The Sanctuary Movement, Then and Now

By Judith McDaniel | February 21, 2017

(Getty/AFP/Jason Connolly) Jeanette Vizguerra and her children stand outside the First Unitarian Church in Denver, Colorado. Vizguerra, an undocumented Mexican national, is currently facing deportation and has been living at the church in sanctuary since February 15, 2017.

It seems as though the word “sanctuary” has been used more in the last two months than in the more than two decades since the end of the original Sanctuary Movement. On January 25, President Trump signed an executive order that would punish and withdraw federal funds from any Sanctuary jurisdictions—those states, counties, or cities that indicate that they will not assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in identifying and arresting immigrants without legal documents.

The rationale? “Sanctuary jurisdictions across the United States willfully violate Federal law in an attempt to shield aliens from removal from the United States,” the executive order reads. “These jurisdictions have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” The executive order goes on to say what is required of every jurisdiction in the country: complete obedience to any order that ICE might create, including but not limited to using local police forces as immigration officers.

We have been here before. During the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement formed to offer protection to undocumented refugees fleeing Central American wars. The Salvadoran government had imposed martial law on its citizens, which in effect marked the beginning of mass killings. Human rights sources estimate that 18,000 to 20,000 people were killed or “disappeared” in 1980 alone. Thousands of Salvadorans fled the violence, coming north through Mexico to the United States. In the fall of 1981, the killing expanded to Guatemala, which led to a similar exodus. Today we are once again witnessing people fleeing violence in Central America and the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.

In July of 1980, more than two dozen Salvadorans who were crossing the brutally arid Sonoran Desert were abandoned by their guides. Thirteen died and the incident made national headlines. When the survivors were brought to Tucson and Phoenix, churches wanting to assist them discovered that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was planning to return the refugees to El Salvador without allowing any of them to file for asylum.

The churches thought these refugees should have been protected under the 1980 Refugee Act and other applicable laws, which provide asylum for any refugee who can demonstrate a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The Tucson and Phoenix religious communities established a task force to assist these and other refugees. Within a year, the need to house many refugees within the U.S. became obvious. Support of the U.S. government for the brutal Central American militaries gave religious communities an extra incentive. On March 24, 1982, six congregations in Arizona and California declared themselves “sanctuaries” and began building communities of support for the growing number of refugees seeking asylum.

Because Sanctuary congregations were breaking the law, a low profile was necessary. In spite of the attempt to stay “under the radar” of the INS, the Sanctuary Movement was infiltrated by informants and 16 sanctuary workers, clergy, and laypersons were indicted in 1985 on 71 counts, including conspiracy. Eventually eleven went on trial and eight were convicted but none went to prison; all were given probation.

I was part of the Sanctuary Movement in New York during those years. The Albany Quaker Meeting, of which I was a member, began taking refugees into sanctuary in 1984. Because we lived in upstate New York, we were also the last leg of a “new” Underground Railroad, taking refugees who could not or did not want to stay in the United States north to Canada. My car made a number of trips to Montreal, carrying individuals, couples, and families. During one trip in winter, a family from El Salvador asked to stop at a roadside pullout so that their children could feel the snow. They could ask for this, I thought, because they finally felt safe, only a few miles from being welcomed into Canada, their new home.

During the first Sanctuary Movement in the United States, the word “sanctuary” meant something quite specific. The concept came from a broader understanding of the right of asylum, as practiced in ancient cultures in Greece, Egypt, and Israel. Much later, in medieval Europe, religious communities adopted this tradition, offering protection for someone being persecuted—whether for criminal or political acts. Jewish and Christian congregations drew on cultural traditions and biblical passages like those in Exodus and the Gospels which admonish care for the stranger, the poor, and those afflicted.

Later, in the United States, runaway slaves were offered sanctuary in churches in the north before the Civil War. During the Civil Rights Movement and Anti-Vietnam War period, civil rights workers and draft evaders occasionally sought refuge in churches.

The history of the “sanctuary city” designation is similarly vague in its origin and definition. In 1979, the city of Los Angeles filed a police order preventing police from inquiring about the immigration status of residents. Other cities followed, some using the force of the law to declare themselves sanctuaries (de jure) and others relying on actions (de facto) that describe what the city will and will not do with regard to immigration enforcement.

