Sacred Resistance: The Sanctuary Movement from Reagan to Trump
At Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, material reminders of the Sanctuary Movement from the 1980s filled the sanctuary. As we (the authors) walked into the kiva-inspired sanctuary in late August 2018, we were met with replicas of two banners that once graced the old sanctuary. The banners (pictured below) hung from the wooden rafters and draped onto the ground.
(Photograph by Lloyd Barba)
The banner on the left tells a tale that, almost four decades later, remains true: “LA MIGRA NO PROFANA EL SANTUARIO” (“Immigration Officers will not Profane the Sanctuary”) The banner on the right offers a proclamation of the past that has largely remained the case: “ESTE ES EL SANTUARIO DE DIOS PARA LOS OPRIMIDOS DE CENTRO AMERICA” (“This is the Sanctuary of God for the Oppressed of Central America”). These two are more than mere replicas of artifacts set up for a drama stage. The statements on the two banners, taken together, unfurl stories about the Sanctuary Movement, demonstrating both how it has remained the same and how it has changed from the past to the present.
Earlier that year, in June, I (Tatyana) stood in the clustered crowd of people gathered in downtown San Diego for a rally protesting the separation of children from their parents at the border. I was unable to see the faces of the speakers because of the sheer number of protestors. They had come prepared. They gathered with signs denouncing Donald Trump’s and his administration’s latest slanderous statements about Latinx communities. Some of those gathered wore jackets and wielded signs declaring that they “really do care” about migrant children separated from their families. One sign in particular caught my eye, as it displayed a mosaic of fists raised in protest declaring “Sacred Resistance”. Another woman carried a large cross commemorating the many undocumented migrants who lost their lives on the dangerous trek through the desert. The Border Angels, a humanitarian nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization in San Diego that provides basic resources, such as water, in the desert for undocumented migrants attempting the precarious journey, set up a table displaying their new mural. It portrays La Virgen de Guadalupe holding a jug of drinking water and is flanked by two other jugs of water, one of which reads “Ni Una Muerte Mas,” (“Not One More Death”) and the other “El Amor No Tiene Fronteras” (“Love Has No Borders”). I saw banners rising tall above the crowd from members of the interfaith community. Public displays of, and references to, various religions were all around me as I listened to an imam who came along with a rabbi and a pastor to address the crowd. He referenced the Qur’an using scripture to denounce the activities against families that the Trump administration has committed. He exclaimed into the microphone:
Did you hear me? I said Jesus, excuse me, I meant Jesús [pronounced in a Spanish accent, “heh-soos”] was an immigrant! Did you hear me? I said his father Joseph, I mean José, was an immigrant! Did you hear me? I said his mother Mary, I mean María, was an immigrant! They crossed the borders to Egypt, they were refugees, they were immigrants! And are we gonna cage our heroes and our loved ones? Even if you’re not of the Abrahamic faith, even you understand just by simple logic.
The throng of resisters cheered at his message which transcends and crosses religious lines by urging listeners to exegete the story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt contextually . The presence of protesters from diverse religious, racial, and class backgrounds at the rally and in the lineup of speakers signal something new about the actors in this ever-thickening plot of immigrant rights in the Trump era. At the rally it became clear that this diversity of support, forged over the past decade, has significant implications for immigrant rights as well as the Sanctuary Movement today.
From the birth of the U.S. Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s to the declaration of the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) in 2007 and the new wave of NSM activism starting in 2016, sanctuary seekers, workers, and leaders have enacted various kinds of sacred resistance to respond to the shifting contexts of immigration crises. Our study is based on interviews and ethnographic work carried out during the summer of 2018 in the border areas of southern California and Arizona, a synthesis of news coverage, and the growing literature on both the early years of sanctuary and the NSM. It offers a conceptual framework to unpack the history and polyvalent meaning of the term “sanctuary” today. This article begins by tracking the development of the Sanctuary Movement from the 1980s to the NSM organization in 2006 (officially declared in 2007). We argue that since Trump’s election, we are experiencing a second wave of the New Sanctuary Movement. According to Church World Service, within months of Trump’s election, the number of “sanctuary” churches in the U.S. doubled (from 400 to 800) and by 2018 has now nearly tripled (reaching over 1,100). Furthermore, the number of sanctuary coalitions since Trump’s election has also more than tripled. Today there are more individuals “taking sanctuary in congregations than at any time since the 1980s.” To sustain this wave of sanctuary efforts, religious activists have mobilized a sacred resistance and new actors have stepped up. The second wave of the NSM is evidencing an increasing reliance on the 1980s Sanctuary Movement of harboring undocumented immigrants. While the term “sanctuary” has taken on new meanings, the tried-and-true practice of harboring is yet again being tested. Sanctuary today, though largely expanded in practice and in the demographics of its seekers, is still firmly grounded in the acts of sacred resistance that began with Central American sanctuary seekers and North American sanctuary workers.
Sanctuary: Literature Review
The 1980s U.S. Sanctuary Movement has enjoyed extensive coverage from a range of disciplines. First, insiders of the movement reported on it as it developed. These 1980s journalists wrote sympathetically about the movement and sought to ground sanctuary and asylum as legal (not economic) issues. The authors’ positionalities reflected the broader movement: Golden and McConnell participated in the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America and compiled firsthand accounts of the violence in Central America. Davidson’s work, while centered largely on the philosophies of Jim Corbett, peered into the motivations of a broader cast of actors including women (Sister Darlene Nicgorski of the Chicago Task Force on Central America) and Mexican clergy (Father Ramon Dagoberto Quiñones).
On the heels of the first Sanctuary Movement, a series of academic ethnographies in the early 1990s critically explored various branches and divisions within the movement. While Cunningham and Bibler Coutin still recognized Tucson as ground-zero, Bibler Coutin widened the geographical scope of scholarship on the movement by including San Francisco. Of the writers in this first wave of critical scholarship, Lorentzen provided the most thorough sociological scaffolding for understanding the movement. Her particular focus on the gender dynamics of “free spaces” and the “humanitarian approach” to sanctuary (heavily emphasized in Tucson) versus the “political approach” (practiced more in Chicago) illustrated the fine nuances of internal and regional dynamics.
Since the 1990s, scholars from multidisciplinary backgrounds have revisited the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. They have pushed the scholarship on the Sanctuary Movement to consider longer histories on the ground and broader geographical regions. Beyond examining key actors, Chinchilla, Hamilton, and Loucky demonstrated how Los Angeles, a major destination for Central Americans in the 1980s and 1990s, fostered the growth of advocacy networks. Perla and Bibler Coutin further complicated the origin story of the Sanctuary Movement in their examination of how Salvadorans laid the foundation for sanctuary action in California in the 1980s. The long-term unintended consequences of the Sanctuary Movement as well as the growth of transnational advocacy networks prompt us to consider how sanctuary lived on beyond landmark legal victories in the U.S. in the early 1990s. Most recently, Mario T. Garcia’s biography of Father Luis Olivares provides insight on the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles by using the histories of local Latinos, Catholic clergy, and sanctuary workers. García details the origins and preparatory work for the declaration of sanctuary at the historic Placita Church (Our Lady Queen of Angels Church). The large migrant population of Central Americans in Los Angeles bolstered the Catholic parish’s efforts. It later proved to be one of the largest and most successful sanctuary programs in the nation. Cadava’s history of transnational sanctuary actors in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands provides the finest challenge to the received origin story of the Sanctuary Movement. His work situated sanctuary activism in the context of transnational grassroots advocacy for Central Americans already on the ground in the late 1970s. In contrast to these localized sanctuary movements, María Cristina García has rendered the most wide-ranging hemispheric study of how the U.S. Sanctuary Movement fits comparatively into the broader story of Central American (Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Nicaraguan) refugees to Mexico, Canada, and the U.S. These works point to newer and more productive ways to investigate histories of sanctuary activism in the U.S. as stories of longer and localized resistance and comparative studies of sanctuary practices. Literature on the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles, for example, has shown how religious and immigrant activism on the ground intersected with sanctuary activism. Seattle, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and the Texas borderlands are sites (to name a few) of 1980s Sanctuary activism that merit closer study.
María Cristina García’s 2005 essay “Dangerous Times Call for Risky Responses” presciently queried as to whether a new Sanctuary Movement was on the horizon. The growing number of ICE apprehensions, stricter immigration policies, and the increased size and militarization of the border in the wake of 9/11 informed her suspicion about the groundswell of activism across the nation. Rabben offered an early investigation into the burgeoning NSM, arguing that it was highly decentralized and describing the expanded definitions of sanctuary which included churches and coalitions that did not offer traditional sanctuary. Rabben saw a close correlation between the NSM and the rising number of humanitarian aid groups in the Arizona borderlands. Yukich’s study of the NSM as a “multi-target social movement” based on her fieldwork in New York and Los Angeles, has provided the most detailed analysis of the NSM from 2007 to 2009. Placing Chicago as the center of the NSM, Pallares’ 2011 study on family activism in Chicago provides a trenchant critique of sanctuary mobilization around the politics of agency, representativity, and motherhood. This along with Yukich’s work on the NSM’s strategy and models of immigrant deservingness reveal some of the fundamental differences between sanctuary practices of the NSM and that from the 1980s.
U.S. Sanctuary in the 1980s: Its Heyday and Aftermath
The fact that sanctuary has assumed new and varied dimensions, to be sure, reflects its diverse origins in history. From the Egyptians to the Hebrews, Greeks, Romans, Karifs of the Hindu Kush in India, and Igbo in Nigeria the practice of sanctuary is a longstanding tradition with deep roots in religious and political centers. Indigenous groups, including the Hopi in the present-day U.S.-Mexico Borderlands, also maintained sanctuary type traditions. Notably, the borderlands would be ground zero of the U.S. Sanctuary Movement.
The story of the U.S. Sanctuary Movement begins with a long tradition of immigrant advocacy in the Arizona-Sonora borderlands. The Tucson-based Manzo Area Council began working with (and sheltering) refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala as early as the mid-1970s. U.S. activists (mostly women) forged binational networks of support for Central Americans, thus laying the groundwork upon which clergy in Tucson would build the Sanctuary Movement and invite others across the U.S. to join. California advocacy groups were among the first to participate. Although often organizing surreptitiously or anonymously, Salvadoran immigrants and U.S.-born Salvadorans in the late 1970s began to forge important links with faith leaders (mostly Catholic) in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, bringing to light the testimonies of many who had suffered from the widespread violence under U.S.-backed regimes. According to Perla and Bibler Coutin, Salvadorans in California “pioneered the strategy of immigrants approaching members of religious organizations to collaborate with them in an effort to mobilize the religious community.” Groups such as El Rescate, the Central American Resource Center, and Centro de Refugiados Centroamericanos, would play a crucial role in the development of the national Sanctuary Movement. Central Americans, to varying degrees, would continue on as active participants in educating and organizing sanctuary in Washington D.C., Houston, New York City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and throughout the country. Scholars would only later realize the robust transnational (that is, U.S.-Central American) linkages that sanctuary workers and Salvadoran activists would forge and operate out of places like California and Arizona. Tucson, often conceived of as the birthplace of the U.S. Sanctuary Movement, ought to be understood in light of greater regional, national, and even transnational developments.
With the infrastructure of advocacy for Central Americans in place, watershed moments brought the plight of Central American refugees to national attention. First, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) attracted a wave of negative attention after the notorious 1981 arrest of an undocumented teenager that its agents chased through the streets of Los Angeles into the aisles of a church and ultimately arrested in the church gallery. The backlash from this event resulted in an order from the INS to not arrest “aliens” in churches, schools, and hospitals, and this has been their policy ever since. The scandal of this arrest was compounded by the larger Central American crisis unfolding on U.S. soil. The increasing number of deaths of Central Americans trying to reach the U.S. became too great to ignore.
Moreover, the inadequacy and inappropriate response of the immigration courts drew many to decry the U.S. for both its role in Central America and how it attempted to deny that those who arrived (or died trying to arrive) in the U.S. were fleeing violent civil wars. These larger revelations compelled Quaker rancher Jim Corbett and Southside Presbyterian Church pastor John Fife to partner with migrant advocacy groups in Tucson. Rev. Fife and Corbett played a key role in bringing these issues to the attention of the Tucson Ecumenical Council (TEC). The TEC’s participation and framing of the issue made Central American hospitality and advocacy an explicitly sacred cause. Members of the TEC formed a task force called the Tucson Ecumenical Council Task Force on Central America (TECTF). The task force partnered with Tucson-based Latin American and immigrant rights groups such as the Manzo Area Council and drew essential support from clergy in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico.
