Las Vegas, said the idea of offering sanctuary to illegal immigrants "gives immigrants a bad name."
"The issue is not immigration," he said. "The issue is illegal immigration. It sounds like from their (the group's) name, they're failing to make that distinction."
Arellano had been deported from the United States once before. She returned, was arrested in 2002 and was convicted of working under a false Social Security number.
She was ordered to surrender to immigration authorities after serving several years of probation but instead took refuge at a Chicago church in August 2006.