By 1987, 440 cities in the United States had been declared “sanctuary cities,” open to migrants from civil wars in Central America. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and Quaker meeting houses welcomed refugees into sanctuary and vowed to not let immigration authorities enter these “sacred spaces” to arrest anyone. By and large, immigration authorities did not enter those places.

The word sanctuary meant something to me, to those refugees, and to the many congregations all over the country who gave them shelter. Today the term has become charged, and in some quarters, “toxic.” Many universities have rejected the label. Some universities have told students and faculty urging sanctuary status that they will do everything “within the law” to protect vulnerable students. Others have promised they will not turn over information to immigration officials, a meaningless gesture to students known as “dreamers,” since they have already registered with the government to be granted DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status and all of their contact information is on record.

The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has threatened to defund any state campus or city in Texas that declared itself a sanctuary. Other states have followed suit. Most recently Alabama’s legislature voted to cut off funding for any campus that declared itself a sanctuary—a preemptive move, since no campus in Alabama has so declared. In December in Congress, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican, introduced the “No Funding for Sanctuary Campuses Act,” which would eliminate federal funding for universities that do not comply with immigration laws. Meanwhile, in Seattle, Daniel Ramirez Medina, a DACA student at the University of Washington, has been arrested in an ICE raid, though he had not violated the terms of his DACA status.

Today, hundreds of cities are considered sanctuary jurisdictions. At least five states and 644 counties have policies limiting local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities, according to The New York Times. There are many cities who practice similar policies, but do not identify with the term “sanctuary.” For example, Tucson, where I live, has not yet used the word sanctuary to describe the fact that Tucson law enforcement officers will not ask for proof of citizenship during a stop for a traffic violation.

There have, of course, been legal challenges from cities that have declared themselves to be “sanctuaries.” San Francisco has filed a lawsuit alleging the executive order is unconstitutional in its violation of the Tenth Amendment by striking “at the heart of established principles of federalism.” Constitutional lawyers have also pointed out case precedents establishing that, in the words of former Justice Scalia in Printz v. United States, “The Federal Government may not compel the States to enact or administer a federal regulatory program.” Scalia was writing about the government’s attempt to enforce the Brady Bill on gun background checks, but other cases limit the federal government’s ability to cut off funds when the funds are unrelated to the actions being required. It would be very hard to withhold Medicaid money, for example, to a jurisdiction that would not support immigration enforcement.

Sanctuary congregations, religious institutions, and campuses are not immune from law enforcement. There is no reason to think that ICE agents will not enter those buildings, however sacred, where refugees are being protected. There is no special legal protection for those who claim they are exercising their protected right to practice their religious beliefs. The laws and the executive orders apply to everyone without regard to belief. And I have no doubt that the government can demonstrate a compelling reason for enforcing the law in this instance.

Will President Trump’s executive order criminalizing sanctuary jurisdictions and cutting off funds work? I don’t know. In addition to the San Francisco lawsuit, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, and Washington state have filed suits against both the sanctuary ban and the travel ban executive orders. Nonetheless, these executive orders likely have had and will have a chilling effect on people who say they want to help refugees but who are unwilling to face the potential consequences.

One thing I do know from my own experience is that the concept of sanctuary has two parts. Yes, it is a safe place, however vaguely defined. It is a place of retreat, a place that shuts out danger or perceived danger. And it is also a concept that requires action. Sanctuary doesn’t happen by itself. It does not happen by chance. Sanctuary is a deliberate undertaking, of people acting on behalf of others and communities.

I would be proud to live in a city or county or state or country that called itself a sanctuary. To me, the word evokes the values I have believed this country stands for—protecting the vulnerable, offering opportunities for all. At the end of my book on the Sanctuary movement, the words I asked then still resonate for me and for my country:

what distance must I travel
‎      what must I venture
‎            what must I risk
how much time is left to answer?

I believe we must each venture and risk and answer to our fellow humans—the migrants and refugees in our midst.

Judith McDaniel teaches law and religion at the University of Arizona. Her book, Sanctuary: A Journey, was published by Firebrand Books in 1987.

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