Searching for a New Sanctuary Movement

Searching for a New Sanctuary Movement

Buscando un nuevo Santuario

Daniel Schwartz

 Over the past several months, largely provoked by Arizona’s draconian immigration law, SB1070, and slow movement by legislators in Washington D.C., immigrant-rights activists have increasingly turned to various forms of civil disobedience. Hundreds of individuals have been arrested this spring across the country in various forms of public protest, in an attempt to inspire solidarity and call the nation’s attention to the continued injustices and inefficiencies of the broken immigration system.

The New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), a growing network of assiduous coalitions across the country, shows that this bold, immigration-related activism is not without historical precedent. The NSM arose from the Original Sanctuary Movement (OSM), which reached its peak of activity in the 1980s, conducting nationally prominent acts of civil disobedience. While the OSM’s protest tactics worked in the movement’s favor, contemporary civil disobedience has yet to prove successful. But chapters like NSM Philadelphia are now looking to other OSM strategies to galvanize support for immigration reform.

The Original Sanctuary Movement

The OSM was a twentieth-century underground railroad of sorts—an interfaith network of North and Central Americans ferrying political refugees into U.S. churches and synagogues. In the late 1970s, American church workers in the Southwest began to take notice of the large number of Guatemalans and Salvadorans attempting to enter the United States at the time. The North American public knew little of the political violence that catalyzed these early migrations, as the U.S. media had systematically ignored the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans between 1960 and 1990 and the half-million “disappeared” Salvadorans in the same time frame. Government officials labeled these Central Americans as “migrants” and “undocumented aliens,” motivated by economic—not political—forces. The Reagan administration, which was sending billions of dollars in military funding and dozens of government advisors to both El Salvador and Guatemala, refused to accept culpability for these refugee flows.

Religious communities on the U.S. southern border demanded asylum for the thousands of Central Americans caught in the violent crossfire of these civil wars. At first, church leaders attempted to provide legal refuge for Guatemalans and Salvadorans by navigating the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) bureaucratic channels. However, with all the legal channels in the system failing, church leaders began to regard civil disobedience as a necessary tactic. By 1991, over 400 congregations had declared sanctuary with 2000 more providing assistance and public support. The Sanctuary Movement soon spread south, establishing operations in Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Scholars, media reports, and the activists generally contend that the OSM achieved many of its goals. Even after the INS arrested eleven sanctuary activists in 1986 and sentenced them to jail time and fines, the movement continued to grow and gain publicity—largely by broadcasting the refugees’ stories in the media and at rallies. By the early 1990s, public pressure mounted against the State Department and congressional leaders to cease funding the foreign civil wars, and peace accords soon ended the conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvador. OSM congregations began the slow process of helping refugees return home or establish new lives in the United States and Canada, and sanctuary, as a form of protest and as a movement, came to a gradual end.

New Times, New Sanctuary

Years later, activists called for a new movement, invoking sanctuary across the country to address contemporary injustices afflicting immigrants. In 2007, many of the participants of the OSM, along with some new voices, reinvigorated the movement at a national meeting in Washington D.C. With prominent leaders from the Catholic Church and other interfaith organizations leading the charge, the NSM came as a response to moral injustices in the national immigration system.

However, compared to its predecessor, the NSM lacks sharp focus. Whereas the OSM had a unified foreign target and domestic strategy, the NSM seeks to confront globalized economic injustices on a frequently fragmented local front. Indeed, some NSM members use the word “amorphous” when describing their organizational structure at the national level. Spanning seventeen states, the NSM operates as a dispersed network of coalitions and organizations with diverse targets and tactics. For example, NSM workers in New York have primarily worked to bring fair legal representation to undocumented workers in deportation jail; NSM Philadelphia is focusing much of its energy on changing city policies that dictate how police treat immigrants and interact with federal authorities.

Despite differences, the two movements share common features. Both were inspired by the liberation theology of Latin America and its doctrine of helping the oppressed. Likewise, both movements have operated under the belief that transnational problems can be addressed locally. Yet the term “sanctuary” made more sense in the 1980s than it does now, and in a sense, that explains the NSM’s three-year-long fidgeting as it attempts to define itself.

What does it mean to provide sanctuary? Within Western religious traditions, “sanctuary” is not novel as a concept or as a practice. The Old and New Testaments instruct faith communities to assist, protect, and take up advocacy for travelers in need. Roman law, medieval canon edicts, and English common law all recognized churches as sites of sanctuary. In nineteenth-century America, white, abolitionist churches defied the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and provided sanctuary to African Americans escaping bondage in the South. A hundred years later, many progressive, white churches created a vast support network for the civil rights movement. Such historical experiences set the foundation for a distinct theology that prioritized social justice and the notion of liberation.

But when religious leaders declared a new sanctuary movement several years ago to address the issues facing immigrants, they discovered that contemporary conditions—global economic injustice and the incoherence of U.S. policy—demanded new strategies.

