In an era of xenophobia, nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment, faith-based sanctuary movements are fighting back. The Trump administration’s efforts to stop what it calls illegal immigration and chain migration, alongside the ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and President Trump’s controversial language around undocumented persons, have galvanized nationwide movements to protect immigrants and their families. For instance, earlier this year, images released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that showed children being kept in chain-linked cages in a detention center in Ursula, Texas hit the headlines and received outrage and backlash. The fight against unjust raids, detainment and deportation policies has been largely carried out by houses of worship across the country who are willing to house refugees and those seeking asylum, and to provide legal aid and counseling to immigrants in need. Faith-based resistance to current immigration policy is becoming increasingly important for protecting the human rights that federal immigration enforcement choose to ignore.
As of January 2018, more than 1,100 houses of worship have joined just one network of these faith-based sanctuary organizations, called the Sanctuary Movement, headed by the New York-based Church World Service (CWS). According to Rev. Noel Andersen, Grassroots Coordinator for Immigrants’ Rights at CWS, in 2014 about 240 congregations nationwide were part of the movement to shield immigrants from raids and detention. In 2016, the year of Trump’s election, more than 100 additional congregations joined the movement. These faith-based organizations protecting immigrants include congregations of the Catholic, Quaker, Unitarian, Mormon, Jewish, Episcopalian and Methodist faiths. Mosques are not common sanctuary locations due to the heightened risk that they already have as targets of Islamophobia and violence in the Trump era. (President Trump’s 2017 executive order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries, termed the “Muslim ban,” is an example of this anti-Muslim sentiment.)
The movement is also spreading, becoming a truly nationwide phenomenon that is no longer isolated to one particular region. Phoenix, Tucson, Portland, Boston, New Haven, Denver, Kansas City, Oakland and Seattle are among the cities recently part of the sanctuary movement. And while faith-based sanctuary coalitions exist across metropolitan areas of the country that have a long history of receiving immigrants, cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, there is an increase of coalitions in areas that have only recently seen influxes in immigrant population — states like North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Virginia. Coalitions are on the rise in rural areas as well as traditional metropolitan strongholds. This budding, widespread existence of sanctuaries means that resistance to detention and deportation can occur more effectively.
These organizations provide aid ranging from legal assistance, counseling and accompaniment to court appearances, to direct shelter from immigration authorities and detainment. According to the CWS, there were 37 people that went into public sanctuary in 2017. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) usually cannot raid certain “sensitive locations” like places of worship without prior approval from directors of operations at ICE, per an Obama-era 2011 memorandum. However, church and state in the U.S. are separated, and “sanctuary” is a tradition or custom, not recognized by law. Therefore, sensitive locations are not always respected, and federal agents can technically follow immigrants wherever they want. This has escalated under the Trump administration with several detainments made in hospitals, at schools, or from inside courthouses. However, ICE agents have yet to detain someone seeking asylum in a house of worship.
What beliefs do faith-based sanctuary organizations have that would push them towards these politics? According to Judith McDaniel, who teaches law and religion at the University of Arizona, Jewish and Christian congregations draw on “cultural traditions and biblical passages like those in Exodus and the Gospels which admonish care for the stranger, the poor, and those afflicted.” And one of the seven principles that guide the Unitarian Universalist faith, for instance, is the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, which justifies support for people who migrate to live a better life.
The mobilization of faith surrounding this issue is significant because it indicates that there are serious moral wrongs in current policy and procedure. What sort of policy has the Trump administration imposed? Five days after taking office, President Trump signed an executive order that stopped ICE’s prioritization of deportations of immigrants with criminal records. Instead, anyone without documentation, whether or not they were criminal and posed a legitimate threat to their communities, or paid their taxes, would be subject to scrutiny by ICE agents and could be promptly deported. There are an estimated 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and 5.9 million U.S. citizen children under the age of 18 who are living with an undocumented family member. Therefore, the crux of the problem with current policy is that a large portion of the American social fabric is made up of undocumented persons and their families. In declaring war on this population, the power of the pain caused is ignored. This is the injustice that houses of worship are responding to through their participation in the sanctuary movement. To tear the ground out from under law-abiding, tax-paying members of communities, and to threaten the wellbeing of their families in the name of enforcing legal immigration policy, is not enough to stifle the reality of the raw, emotional consequences of such policies.
Religion has been used to mobilize social justice efforts in the name of immigrant rights before. This was seen in Latin American liberation theology — a movement led by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest in the mid-20th century — which shifted the Catholic Church’s role to focus on social justice. The ideology extended faith beyond pure reflection and instead argued that faith should be a motivating factor behind transforming the world.
There was also a Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s in the U.S. to protect undocumented refugees fleeing war in Central America. The movement began when President Ronald Reagan supported El Salvadoran and Guatemalan military governments in the name of preventing communist insurgencies, leading to human rights abuses under these governments being ignored by the U.S. Those fleeing El Salvador and Guatemala were not given asylum status in the U.S., so in the 1980s, hundreds of churches and synagogues helped shelter refugees who made it across the border. These houses of worship drew from sacred texts that taught the notion of loving thy neighbor and welcoming the stranger.
Today, the sanctuary movement is “a response to the humanity of the issue,” said Congressman Raul Grijalva, (D-AZ). “And I think it is going to be a cornerstone in pushing the decency of the American people to demand of its elected officials to do something.”
Human lives are at stake, and faith-based resistance to current immigration policy is part of a long history of righting political wrongs in the name of human rights and justice. Today, the sanctuary movement is fighting for the belief that the U.S. government should respect human rights and the rights of families regardless of documentation status.
Featured Image Source: SanctuaryNotDeportation.org