The work in Tucson went from covert to overt. In its early months, the TECTF worked to smuggle migrants across the border. To keep up with the growing number of refugees, clergy in Tucson urged Rev. Fife to publicly declare Southside Presbyterian Church to be a sanctuary church. Fife especially recalled how Corbett proposed sanctuary as a modern-day Underground Railroad: “[a]s we read history, they got it right. Those were the folks who were faithful.” To the TEC, sanctuary was “always a matter of faith.” Thus, on March 24, 1982, the second anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero (whose martyrdom brought international scrutiny to the civil wars in Central America), five San Francisco Bay Area churches joined Southside Presbyterian Church in declaring their churches to be sanctuaries for Central Americans. They reasoned that it was better to go public in order to both highlight the plight of Central Americans as well as to make their intentions known so as to build an aura of sacrality around their bold decree:
We are writing to inform you that the Southside Presbyterian Church will publicly violate the Immigration and Nationality Act Section 274(a). We have declared our church as a “sanctuary” for undocumented refugees from Central America…we believe that justice and mercy require that people of conscience actively assert our God-given right to aid anyone fleeing from persecution and murder. The current administration of U.S. law prohibits us from sheltering these refugees from Central America. Therefore, we believe the administration of the law to be immoral as well as illegal.
The declaration resounded across the country and the movement quickly gained support. The TECTF’s criticism of the role of the U.S. in Central America resonated with members of the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America (CRTF), a coalition formed in response to the murder of four American missionary women in El Salvador in 1980. These task forces combined efforts in 1982 and together constituted the bedrock of the Sanctuary Movement. Differences existed between the two task forces in matters regarding strategy directions, goals, structures, and procedures. Nevertheless, together they amplified the voices of Central Americans fleeing violence and sent delegations to El Salvador and Guatemala to give first-hand accounts of the widespread turmoil. Within a year of Southside Presbyterian Church’s declaration of sanctuary, forty-five faith communities followed suit and over 600 congregations cosponsored their efforts.
Sanctuary unfolded amid the United States’ active role in the Cold War and civil wars in Central America. Cold War anxieties in the U.S. led various presidential administrations to intervene in Central America as early as the 1950s. The Regan administration intended that its heavy-handed operations in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala would stave off and undo leftist revolutions that started over disproportionate land ownership, power, and resources. The rampant kidnappings, murders, death squads, and threats endemic to these civil wars resulted in the severest displacement of people from those countries. Estimates show that by 1990 over one million Central Americans fleeing violence had reached the U.S., yet the U.S. maintained throughout the 1980s that the overwhelming majority did not qualify for asylum according to the 1980 Refugee Act, which had adopted the definition of refugee drafted by the 1967 United Nations Protocol. Asylum seekers had to demonstrate “a well-rounded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group, or political opinion.” The evaluation of “well-rounded fear” became highly politicized (and remains so). Moreover, the Reagan administration could not afford to blow its cover on its foreign interventions in these countries and consistently maintained that those arriving from these countries were economic migrants and not political refugees. To classify them as refugees would be to admit to U.S. involvement in those countries. His administration refused to offer Guatemalans and Salvadorans Extended Voluntary Departure, claiming that the level of violence in those countries was insufficient to warrant such measures. These fateful decisions proved fatal for many who were deported.
Cold War imperatives strongly influenced who would be granted asylum, as the policies worked much more favorably towards granting asylum to refugees from countries hostile to the United States (the Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan, Poland, and Nicaragua). Whereas the U.S. granted asylum to 60.9% of Iranians and 40.9% of Afghans in 1984, from 1983 to 1990 the Reagan and Bush administrations consistently and disproportionately denied asylum to individuals fleeing the U.S.-backed dictatorships in El Salvador (2.6% granted asylum) and Guatemala (1.8%). The U.S., though loathe to admit it, had a refugee crisis from countries that they supported financially and militarily. Church leaders in the 1980s would be among the first and most vocal critics of U.S. involvement in Central America. The crisis quickly became manifestly visible on the border. Clergy took notice and began to act, prophetically denouncing the role of the U.S. abroad and at home.
The decade-long struggle of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s was marked with several victories that came in the 1990s. For example, congressional conferral of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was granted to Salvadorans in the Immigration Act of 1990. When TPS expired in 1992, Salvadorans became eligible for the new Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) (extended yearly until 1996) and thereby qualified for asylum under the terms of what is known as the ABC Agreement. This agreement came as the result of a coalition of religious leaders and activists who, in 1985, filed a lawsuit against the INS, DOJ, and the Executive Office of Immigration Services. The American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh case was settled out of court in 1991. This “ABC Agreement” allowed for over 150,000 Guatemalans and Salvadorans who had been discriminated against to (if eligible) receive a stay of deportation and a new (that is, fairer) asylum interview and decision. Perla and Bibler Coutin understand the change of the legal landscape in the 1990s in favor of Central American refugees as a legacy of the Sanctuary Movement. Rev. Fife shared that the main goal since the outset of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s was to win by reversing the course of U.S. policy and action towards Central Americans asylum seekers. With respect to the goals of the 1980s movement, Fife says, “we won;” Corbett agreed; and for many sanctuary seekers, workers, protestors, and legal counsel this all amounted to a “significant victory”.
Just when migrants’ access to asylum had been expanded in 1996 pursuant to the ABC agreement, the Clinton administration passed the landmark Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) that same year. IIRIRA had several implications for Central Americans and a decade later would kickstart the NSM. Most generally, it made asylum more difficult to attain, denying it to those who did not apply for it within a year of entering the U.S. Its mechanism for “expedited removal” allowed for immigration officers and border patrol officials to deport undocumented individuals without a hearing. Again, as in the 1980s, a credible fear of persecution was difficult to prove and increasingly politicized. With NAFTA in full swing and displacing large populations near Mexico’s southern border economies, the general assumption was that migrants both from Mexico and Central America were entering the U.S. for mere financial gain. More broadly, IIRIRA imperiled many undocumented individual (and Green Card holders) in the U.S. by mandating detention and deportation for many minor offenses. This applied retroactively as well and, as a result, INS (and post-2003, ICE) agents tracked down thousands over the next two decades.
IIRIRA also set the stage for another round of religious and immigrant rights humanitarian work based out of the Tucson area. Provisions in the act allowed for the expansion and militarization of the border and an increase of Border Patrol agents, who, by the turn of the century, numbered over 10,000. Since the passage of IIRIRA, immigrant death tolls continued to climb steadily as undocumented migrants took increasingly more dangerous routes to cross the border. Humanitarian aid groups such as Humane Borders organized in the summer of 2000 and began strategically placing large water barrels in hopes of preventing further deaths. Humane Borders claims that over 3,000 migrants have perished trying to cross the border since 1999. Crossing the Border became even more perilous after 9/11. The Bush administration’s response dramatically altered national security measures, especially on issues concerning the regulation of the border. With the continued spike in death tolls, more groups organized to provide various forms of relief. No More Deaths, The Samaritans, and a whole host of faith-based groups have organized based on religious “framework and justification for direct action.” Since 2005, and as recently as 2019, volunteers have been arrested and/or charged over the (il)legal nature of their humanitarian aid and how it is carried out.
Efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill during the Bush years from 2005 to 2006 spurred immigrant rights activists and sanctuary workers into action. The increase of raids, detentions, deportations, and the cases of one million people separated from their families since 1997 brought immigration to the forefront of the nation’s discourse. In December 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, more popularly known as the “Sensenbrenner Bill”. The bill, which discursively tied immigration through the U.S.-Mexico border with terrorism, was met with massive resistance from activists and especially religious groups. The provocative provisions of the bill were numerous and, most relevant to sanctuary workers, included penalties to any person or group providing aid to undocumented immigrants. Largely due to public pressure in protests such as “A Day Without an Immigrant,” the Senate did not pass the Sensenbrenner Bill. Shortly after, the Senate approved the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act in 2006, which provided a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants and did not contain many of the tough provisions of the Sensenbrenner Bill. Pro-immigrant groups saw this change of tone as a decisive step in the right direction, but it ultimately died before it could be passed. A similar bill in the following year suffered the same fate. Amid the debate of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 (and 2007), religious groups and immigrant rights advocates formed the New Sanctuary Movement.
The First Wave of the New Sanctuary Movement 2006-2016
Activist and faith communities mounted strong responses to the Sensenbrenner Bill. Notable among these was the Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), which functioned as a “movement midwife” for the NSM. Its leaders remained intent that, as people of faith, they could contribute something unique to the brewing national discourses on immigration. As millions took to the streets to support immigrants, Interfaith Worker Justice, another L.A. faith-based group, sent out a mailer with the question, “A new movement, an old commandment, or both?” as a clear reference to the 1980s Sanctuary Movement. The Interfaith Worker Justice would later join CLUE that year and coordinated the NSM in Los Angeles. The kind of language that these faith groups leveraged amid the immigration debates from 2005 to 2007 made it clear that terms like “sanctuary” were part of the nation’s “cultural” or “religious repertoire”.
A watershed case in 2006 broke into the debate and effectively put the swelling NSM on the map. Elvira Arellano, who cleaned planes at O’Hare International Airport, was caught in a 2002 sweep (Operation Chicago Skies) of immigrants working with false papers. This raid had been carefully calculated in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, showing again that immigration and terrorism became conflated issues. She was sentenced to three years’ probation and given a notice of deportation. During her three stays from deportation, Arellano actively engaged with faith-based immigrant advocacy groups in Chicago. After years of fighting to stay in the U.S. in order to not be separated from her U.S.-born son Saul, Elvira Arellano had expended all her resources and in August of 2006, took sanctuary at Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago. Her decision to take sanctuary and be vocal about her case drew the attention of commentators on both sides of the issue and set into motion the first wave of the NSM.
The debate on immigration reform and high-profile sanctuary cases flooded into the public sphere. In the summer of 2007, Time magazine launched into the debate on immigration, popularizing ideas that religious leaders and activists had been mobilizing for nearly a year. Cover stories of magazines at checkout stands in most chain-grocery stores set visual reminders of the color of the immigration debate. Time magazine portrayed on its June 18, 2007 cover brown, leathered, and physically weathered hands. Its featured article, “Immigration: Why Amnesty Makes Sense,” led to a series of articles on immigration such as “A Church Haven for Illegal Aliens” and “Does the Bible Support Sanctuary?” These articles continued to popularize the term “NSM” (New Sanctuary Movement) and shed light on its many manifestations throughout the country. Time magazine listed Elvira Arellano in its annual honor of “People Who Mattered,” a list of over thirty of the year’s most influential figures worldwide in politics, sports, and entertainment.
Importantly, Arellano’s case set the tone for the NSM in that it would almost exclusively take on the cases of immigrants whose deportation would result in family separation. In this move, Sanctuary activists, who are generally left-of-center politically, sought to seize control of the robust family discourse that conservatives had built up and deployed effectively since the late 1970s with the rise of groups such as Focus on the Family, the Christian Right, and the Moral Majority. NSM leaders also sought to make their cause an explicitly religious one, taking back the narrative of “religiosity” which over the past three decades had also been effectively leveraged by politically-conservative Christians. With policy, ideological, and religious goals in the mind, the NSM functioned as a “multi-target social movement”. As such, the very term “sanctuary” assumed new meaning in the NSM, and herein lie key differences between the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s and the NSM.
Although the NSM would still, on occasion, employ sanctuary harboring as a tactic, the movement was responding to a fundamentally different kind of crisis in which immigrants lived under heavier surveillance and most needed “papers” not a physical sanctuary for “harboring.” This was due, in part, to the fact that, unlike the 1980s movement, the NSM was working not with recent arrivals, but with individuals and families who had lived in the U.S. for many years. This new need dramatically shifted the NSM’s responses. According to Caminero-Santangelo, the NSM advances narratives of the human cost of current U.S. deportation policy, family separation, a broken immigration system, and the state of living in constant fear. Like the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, the NSM relies heavily on “faith-based and scriptural justification,” but it does so by drawing more frequently from a different set of scriptural texts (e.g., reunification and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt). More generally, the NSM advances a new set of relationships between undocumented individuals and their community. “The essence of sanctuary” in this new movement “would be the creation of intimate relationships between congregations and mixed-status families – often between nonimmigrants and immigrants.” These new “sanctuary faith communities” primarily provided an array of support (financial, legal, spiritual, emotional, etc.) in order to best address the needs of immigrants in danger of being separated from their families, churches, and the places where they had built their lives and had come to call home. Some leaders have dubbed this kind of sanctuary activism as “prophetic hospitality”. Whereas sanctuary in the 1980s was primarily a “tactic,” that is, “ a concrete practice used by movement activists to accomplish a set of goals,” the NSM desired to effect change in both political and religious targets, and thus made a calculated decision to use the term “sanctuary” as a “moniker and core strategy”. The term had the discursive pliability to be both political and religious as a “crossover strategy,” which Yukich describes as “a strategy with resonance and efficacy in multiple institutional settings.” While the new movement developed in hopes of influencing legislation (e.g., the 2006 and 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bills), its leaders needed to choose strategies that would outlive killed immigration bills.
The cases of sanctuary seekers since 2007 have differed in circumstances as compared to the large influx of asylum seekers in the 1980s. While the NSM has largely excluded individuals without family connections in the U.S., it has broadened its embrace to advocate for and provide shelter to those who historically would not qualify for asylum. New sanctuary seekers include those who have fled due to local gang violence and failed economies. Also, unlike the refugees of the 1980s, migrants today have generally not been reporting directly to religious sanctuary centers; rather, they have been waiting, sometimes up to a decade, until they are detected by policing authorities, often being sought out for minor offenses (a move made possible by IIRIRA).
It is largely for these reasons that only a select few undocumented immigrants themselves have assumed major leadership positions in the NSM. Simply put: it is too risky. Elvira Arellano, for example, had become a high-profile case of sanctuary seeking and remained safe so long as she stayed within the church. After the first stop (La Placita Church in Los Angeles) of her sanctuary tour of the U.S. she was arrested, detained, and deported within hours. Many in sanctuary, furthermore, have ankle monitor bracelets, so that the panoptic digital eye of the state can track when and if they ever leave the houses of worship. Although some non-Latinas/os are at the helm of the NSM’s high-profile cases, the conditions that propelled the NSM are similar in that they mostly concern the response of religious leaders to Latina/o migrants. Despite the change of conditions, the bravery of Central Americans in the 1980s and today continues to be a source of inspiration to leaders and those taking sanctuary.
A large-scale victory (like those in the 1990s) of the NSM has yet to be realized. Under the Obama administration, the NSM sought opportunities to win smaller battles. As deportations continued, the NSM fought for the implementation of prosecutorial discretion in June 2011. The “Morton Memo” enabled immigration enforcement agents to take into account on a case-by-case basis aspects of an undocumented individual’s life (e.g., a child or spouse in the U.S., contributions and standing in the community, etc.). Later that year, due in large part to NSM activism and pressure, the Obama administration issued a “sensitive locations” memorandum, which sought to ensure that enforcement activity (e.g., “arrests; interviews; searches; and for purposes of immigration enforcement only, surveillance”) would not occur in sites such as houses of worship, schools, weddings, or during public demonstrations. While the Obama administration did not pass any comprehensive immigration reform bills, a series of memos announced in 2012 and the Executive Action on Immigration in 2014, in part, stayed the heavy and swift deporting hand of the state with respect to individuals brought over as children and the parents of U.S. Citizens. Sanctuary leaders were among the most vocal advocates for the president’s actions. The vulnerability and fragility of these actions, however, became apparent shortly after Trump took office.
The New Sanctuary Movement and Secular Sanctuary: A Second Wave
Just as the Sensenbrenner Bill and the comprehensive immigration reform acts of 2006 and 2007 galvanized the NSM, Trump’s election in 2016 met resistance in what we are identifying as the second wave of the NSM. As of 2019 it continues to crest while public outrage at his inflammatory remarks about Latinx people and his new zero tolerance policy on undocumented immigration is in effect. As part of this second wave, religious leaders and activists are having to respond to political circumstances that, especially at the presidential level, vastly differ from the beginning of the NSM in the mid-2000s. In the remainder of this article we spell out the sea change of the NSM, particularly propelled by the second wave.
In the second wave of the NSM, the discourse of “sanctuary cities” has resurfaced with intensified debate. While the modern practice of U.S. cities declaring themselves to be “sanctuaries” dates back to the Vietnam-War era (in which Boston famously declared itself as such), in the 1980s the nation witnessed a swell of sanctuary cities in areas where immigrants regularly arrived (notably, San Francisco and Los Angeles) making similar declarations in hopes of protecting those fleeing the sanguinary regimes in Central America. Just as the NSM was developing amid national immigration debates, activists increasingly began to push for sanctuary jurisdictions. This was especially true since the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 2006 (particularly the enforcement of section 287(g) which sought to expand and strengthen the deportation efforts of the state by authorizing police officers at local, state, and federal levels to arrest and hand over undocumented migrants to ICE). For example, in 2006, in Takoma Park, Washington the chief of police’s efforts to implement 287(g) failed in the city which, back in 1985, had declared itself a sanctuary city. Two years later the Bush administration implemented the “Secure Communities” program, a more comprehensive program than 287(g), which involved local, state, and federal police, ICE, and the Department of Homeland Security. Under this program the country witnessed massive roundups of undocumented individuals. The Obama administration continued the program (but refocused it on deporting those deemed to be threats to communities) until his administration terminated it in 2014.
President Trump spared no time in bringing “sanctuary” to the national discourse. He renewed and redefined “secure communities” as one of his first executive orders, signed less than a week after he took office. He targeted “sanctuary jurisdictions,” which are cities, counties, and states that have arrangements of nondisclosure of immigration status and refuse to work with federal immigration authorities. These sanctuary city designations have often worked to defy national policies as sanctuary status is obtained through one of three major sources: legislation through passage by a city council, bureaucratic initiative by a police department, or mayoral order.  Hearkening back to threats made against cities in the 1980s, the Trump administration has proposed withholding federal funding from cities, counties, and states that choose to keep old or pass new sanctuary measures, which has worked in intimidating certain jurisdictions away from passing public sanctuary measures even in places with a rather high proportion of immigrants. These executive orders and his longstanding animosity toward sanctuary jurisdictions motivated more people to join in on sanctuary efforts both in secular and religious settings.
Cities, counties, and states were not the only non-religious entities to mount resistance to Trump’s rhetoric. College campuses swiftly responded to the election of Trump and what his rise as the head of the nation might mean for DACA students. The type of sanctuary afforded at school campuses is modeled on the sanctuary jurisdiction paradigm in that campus police and officials will not comply with ICE agents. Declaration of sanctuary at schools seems to differ little from official statements that offer support to undocumented students. The term “sanctuary” on school campuses is certainly nebulous and many administrators refused to appropriate the language of sanctuary. Harvard President Drew G. Faust, for example, echoed concerns about the unclear meaning of what sanctuary actually means at college campuses, stating “Sanctuary campus status has no legal significance or even clear definition. It offers no actual protection to our students. I worry that in fact it offers false and misleading assurance.”
That “false and misleading assurance,” we maintain, is based upon an implicit comparison to the tried and true efficacy of houses of worship providing sanctuary (in the form of harboring) to individuals. Anna Runion, minister of social justice at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California expressed her concern with how the secular movement has strategically adopted the term “sanctuary”. She believes the title is a misnomer due to the fact that sanctuary campuses and cities do not offer the same protections that sanctuary houses of worship do. She maintains that the term “sanctuary” carries with it a religious significance that has now become a broader cultural tradition. The term “sanctuary” is meant to invoke the weight of religious sanctuary’s record as a discursive tool to signal the layers of “protection” in a sanctuary jurisdiction. There are cities, towns, and campuses that do not work with immigration authorities and function as sanctuary jurisdictions, yet they choose not to label themselves as “sanctuary”. Some cities and towns may not specifically label themselves in any manner that implies they protect undocumented immigrants, while others may choose different labels such as “welcoming” cities or have no preference for which term is applied. Minister Runion’s observation likely stems from the fact that many undocumented individuals have fallen victim to raids in “sanctuary cities,” while houses of worship have not been compromised (despite some dubiously titled news reports claiming otherwise). That the image and language of “sanctuary” is often misread in public outlets owes to several misunderstandings. Villazor argues that sanctuary since the 1980s has assumed an increasingly negative connotation among political conservatives and that many have failed to delineate between “public” (cities, states, etc.) and “private” (churches, synagogues, etc.) sanctuary. Tramonte contends that the deployment of the term in these “public” spaces is largely a misnomer and instead is better described as “community policing policies.” Other clergy, such as Rev. Francisco García, rector of the Episcopal Church in Holy Faith in Inglewood, disagree with the religious exclusivity of this term, as he views sanctuary as someone being safe in the community, not just inside of a house of worship. While there is certainly no consensus on who should use the term, there is certainly a understanding of the efficacy of sanctuary in some contexts over others.
