On March 24, 1984, Felipe and Elena Ixk’oj’t and their five children fled Guatemala to the tiny Weston Priory monastery, not far from where I was living in Vermont. My family had loose ties with the popular “singing” brothers via their well-worn LPs and sporadic visits to the monastery. I was vaguely aware of the hush-hush nature of the brothers’ guests, but until recently I had no idea that I’d unknowingly rubbed shoulders with a public sanctuary—the 100th official public sanctuary, to be exact.

The Sanctuary Movement

The sanctuary movement began in the 1980s as a response to the treatment of Central Americans, mainly Salvadorans and Guatemalans, who fled their homelands in droves to escape brutal persecution that was the result of civil warfare in the region from the 1970s to the 1990s. But to really grasp the impetus of the movement, it is necessary to understand the political climate of the times.

Supporters visit Javier Flores and his family at Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia where they have been in sanctuary for four months.

Central America was in turmoil. “In El Salvador and Guatemala, civil war had been years in the making, as oligarchies supported by corrupt military leaders repressed large sectors of the rural population. In Nicaragua the socialist revolutionary Frente Sandinista had ousted the brutal right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. The civil war in El Salvador increased in intensity in early 1980.”1 Meanwhile in America, Ronald Regan had become president in 1981, and he and his administration viewed these civil wars as encroaching cold war fronts that had to be eliminated. At that time the United States vigorously sided with any government fighting Communism, which was viewed as pervasive and evil. In Central America we invested billions into the fight.

The human rights violations in these countries were horrific: death squads, brutality against the peasant populations, forced recruitment, disappearances, torture, and murders of those who spoke out against their governments. The casualties included community leaders, union leaders, and clergy. Most of the human rights violations were committed by the military and paramilitary forces, which were supported by their governments and therefore aided by the United States.

While with one hand the United States was fighting Communism by doling out funds to support the governments in Central America, with its other hand Congress imposed a ban on foreign aid to countries whose governments committed gross human rights violations. Not wanting to admit it had egg on its face, the United States was forced deny the truth of what was happening in Central American countries. Ergo, if the United States did not give aid to countries committing human rights violations, then the refugees could not possibly be fleeing those violations. The refugees themselves could hardly prove otherwise, as one consequence of running for your life tends to be a lack of documentation to prove it. So the United States pronounced the desperate hordes to be “economic migrants” fleeing poverty in search of a better life and better jobs rather than political refugees fleeing for their lives.

It was the perfect storm.

A conservative estimate is that more than 1 million Central Americans attempted to find safe haven in the United States during the 1980s, and most of them were turned away. As an example, less than 3 percent of asylum cases were approved in 1984. (For comparison, approval rates for other countries ranged from 32 to 60 percent.)2 In 1981 more than 6,000 Salvadorans filed asylum applications with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The INS acted on 156 of them, approving just two.3 For the most part, Central American refugees were rounded up, arrested, and sent back to their country of origin, where many were murdered or simply “disappeared.”

Cities of Refuge

The concept of sanctuary is an old one. In the Bible, a book filled with stories of immigrants and outsiders, God instructed His people to set up six cities of refuge. Anyone who killed a person could flee to the closest city of refuge to him for asylum from the avenger of blood, a relative of the victim whose responsibility it was to avenge their death. A city of refuge wasn’t a “get out of jail free” card, however. It was just a temporary safe place for the alleged murderer to stay until a trial could be arranged to determine if the death was murder or if it was an accident.

If the person was convicted of murder, they were turned over to the blood avenger; murder was punishable by death. But if it was decided that they had killed someone accidentally, they could live in the city of refuge. If they left, even to go outside the city limits to forage for food, their life was forfeit if the blood avenger caught them. Otherwise, they remained in the city of refuge until the high priest died, after which they could return to their home and the blood avenger could not seek revenge.4

Holy Ground

The right of sanctuary continued into Christianity, and churches were often places of refuge for those fleeing the consequences of a crime. Indeed, this had been the case with temples in Greek and Roman society. In fact, some believe that the churches became sanctuaries because the early Christians, aware that their pagan rivals used temples to shelter runaway slaves and criminals, didn’t want to be shown up in their piety, so they offered sanctuary in their churches. During the Middle Ages in England, criminals and the accused actively took advantage of the opportunity for sanctuary. English common law allowed them to seek sanctuary in a church for 40 days, after which they had to be tried and accept the consequences or confess and leave the kingdom.

