The New Sanctuary Movement

By Katie Sharar

In the 1980s, thousands of Central Americans arrived in the United States to seek refuge from repressive and violent governments. Virtually all were denied asylum, in spite of the fact that they were fleeing persecution, life-threatening repression, and extensive human rights abuses. In large part, this is because granting asylum is a fundamentally political act for the United States—to have given protection and refugee status to the primarily Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants would have been to publicly acknowledge the repression brought on by the governments that our country was supporting through monetary, political, and other means.

The Sanctuary Movement grew out of this very crisis. Many people of conscience were alarmed at the numbers of people who were arriving daily to the United States bearing the burdens of suffering and trauma, and who, in spite of this, were continually being denied legitimacy, much less aid and asylum.

And so these activists did what the biblical concept of sanctuary has long demanded of people of faith and goodwill: they opened their doors to the strangers in their midst, seeing in the Central Americans a reflection of Christ. Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church—headed then by Rev. John Fife, recipient of Annunciation House’s 2006 Voice of the Voiceless Award—was the first church in the United States to officially provide sanctuary for refugees. Soon the numbers of people needing shelter and assistance were overwhelming. The movement quickly grew out of necessity, and incarnations of what began at Southside spread to numerous churches, temples, and other religious sanctuaries throughout the United States. These congregations opened their doors to Central Americans’ struggles, lives, and stories throughout the 1980s.

The wars in Central America have now been over for nearly 20 years, and a fragile peace stands in their place. However, this official peace is not synonymous with economic and social justice in the region. Widespread disparities in wealth and power define much of Mexico and Central America today and force untold numbers of migrants to head northward in search of security, survival, and the promise of a better life.

In el Norte, their presence is redefining the fabric of the nation. Nativist responses to this changing reality within the United States have been characterized by fear and discrimination. The hypocrisy of these responses is not even thinly veiled. For while we U.S. citizens demand the presence of immigrants to construct our houses, mow our lawns, and care for our children, many of us simultaneously are calling for their widespread deportation.

Many immigrants and their allies raised their voices in protest to mounting anti-immigrant sentiment in the spring of 2006 and took to the streets en masse in cities and towns throughout the nation. Religious communities from a broad spectrum of denominations were an integral part of these demonstrations. In particular, Cardinal Roger Mahony of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles awakened the public and legislators alike to the moral and human dimensions of the immigration question when he instructed his clergy to disregard the portion of House Bill 4437 that criminalized the provision of humanitarian aid without first reviewing documentation status. The implications of his proclamation rang loud and clear: the current law of the land is unjust and inhumane, and in times such as these, greater laws of justice and compassion must be followed, in spite of the risks and demands that may be asked of us as a result.

Mahony’s example helped to inspire a gathering of religious leaders in Washington, DC, later that spring. During their March 27 meeting, hundreds gathered to “… exercise their moral authority to seek to ensure that the deliberations of the Senate judiciary committee took into account the human and moral realities of immigrant families” (Interfaith Worker Justice). The resulting legislative proposal was notably less punitive and exclusive than previous House measures, thanks in no small part to their efforts. Since that date, religious leaders have continued to work in support of the immigrants in their congregations and communities around the country.

Ongoing raids and deportations throughout the country in 2006 provided the prophetic impetus behind the collective visions that have become known as the New Sanctuary Movement. The initiative, some say, took root in Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church, where the Rev. Walter Coleman opened the doors of his congregation to Elvira Arrellano, who—along with her son Saúl—was in the thick of deportation proceedings. Coleman’s church sanctuary became their home in late 2006 as the congregation and the family worked together to halt their impending deportation.

Further life was breathed into the initiative in January of 2007, when representatives from 18 cities across the nation and 12 religious traditions joined together with the goal of “… protecting families from unjust deportation, affirming and making visible these families as children of God, and awakening the moral imagination of the country through prayer and witness” (IWJ).

The New Sanctuary Movement is fundamentally an interfaith movement and includes representatives and congregations from diverse denominations. (These include congregations from Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, United Methodist, Union of Reform Judaism, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, the American Friends Service Committee, Evangelical Christian, Muslim and Sikh denominations.) Secular groups are invited to join as well, though the movement is independent and faith-based. In particular, the National Day Laborers’ Organizing Group and the Coalition for Humane Immigration Reform have been especially ardent secular supporters.

The New Sanctuary Movement is principally coordinated by three groups—Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California (CLUE-CA), Interfaith Worker Justice, and the New York Sanctuary Coalition. There is a working group of representatives from the member cities and denominational institutions who convene regularly until a national steering committee has been formed. Currently, the movement boasts coalition representatives in sixteen cities in the United States: Phoenix/ Tucson; Los Angeles; the California Bay Area; San Diego; San Jose; Ventura, CA; Denver; Chicago; Kansas City; New York; Portland, OR; Houston; Seattle; Washington, DC; Madison, WI; and Milwaukee. The movement currently rallies itself around four primary goals, which are: to protect immigrant workers and families from unjust deportation; to change the public debate; to awaken the moral imagination of the country; and to make visible immigrant workers and families as children of God.

In practical terms, this essentially means following the example that Rev. Coleman and the Arrellano family spearheaded in Chicago. Participating congregations provide moral and spiritual support to families who are in the process of deportation, have citizen children and adults with good work records, and have a potential case under current law. Legal and material support is also offered as needed. When and if the threat of deportation becomes a reality, Sanctuary congregations have committed to providing these families a space in their houses of worship to demonstrate that an unholy act is being carried out.

As the movement’s pledge states, “… [w]e are deeply grieved by the violence done to families through immigration raids. We cannot in good conscience ignore such suffering and injustice. Therefore, we covenant to take a public, moral stand for immigrants’ rights; reveal, through education and advocacy, the actual suffering of immigrant workers and their families…; and protect immigrants against hate, workplace discrimination, and unjust deportation.”

As people of conscience have done throughout the ages and throughout the world, participants in the contemporary Sanctuary movement are upholding the law of human decency and morality at the same time that the U.S. government breaks it under the banner of supposed power, order, and security. It is certainly possible that the actions and convictions of our allies in the New Sanctuary Movement will soon be seen as key architects of a new, just, and humane immigration policy that honors the integrity of families and the dignity of all people. Committed, passionate individuals rewrite history every day in the name of justice and compassion, and we have every reason to hope that these congregations’ displays of conscience and conviction will change minds and policies.

But I am tempted to suggest that there are even deeper issues at play today than our success in this particular endeavor, though that too is certainly paramount. In this day and in this political climate, acting with human decency and compassion has become a radical and even heroic act. By acknowledging and honoring the humanity of their neighbors in migration, the New Sanctuary Movement has spoken out for justice, for dignity, for hope, in spite of the risks that acting for a better world has come to entail. And to hope and believe against the power of the authorities is not only to undermine their very power and authority, but it is also to look through the eyes of faith at the possibility of another tomorrow. It is easy enough to deplore what is evil, but it is much more difficult—and much more profound—to love and act for what is good. The New Sanctuary Movement is doing just that, and their example serves to inspire us all.

To learn more:

The New Sanctuary Movement homepage

Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice

Interfaith Worker Justice

Katie Sharar worked at Annunciation House as a volunteer from 2004-2006, and is still a frequent visitor to the border region. She currently incorporates the border in her life through her work at Casa Marianella, a shelter for immigrants and refugees in Austin. Additionally, she has helped open a house for women and families released from the immigration detention centers near Austin, where she spends her days listening to and telling stories with people from all over the world as they await the outcomes of their asylum cases.

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