Secular, that is, “public,” sanctuaries are not necessarily safe havens and the limits of their safeguarding policies have been tested repeatedly. Whereas those actively taking sanctuary in houses of worship have always remained secure, those in sanctuary jurisdictions have not truly been safe. In order for a sanctuary jurisdiction to effectively function as “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants, every institution within the jurisdiction must be in accordance with the declaration and must agree to abide by sanctuary-type policies (which is not always the case). ICE agents have carried out large-scale apprehensions and deportations in California’s sanctuary cities since late 2017. Rev. Fife maintains that sanctuary cities, counties, and states, are the new front of the movement, but religious sanctuaries continue to be the foundation and last resort. The roles have been reversed from the 1980s Sanctuary Movement when religious centers were the front lines and sanctuary cities supported them. Moreover, as the Department of Justice continues to spar vigorously with sanctuary cities (believing that they harbor violent criminals), the security of religious sanctuaries remains intact and is probably the last frontier of sanctuary safety.
The root of sanctuary spaces are religious sanctuaries, be they in churches, temples, or, more recently, mosques. The religious nature of such spaces affords them a special status that no secular space seems to be able to attain. Formulations of the sacred space in places like religious sanctuaries remind us of ways in which American sanctuaries are “situational” sacred spaces, a term described by David Chidester and Edward Linenthal as sites which have “located the sacred at the nexus of human practices and social projects.” The labor of human undertaking through ritual consecration is what affords religious sanctuaries a unique status as sacred spaces. Sanctuaries, havens, places of refuge, etc., are cordoned off and made sacred not merely because “religious” people say so but because of profound cultural investments. These cultural investments, in the case of sanctuary, are further buttressed by appeals to higher/divine laws. According to Jonathan Z. Smith’s configuration of ritual theory of sacred space, “place is sacralized as the result of the cultural labor of ritual, in specific historic situations, involving hard work of attention, memory, design, construction, and control of place.” The reading of the declaration of sanctuary on March 24, 1982 was a ritualistic act in a historic situation in which sanctuary leaders, for the sake of the Central American immigrants, sought to “take control of place.” Declaring sanctuary is a contentious matter, and an example of sacred space as “contested space.” The 1982 declaration spelled out the terms of contestation quite clearly: “The administration of U.S. law prohibits us from sheltering these refugees from Central America. Therefore, we believe the administration of the law to be immoral as well as illegal.” Sacred resistance was then mobilized in sacred space and continues to this day.
Trump’s threats against communities and cities have met a tidal wave of renewed sacred resistance. One example of religious sanctuary sparked by longstanding religious motivations and recent political ones is the activism at Pilgrim United Church of Christ in Carlsbad, California. This traditionally white congregational church is headed by Rev. Madison Shockley, a black pastor who has been involved with multiple social justice efforts. The church also has its own minister, who specializes in youth and social justice ministry, Anna Runion. I (Tatyana) first heard Runion at the aforementioned rally in San Diego. At this rally, she spoke out to the crowd in both English and Spanish, self-translating her statements in a specific effort to reach the Latinx population at the rally. Although the congregation has been active in immigrant rights work for more than twenty-five years, Runion shared that the church decided to officially offer sanctuary in 2016, largely as a response to Trump’s election. Runion cites the UCC’s history of social justice teachings as part of the reason that her congregation felt so compelled to offer sanctuary publicly. She further addressed the theological underpinnings that support her congregation’s actions:
A lot of people in the congregation have liberation theology backgrounds, or sort of grounding, so we understand that God is a god of justice, and that God is on the side of the people who are oppressed. We are God’s hands and feet and that it’s not going to happen without us. And that if it’s not a concrete response in our current context, it doesn’t matter! Who cares if we go to heaven? If God isn’t saving people now from oppression, what good is that?
However, no migrant has yet taken up Pilgrim United Church of Christ’s offer of sanctuary (in the form of harboring). Runion believes that attorneys are hesitant to use sanctuaries in immigration cases for their clients, since it directly calls out and challenges the immigration system (one that is now particularly hostile) and isn’t a “strategic” move. Nevertheless, she and her congregation remain confident that having the option of sanctuary during a time when immigration systems are in flux is the right (and righteous/just) thing to do.
In this second wave of the NSM, Trump’s election has motivated congregations to act collectively and across parishes to mobilize sacred resistance. Episcopal priest Rev. Francisco García shared with me (Tatyana) that, in response to President Trump’s election, he drafted a resolution so that the Los Angeles region Episcopal diocese could become a Sanctuary Diocese. Three weeks after the 2016 election, Rev. García shared this resolution at the L.A. diocesan convention, where he found that, after some debate, “there was unanimous support for adopting this resolution.” He recalls “one of the most moving moments was when our first DREAMER priest shared her testimony in front of 1,000 people. And she really moved hearts and minds so that we could say yes, this is where we need to stand.” As a result of Trump’s election, Episcopal clergy in the Los Angeles area launched a movement called “Sacred Resistance,” which is committed to sanctuary across a wide array of practices. Rev. Garcia now co-chairs this task force “in order to help all of our churches become sanctuaries in all sorts of different ways,” whether that be through accompaniment, activism, or offering full sanctuary.
While it is true that, at any moment, ICE agents can legally arrest someone taking sanctuary, as it stands now, religious sanctuaries offer us an example of sanctuary as an “inversion of power” in which the near omnipotent state’s deporting hand is stayed or, to some extent, suspended. Religious centers, the “last resort” of the NSM, certainly have layers of history, memory, and sacredness afforded to them now by decades of consecration. Congregations offering sanctuary continue to grow in number, in part, because of the recent engagement of traditionally apathetic actors.
Engagement on the Evangelical Front
By emphasizing the centrality of keeping families together, the early NSM effectively began to build a bridge with Evangelicals, who have historically been proponents of anti-immigration measures. In this move, the religious left redefined what “being religious should mean” in the U.S. and showed that conservatives do not control the discourse on the family. This move especially resonated with Latina/o Evangelicals, and later pushed white Evangelical leaders such as Richard Land, the former Southern Baptist Convention leader, to move towards a more sympathetic pro-immigration stance, but they did so on their own terms. In Los Angles, for example, Evangelicals did not join the ranks of progressive movements such as CLUE or IWJ, but formed alliances to seek out immigration reform. Today we see a larger number of Pentecostals and Evangelicals of Latin American origin taking sanctuary as well as Latina/o Pentecostal and Evangelical churches offering sanctuary at various levels, from official types of sanctuary to more de facto forms of hospitality and solidarity offered in the “public margins”.
A bipartisan effort comprised of Sanctuary Movement veterans and newcomers, mainline and evangelical clergy, has crystallized in the age of Trump. Calling themselves the Matthew 25 Movement, its members “pledge to stand with and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus.” The Matthew 25 Movement seems to be offering Evangelicals a number of resources to reconceptualize sanctuary and overall advocacy for immigrants, traditionally “liberal” practices. Sanctuary, according to Rev. Alexia Salvatierra (“Madrina” or godmother of the Matthew 25 Movement) and Peter Heltzel, succeeded in the 1980s because it was founded on “a uniform set of humanitarian criteria that was developed and kept independent of political alliances.”
At the Matthew 25 conference this past August, 2018, organizers and activists met in a Los Angeles’ church to discuss their plan of action and activism in an increasingly hostile environment towards undocumented immigrants. The conference brought in a diverse audience and lineup of speakers and together they partook in hymns and liturgy in both English and Spanish. The prayers, songs, and sermons all reinforced the importance of “accompaniment,” a cornerstone of the NSM. “Accompaniment” is a broad term, but it largely refers to being present to help undocumented immigrants, whether it means going with an immigrant to an immigration court hearing or showing a family that was just released from a detention center around the neighborhood. In short, accompaniment is a way of demonstrating support to immigrants on a personal, individual level. Additionally, conference speakers noted the difficulties of church engagement with sanctuary activism. Since Latina/o churches are impacted by harsh immigration policies, there is fear about speaking out and drawing attention to affected communities. This could be a risk, which leads to them generally being quieter voices in immigrant rights movements. One proposal discussed at the conference was to form intentional alliances between white churches and Latina/o churches, as white churches have the privilege of not being racially profiled by immigration authorities or directly affected by their policies, while Latinx churches are more impacted by the everyday realities of undocumented communities. It remains unclear as to whether this alliance between churches will result in greater dialogue in the U.S.
Partisan politics still influence how religious congregations choose to engage. For example, Samuel Rodriguez, the leader of the historically conservative National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), has made his church a “safe haven,” not to be confused with a sanctuary. Rodriguez remarked in a March 1, 2017 Time magazine article: “The anxiety in Christian conservative, evangelical churches has grown exponentially, because many of our worshipers, many of the families we serve, many of the families in our pews, may very well lack the appropriate documentation, even though we have a don’t ask don’t tell policy.” Rodriguez, now on Trump’s spiritual advisory board, seemingly is attempting to split the horns of the sanctuary dilemma. To offer sanctuary would appear to be a conflict of interest that would set him at enmity against Trump, and to not offer resources to Latina/o evangelicals would belie his and the NHCLC’s stated advocacy. These dilemmas are not necessarily new nor uniquely Christian ones. Rabbi Devorah Marcus, a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s practice of child separation and detention, shared that although her synagogue has many conservative members, she made it clear to her congregants that she continues to protest as a rabbi because “This is not a partisan issue, this is a human issue, this is a religious issue, and as Jews, this is a Jewish issue.”  Congregations often have to walk a fine line of wanting to help undocumented immigrants but also respecting conservative members whose political beliefs do not align with the values of the NSM.
Political and Religious Motivations
The lethargy with which the NSM has moved within Evangelical corners reminds us that sanctuary has never existed in a vacuum but that it is proclaimed and lived out in political contexts. In this second wave of the NSM, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump administration is compelling congregations to (re)act. All interviewees remarked that the current state of political affairs, particularly Trump’s inauguration and his anti-immigrant stances, compelled them (or redoubled their existing efforts) to participate in the NSM. Revs. Kathleen Owens and Tania Márquez stated that offering sanctuary was their way of sending a message of their disapproval of Trump’s immigration policies. It must be noted that sanctuary workers in the 1980s also conceptualized sanctuary as a form of resistance against the Reagan administration, leading to fundamental differences in how they approached sanctuary and questions as to whether the movement should be motivated by humanitarian (often times private) care or political efforts of public consciousness raising.
This leads us to consider the question about any congregation’s motivations for offering sanctuary in the age of Trump: is the offering politically or religiously motivated, or both? Are they pro-immigrant or simply anti-Trump? The motivations to become involved in the NSM vary and exist on a spectrum rather than a dichotomous notion of either purely political or religious. While some emphasize that their faith is what prompted them to denounce current policies, others feel the need to leverage their social capital as a religious institution in order to make stronger public statements. Here, Yukich’s conceptualization of the NSM as a “multi-target social movement” is particularly applicable in how NSM participants hope to influence a range of people and institutions, and it also provides a preliminary understanding of motivations for individuals to become involved. Ultimately, the action of public declarations of sanctuary at houses of worship is simultaneously a political and a faith-based move, though the underlying motivations of a congregation’s offer of sanctuary may be more politically based than others.
Representatives from all over the country convened in Chicago in January 2007 to discuss what the “new sanctuary” might look like. Beyond the traditional method of harboring undocumented individuals as a tactic, leaders proposed an array of support including political advocacy, ministering, and assisting those taking up sanctuary in churches. One of the most recent innovations to the Sanctuary Movement is the practice of “sanctuary lite”. Sanctuary lite, as it is referred to by Rev. William “Bill” Jenkins in San Diego, is the act of providing housing to a migrant or a migrant family sponsored from a detention center. Often, migrants participating in sanctuary lite are asylum seekers who are detained despite the fact that they willingly turned themselves in at the border. In fact, sanctuary lite is not a viable option for undocumented immigrants who need more and immediate protection from the law. Rev. Jenkins’ Safe Harbors Network is an example of expansion in what it means to provide sanctuary in the NSM. Rev. Jenkins noted that although he had presented the concept of sanctuary lite at religious conferences earlier in 2016, it was only after the election of Trump that the Safe Harbors Network received a new wave of support. The Safe Harbors Network sponsors migrants who are being held in detention centers. The average bond for a person in detention is $3,000, an unreasonable amount for the average refugee. The cost varies depending on the perceived flight risk of the migrant, but it can cost upwards of $20,000. Rev. Jenkins claims that many refugees and migrants in detention centers have less than $5 in their pockets and are left simply unable to pay this bond by themselves. If they are fortunate enough, they will have family or friends in the U.S. who can sponsor them. But without that, they are stuck in the detention center until their case can be processed, which sometimes can take years. The Safe Harbors Network has a fund to sponsor migrants to release them from the detention center and provide accommodations for them. “To me, the first thing a refugee needs is a bed,” Rev. Jenkins explained, “because within twelve hours the sun is going to go down… And if you don’t have a bed, you’re in a world of hurt.”