According to the United States Department of Justice, because “the historical tradition of providing church sanctuary for criminal offenses was abolished by statute in England in 1623,”5 the right of sanctuary didn’t come to America as part of the common law. That’s not to say the United States didn’t have their own version of sanctuary. Notable instances were the Underground Railroad and draft dodging.

“The more current sanctuary movement first developed in the 1960s as an attempt to protect Americans who resisted the draft and opposed the Vietnam War. William Sloan Coffin talked about a ‘sanctuary for the conscientious.’ Churches in several cities announced that they would be sanctuaries for draft resisters. Many resisters and those giving them sanctuary were arrested.”6

Save Haven

In 1982 Southside Presbyterian Church became the first official public sanctuary when it opened its doors to Central American refugees. The decision wasn’t made lightly, however. Before the declaration, they tried to help the immigrants through civically acceptable channels by opening a free legal clinic. But six months later they realized they hadn’t won a single case. All their clients were simply being deported.

Reverend John Fife, Southside’s pastor at the time, said, “We would fly in an Amnesty International doctor who would say, ‘Yeah, this guy has been tortured,’ . . . and the immigration judge would order them deported the next day.”7

It was Quaker rancher Jim Corbett who suggested they help people cross the Mexican border and then shelter them until a better legal option became available. “ ‘I spent a lot of sleepless nights,’ Fife said, knowing that his actions could result in a jail sentence.”8 But, he said, they never meant to start a movement. It was simple self-defense; they were only trying to help people.

Nevertheless, they did start a movement, the sanctuary movement, which, at its peak, included more than 500 churches, schools, and synagogues. In practice it worked as a sort of Underground Railroad, the goal being to ferry refugees from one safe haven to the next. For a while the ultimate destination was Canada, until the U.S. government convinced the new conservative Canadian government to tighten their borders and bar more Central American refugees. After that, refugees were matched with communities who were willing to help them acclimate. Those who were willing were invited to tell their stories by activist groups hoping to highlight their plight.

In 1990 Congress passed legislation that gave the president the ability to grant temporary protected status (TPS) to groups of people who needed a safe haven. The original sanctuary movement gradually waned as it became less needed, but not before the movement itself won the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award in 1984.9

In response to rising deportation rates during the Obama administration, the new sanctuary movement was born. Its goals were slightly different: to keep immigrants already in the United States from being deported. “Participation in the sanctuary movement surged after the election of President Trump. Before his election, about 400 U.S. congregations were involved, according to Church World Service, which offers immigrants legal assistance and helps organize the sanctuary movement. Today CWS estimates more than 800 congregations are involved.”10

But the word “sanctuary” can be misleading, and many churches recognize this, warning their congregations against holding out a false sense of security to undocumented immigrants. Unlike historical sanctuary, churches cannot offer a legal “safe zone” where illegal aliens can call a time-out on deportation, and for those so inclined to try, there may be legal consequences. “The law says no one may knowingly harbor or shield an illegal alien from detection or from enforcement of immigration laws,” says Jessica Vaughan, director of public policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, an independent research organization. “The responsible people could be prosecuted, resulting in incarceration or fines. And sheltering the illegal alien is ultimately pointless, because the federal government can enter the facility to make an arrest if needed, or they will simply wait it out, and the illegal alien will be deported anyway.”11

Some members of the original sanctuary movement found this out the hard way when the INS infiltrated church services, Bible studies, and other activities, posing as sanctuary workers in order to record and observe conversations and activities in a morally questionable undercover operation called Sojourner. In January 1985, as a result, 16 sanctuary workers were indicted on criminal charges and eight were convicted in 1986, though no one served jail time.12

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is, however, cautious about arrests and raids made in areas it deems “sensitive” and that could alarm communities: churches, hospitals, schools, and public activities such as public religious services or public demonstrations. But the 2011 ICE memo outlining the department’s approach to sensitive areas stresses the fact that “the policy is not intended to categorically prohibit lawful enforcement operations when there is an immediate need for enforcement action.”13

In some instances, churches now have a little more immunity when harboring illegal immigrants. In 2005 the Mormon Church requested that Senator Robert F. Bennett introduce legislation allowing religious groups the ability to recruit illegal aliens as church volunteers and missionaries. It was passed, and while aliens themselves are still subject to arrest, church officials can no longer be prosecuted for taking them on.