The Contemporary Need for Sanctuary

The U.S. immigration system, along with the dialogue surrounding it, is broken. Anti-immigration and immigrant fears dominate political discourse and policy making, blocking out information regarding the millions of immigrants—both documented and undocumented—who make up 15 percent of the nation’s workforce. Among the undocumented population, 57 percent of whom are from Mexico, most enter the United States on temporary travelers’ visas with the intention to work for a period of time before returning back to their home country. Sometimes these migrants stay for several months, and sometimes they stay for several years. The vast majority, however, do not enter with the intention of achieving permanent residence or citizenship. Economic forces, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and its Central American counter-part have created dramatic unemployment rates within the labor markets of U.S. hemispheric trade partners. This trend makes the attraction of crossing the border equal to the wage-differential.

Yet America has increasingly treated immigration as a matter of national security rather than economics or human rights. Many of the strict border security programs implemented over the past twenty years have proven to be counter-productive and grossly inefficient. Analysts have also endlessly criticized the largely privatized prison and processing system for detained immigrants. Both internal reviewers, such as the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), and numerous independent groups have called for a vast re-figuration of how law enforcement officials target undocumented immigrants, detain them in municipal and federal facilities, provide legal council, and implement deportation procedures. Of the 247,000 detained immigrants that had deportation hearings in 2008, many had minimal knowledge of English, yet most had to navigate the labyrinthine body of law and bureaucratic procedure without translators or legal aid. Citing thousands of cases of racial profiling, denial of attorneys, and abusive incarceration conditions and periods, a 2009 GAO report faults government programs and agencies for perpetrating civil rights abuses and economic inefficiencies.

Protest as Sanctuary

This national ailment has inspired numerous organizations, coalitions, and individuals to mobilize in an effort to inspire and demand action from national lawmakers. Just over a year ago, Reform Immigration for America coalesced in Washington D.C. as a broad umbrella group that connects and leads activist organizations—like the various NSM chapters—in the campaign to forge new policy. According to spokesperson Shuya Ohno, the coalition consists of over 800 member groups that chose targets and strategies through communal discussions and local leadership. “What’s important from our perspective,” he insists, “is that field leaders maintain good communication with us while operating autonomously.”

Ohno notes that among affiliated organizations and individuals, civil disobedience and direct actions are on the rise, largely supported by the “moral foundation” that the NSM leadership provides. 109 people, including clergy members and rabbis, have been arrested in New York City over the past month while protesting in front of Manhattan’s Federal Plaza. Several dozen others, including religious leaders and council members, embarked upon a three-day hunger strike that began with an announcement in Battery Park and visits to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. In late April, several dozen protesters—many of whom were local religious leaders— were arrested in suburban Chicago as they sat in front of a van carrying immigrants leaving a federal immigration center headed for deportation processing. Similarly, dozens have been arrested in Southern California, while prayer vigils in cities such as Phoenix, Boston, and St. Paul seek to provoke public anger at the immigration system.

NSM Philadelphia

NSM Philadelphia, however, has yet to embark upon any public acts of civil disobedience. The organization has set its sights on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal authority responsible for identifying, arresting, and deporting criminal immigrants. It has been particularly active in the Philadelphia region over the past five years, conducting raids on undocumented communities and using both formal and informal relations with the Philadelphia Police Department to acquire arrested immigrants.

Philadelphia’s activists are focusing on Secure Communities, ICE’s newest national program. Secure Communities started in July 2009 and operates as a data linkage system that connects the Philadelphia Police Department’s database to ICE’s. The connection automatically sends all information regarding anyone arrested in Philadelphia—whether they have been proven guilty of a crime or not— to immigration authorities, who can then come to a police station and seize a suspected criminal immigrant and initiate deportation proceedings. Despite pressure from journalists and activists, the city has thus far remained silent on how many immigrants have been detained by ICE as a result of Secure Communities.

Though Secure Communities is less ferocious than the immigration standards recently instituted in Arizona and proposed by other states’ conservative politicians, many fear that its consequences will prove similar. Already, many residents within Philadelphia’s immigrant-heavy communities in the north and south have become more fearful and distrustful of city police officers. This leads to less cooperation between the city and victims and witnesses—a result that worries some of the police officers who must work within these neighborhoods.

NSM Philadelphia has chosen to fight to repeal Secure Communities in Philadelphia, providing various forms of spiritual and material assistance to immigrant families with members caught in the deportation process. This is the local battlefront of sanctuary activism—donating legal and financial assistance to families with members in deportation jail, educating American citizens about the current plights of immigrant communities, and rallying local politicians to oppose anti-immigrant policing. But many group members are unsure whether the NSM has provided a type of sanctuary as meaningful and inspiring as that provided in the 1980s. Without high-profile protests, how is the organization expected to recruit new allies and gain the attention of policy-makers?

Storytelling as Recruiter and Self-Empowerment

This is where storytelling and self-empowerment enter the conversation. Decades ago, the OSM pioneered the use of narrative as a strategy for immigration reform. While many of the stories that refugees told during the OSM were informative, sanctuary activists found that empathy narratives serve as better catalysts for recruitment. Only personal and emotive stories told by the affected individuals themselves motivated American listeners to take action. Refugees became the literal face of the struggle, and their voices became the most potent weapon in the OSM’s arsenal. Indeed, it was not until members of Congress met refugees and OSM participants in person that the movement gained political allies.