Sanctuary lite seeks to operate along the lines of collaboration and accompaniment. One of the differences between sanctuary lite and traditional sanctuary is that in sanctuary lite both churches and lay people offer space for migrants to stay, an increasingly more common strategy in the NSM. In the past when the Sanctuary Movement focused on undocumented immigrants who had just crossed the border, lay people could not claim the tradition of sanctuary in order to prevent INS (now ICE) from raiding their houses. It was largely due to their social status and capital that houses of worship were able to “draw a line around [their] building and say ‘This is God’s country here’” so “You can’t cross this line.” However, due to the fact that those who utilize sanctuary lite are asylum seekers and are sponsored from detention centers, they are abiding with the law and therefore do not face the risk of deportation unless they miss a court date or violate some other condition of their release such as removing their ankle bracelet. Rev. Runion describes sanctuary lite as working with the law rather than against the law. This means that average citizens who want to become involved are able to offer space in their own homes to recent migrants. Houses of worship can and still participate in this same program by offering space, time, and energy to the asylum seekers or refugee families. Additionally, those who participate in the Safe Harbors Network are able to specify the duration of time they would like to host the migrant in their home or house of worship. This is different from churches that offer traditional sanctuary, where once a migrant enters sanctuary it is not safe for them to leave the house of worship until their case is settled. This can take a long time as court cases can drag on for years.
Sanctuary is a major commitment both for the undocumented immigrant taking sanctuary and for the congregation sheltering them. Rev. Jenkins advocates sanctuary lite as a way for a congregation to still help migrants by offering to host them in their house of worship but without the long-term commitment that full sanctuary (harboring) requires. This is also an option for congregations who have members that are concerned about the legality of harboring an undocumented immigrant, as this method complies with ICE standards. In fact, Rev. Jenkins noted that immigration authorities will sometimes contact his organization in special cases such as when a pregnant woman or a family is detained, in order for them to spend as little time in detention as possible.
Sanctuary lite is not without its own challenges: language barriers, financial commitments, shared living quarters, work-life-hosting balances, and emotional and psychological labors are all potential difficulties encountered when hosting a migrant. Without the support of a larger organization like the Safe Harbors Network, families and congregations who take in refugees may have their resources spread too thinly. One pastor’s congregants (not affiliated with Safe Harbors Network) hosted two refugee families, and they noted that one of the most difficult yet most important parts of hosting is learning to set boundaries about the length of stay, the structuring of daily schedules, and living arrangements, making it, as one minister put it, like a “full-time job.” Participation in sanctuary lite is a way of helping migrant families while still abiding by immigration laws. While not equivalent to sanctuary harboring as a direct form of state resistance, this does not minimize the commitment, effort, or intent of those who participate in sanctuary lite. Even though it differs from traditional sanctuary, it is a form of accompaniment that represents a massive commitment from the host and changes the lives of those it helps.
These reflections on the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, the NSM, and its second wave, take us back to the two banners at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. The one on the left (“LA MIGRA NO PROFANA EL SANTUARIO”) stands true in that sanctuaries have not been profaned by immigration officers. The banner on the right (“ESTE ES EL SANTUARIO DE DIOS PARA LOS OPRIMIDOS DE CENTRO AMERICA”), while still carrying a message that is the foundation of the U.S. Sanctuary Movement, has assumed a more capacious declaration. Sanctuary, although grounded in a history of Central Americans seeking safety, is now more diverse and more globalized as people from all around the world take part of its many forms of sacred resistance. An increasing number of Mexicans have taken sanctuary and there have been cases of Russians, Indonesians, and Albanians, following suit as well. Latinxs, however, still comprise the majority of sanctuary seekers and, increasingly so, are taking the helm as sanctuary leaders.
As the NSM continues to expand and until it can achieve decisive victories, it will continue to change in representation, voices, and faces. NSM leaders want those taking sanctuary to be the face and voice of the movement. This has somewhat been the case, but the NSM still wrestles with the contention of being characterized as “an immigrant rights organization without immigrants.” NSM leaders continue to navigate ways to bridge cultural and theological disconnects. Perhaps the bigger issue is the amount of risk involved for undocumented immigrants versus native-born supporters.As a result, today, the majority of sanctuary leaders identify as white or are white passing, but a much larger group of women and Latinx sanctuary leaders have risen in the NSM. Recognizing this, most sanctuary leaders note how important it is for those from affected communities to take the lead in the fight of sanctuary activism. The demographic of migrants involved in the NSM is in flux and will change as political climates shift but will likely remain a majority Latinx phenomenon.
The second wave of the NSM has continued to capitalize on the historical, cultural, and ritual elements imputed to religious centers that afford them a sacredness not declared by secular institutions. The new kinds of immigration debates have summoned a new cast of actors and strategies, resulting in a broadened definition of sanctuary. The similarities and differences pose challenges to sanctuary seekers and workers on many fronts. As in the early 1980’s when the U.S. Government would not heed sanctuary workers, the NSM of today finds itself rising in the age of Trump “because there is no middle ground between collaboration and resistance.” The Trump Administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy puts the Sanctuary Movement in an entirely new position. To say that there is hope for those in sanctuary at this current moment would be to project an illusion, Rev. Fife reminded us. When policies such as the “zero tolerance” order are carried out, hope seems to vanish and all that one is left with is determination. Determination, in many cases of sanctuary, assumes a sacred dimension of resistance. That is how the earliest U.S. sanctuary seekers and workers operated. Although a number of non-Latin Americans continue to take sanctuary in places of worship, the Sanctuary Movement solidly has its origins in Latinxs migrants’ bravery to traverse unknown lands, over unforgiving terrain, and under precarious circumstances. It is the bravery of thousands of children, women, and men who crossed the treacherous U.S.-Mexico border that set into motion waves of sanctuary activism that have benefited thousands seeking reprieve from suffering. We have yet to see where the NSM will go and how it will stand the testing of its sacred resistance.