While the sanctuary movement and the more recent phenomenon of “sanctuary cities” are not technically related, they arrive at the same goal through different means. Institutions or individuals involved in the sanctuary movement provide a place to stay in a “sensitive area” in the hopes that ICE won’t forcibly remove an illegal alien, whereas sanctuary cities simply refuse to cooperate in varying degrees with requests by federal immigration authorities. Some cite sanctuary cities as a direct response to the Obama administration’s targeting of undocumented immigrants with criminal records, which led to the deportation of a record-breaking 2.5 million people during his term of office.

Newly elected president Donald Trump made no bones about his aggressive approach to immigration and illegal aliens. It was a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. He intends to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, but many mayors of sanctuary cities have spoken out in defense of their populations, undocumented or otherwise, saying they will protect everyone equally, whether or not they are legally in the country. They have numerous and varied reasons for these policies, ranging from wanting citizens to feel safe enough to come to the police regardless of their status to not wanting to detain illegal aliens in their jails while waiting for immigrations to pick them up.

The problem with sanctuary cities is that they blanket all illegal aliens, many of whom are not law-abiding people interested only in going about their peaceful business. Sanctuary cities are to illegal criminal activities as dank corners are to mold: opportune places to flourish. It is high-profile crimes committed by illegal aliens that have prompted President Trump’s crackdown on sanctuary cities. The public is demanding change. They want to live in safety, and while some illegal aliens want nothing more than to live peaceful lives, others want to take advantage of the shelter provided by sanctuary cities to further their own unlawful interests.

Our current immigration laws are too narrow to be ethical and effective. When we enforce laws that treat good people as bad people, we do them an injustice, and ethical people will object, as Reverend Fife and others did in the 1980s. Immigration laws then were often unjust in practice: Lady Liberty didn’t seem to listening, and some citizens of moral sensibility felt backed into a corner, not wanting to break the law but unwilling to refuse shelter to terrified, broken people fleeing persecution. ‘“Now we’re faced with the fact that the government has failed to reform immigration even though a substantial majority of people want it done,’ Fife said. ‘Sanctuary is now being done again for the same ethical reason.’”14

If we ever hope to resolve the immigration situation, we must take a good hard look at what is best for all people, the citizens we have and those who hope to become citizens. A country cannot be great of it treats human beings without compassion. We must work to create laws that are sensitive to the plight of those less fortunate and craft immigration laws that are fair to everyone.

Barbara Kingsolver, in her 1988 novel The Bean Trees, captured the sentiment of the times, and it echoes eerily from that decade to this. “What I’m saying is nobody feels sorry for anybody anymore, nobody even pretends they do. . . . It’s like it’s become unpatriotic.”15 Compassion should be at the heart of patriotism. It should be at the heart of immigration laws. And until it is, we deny our claims to both civil justice and moral clarity.

*Emma Lazarus quote from http://time.com/4652666/statue-of-liberty-give-me-your-tired-poor/


1 http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era/

2 Ibid.

3 http://www.csmonitor.com/1982/0205/020560.html

4 Joshua 20; Numbers 35.

5 https://www.justice.gov/file/23546/download.

6 https://www.smith.edu/religiouslife/articles/2017/spring/sanctuary-movement-history.php

7 http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2014/08/22/church-sanctuary-movement-s-revived-tucson/14471415/

8 Ibid.

9 http://www.ips-dc.org/about/letelier-moffitt-human-rights-awards/

10 http://religionnews.com/2017/03/17/sanctuary-for-the-undocumented-comes-with-legal-consequences/

11 Ibid.

12 http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1113&context=ylpr

13 https://www.ice.gov/doclib/ero-outreach/pdf/10029.2-policy.pdf

14 http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2014/08/22/church-sanctuary-movement-s-revived-tucson/14471415/

15 New York: The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper & Row Publishers, 1988), p. 171.


Article Author: Céleste Perrino-Walker