Storytelling also functioned as a form of self-empowerment for Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees. By utilizing the only two weapons they had left, refugees called upon their memories and voices to fight the militaries back home and the American government that so desperately wanted to silence them.

Contemporary sanctuary activists, looking at the OSM’s success, have begun to take the use of narrative more seriously. In Philadelphia, the NSM has teamed up with the Philadelphia Storytelling Project—a non-profit organization that digitally records the stories of immigrants. (It also happens to be co-directed by Manuel Portillo, a Guatemalan, who first came to the United States as a refugee in the OSM). NSM Philadelphia has gathered a wealth of first-person stories like those that defined the OSM; Americans may finally include the voice of immigrants in the immigration dialogue.

This plan comes with a central caveat. One of NSM Philadelphia’s co-leaders, Jen Rock, explains: “The ways in which these stories are used will be determined by the storytellers themselves.” If immigrants are to be truly self-empowered, they must lead themselves in determining the content, perspective, and venue for their stories. American sanctuary activists are there to support and provide guidance, acting like “technical coaches,” as one American NSM participant described. U.S. citizens may help identify useful themes—like distrust of the police or families broken up by deportation—but the immigrant storytellers themselves will take complete control of every other aspect of the narrative. Many of these stories, recorded anonymously and edited into short audio pieces, are already making their way into the public sphere by way of the Internet and short segments on local radio stations.

Nonetheless, the narratives about the economic injustices at the heart of NSM activism require more complex storytelling than the political injustices that drove the OSM. Zac Steele, a community organizer with South Philadelphia’s Mexican community and a prominent member of NSM Philadelphia, explains:

The position of the people seeking sanctuary is very different now than it was then. It’s easier to make a case for political asylees, than economic asylees. The analysis is easier. How can you illustrate that our government was forcing people to immigrate due to trade policies? It’s more complex. And then, as Americans speaking to Americans, what kind of civil disobedience is called for by those stories? The protest would have to be transnational, which is largely out of reach.

Steele points out some of the inherent weaknesses of a storytelling strategy for the NSM—namely, it requires an emotive simplification of elaborate facts, and it may not necessarily provide a clear course of action for sympathizers. Indeed, when some NSM members speak of storytelling, they do not seem sure whether the strategy is meant to be a precursor or alternative to actions of civil disobedience.

For now, NSM Philadelphia seems to be preparing for both scenarios. On one hand, numerous members seem willing to negotiate the complexities of planning actions of civil disobedience. Steele has tentatively ruled out an OSM-like brand of sanctuary, explaining that the immigration system is now too bureaucratic and stagnant for an immigrant or immigrant family protesting Secure Communities to take in refuge in a church. Others have proposed hunger strikes that last as long as Philadelphia is enrolled in Secure Communities, though one wonders how much sympathy skeptical Americans will give to pro-immigrant rights activists fighting for a policy change that may only affect their lives indirectly. That leaves actions such as the sit-ins and blockades that have become so popular elsewhere. The verdict on their efficacy, however, is still out.

On the other hand, NSM Philadelphia has managed to organize a storytelling session in which immigrants will meet with representatives from the Mayor’s and DA’s offices—those local powers that hold the key to repealing Secure Communities. In this room, activists pray that lawmakers will make eye contact with and hear the voice of people whose lives have been so dramatically effected by unjust laws and a dehumanizing economic system.


Like all social movements, the two sanctuary movements are products of their place and time. If NSM chapters wish to replicate the successes of the OSM, it will have to learn from its predecessor’s goals, tactics, and achievements while adapting to new structural circumstances.

The NSM seeks to differentiate itself from the OSM and the abolitionist movement by putting much of the movement’s decision-making in the hands of immigrants as opposed to American activists. The NSM is right to move away from paternalistic power structures, as new mores within human rights activism demand a more egalitarian approach to organizational dynamics. Likewise, refugees and immigrants should have power over what stories they tell and what kind of audiences they seek out. But as the OSM demonstrated, stories must meet certain requirements in order to be effective recruiting tools. While more undocumented immigrants have courageously volunteered to reveal intimate details about their lives through storytelling, such action may be both dangerous and ignored by an American public that currently seems unsympathetic to their troubles. All the same, if the NSM wishes to recruit American congregations unaware of immigrants’ plight, such personal details must be made available to both educate and motivate allies.

NSM chapters’ strategies may change dramatically in the coming months as President Obama and national lawmakers prepare for sweeping immigration reform. Drafts of legislation circulating through Congress dismay the NSM participants. They predict that reform will consist of a streamlined path to legal residency and citizenship and a more humane and efficient deportation system, but also dramatically increased border security and “illegal alien” policing program. (According to ICE officials, President Obama has signaled that he wants Secure Communities to have nationwide coverage by 2013.) NSM members expect that any legislative “reforms” will be paired with intense militarization of the country’s borders and strengthened local policing of immigration laws. This prediction reinforces the NSM’s sense of urgency about the need to recruit members as quickly as possible to help immigrants cope with more injustices on the horizon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *