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Sanctuary Cities and Sanctuary Movements

December 6, 2016


There has been a fair amount of discussion at the national and local level about the idea of Sanctuary Cities being a goal, especially since the November 8 election.

This renewed interest is completely understandable, considering what Donald Trump was saying about immigrants and an potential extension on an existing wall along the US/Mexican border.

In September, Trump and his advisors laid out their 10 Point Plan on immigration policy: 

1. Build the wall
2. End “catch and release.”
3. Create a deportation task force and focus on criminals in the country illegally
4. Defund sanctuary cities
5. Cancel President Obama’s executive actions
6. Extreme vetting. Block immigration from some nations
7. Force other countries to take back those whom the U.S. wants to deport
8. Get biometric visa tracking system fully in place
9. Strengthen E-Verify, block jobs for the undocumented                                                                                      
10. Limit legal immigration, lower it to “historic norms,” and set new caps

Any number of these ten points would certainly be an attack on the immigrant community and create a climate of fear. However, it is important to note that the Obama administration has deported more people during his 8 years in office than any other president. So, the current discussion around sanctuary cities is not a new one, since millions of immigrants have already been living in fear. What has happened since the November election was really a wake up call to those of us not facing arrest, detention or deportation, about the harsh realities that immigrants face on a daily basis.

Sanctuary Cities

There are currently several dozen cities across the US that have declared themselves Sanctuary Cities. What this means is that those cities will limit the amount of cooperation they will offer to federal authorities when arresting, detaining or deporting immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants. There might be some nuances in some cities engaged in Sanctuary, but we should be clear that becoming a sanctuary city does little more than make a principled stand.31xv7lt4jnl-_bo1204203200_

Sanctuary Movements

Sanctuary Movements are a completely different form of action from Sanctuary Cities. Sanctuary Movements are when people collectively work to provide a safe space for those most at risk of deportation and other forms of violence that are committed by the state or groups seeking to do harm to immigrants or those perceived to be immigrants. Sanctuary Movements have a long history in what is now called the United States. Indigenous communities/nations have been sanctuaries for Africans fleeing chattel slavery. An excellent resource that documents this relationship is William Loren Katz’s book, Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage.

Of course the most impactful example of sanctuary in US history was the underground railroad. Blacks that engaged in self-emancipation or were assisted in some way (usually by other blacks) were offered temporary or permanent sanctuary whether it was staying somewhere along the underground railroad for a night or ending up in a community in the northern part of the US or those who decided to go to Canada. Some excellent resources on this topic are The Underground Railroad: Authentic Narratives and First-Hand Accounts and Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad.

There have been other examples of those practicing sanctuary for people facing deportation and for those refusing to participate in war, but the most widespread example of a contemporary form of sanctuary, was the 1980s Central American Sanctuary Movement.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, US funded counter-insurgency wars were being waged in El Salvador and Guatemala, activists along the US/Mexican border began to see a sharp rise in the number of political refugees entering the country.

As communities began to offer safety to these refugees, they realized that all of them had a similar narrative. Each of the refugees told them that they fled their country because they either witnessed the torture and murder of family members or they themselves were torture survivors.screen-shot-2015-01-08-at-10-46-51-am

The US financed death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala was the primary source of the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people coming from Central America in the 1980s. US activists began to hear these stories in greater numbers and since the Reagan administration did not acknowledge Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugees as being political refugees, the US Sanctuary Movement was born.

The US Sanctuary Movement was begun by US faith-based communities that believed that they should offer sanitary for their fellow humans who were fleeing violence, even if it meant violating US laws.

Beginning in the Southwestern part of the country, Sanctuaries began popping up, where faith-based groups began to house people fleeing violence and to provide them with a forum to tell their stories.

Soon there were hundreds of places declaring themselves a sanctuary for Central American refugee, with three places declaring in Michigan alone – Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids.

The Grand Rapids Sanctuary was run by members of the Koinonia House, a housing collective that had begun in 1984 and did much of their organizing around resisting US Policy in Central America.


The seven members of the Koinonia House decided in the fall of 1985 to be part of the Central American Sanctuary Movement and traveled to Chicago to meet with the national coordinator of the project, the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America. The Chicago group acted as a clearly house for groups wanting to declare themselves a sanctuary and to make sure that each group had the capacity to take such a project on.

The Grand Rapids Sanctuary need to get letters of support from organizations and individuals to demonstrate that they had a community of support behind them. Those involved in the sanctuary work also sought out lawyers who would be willing to led legal assistance if the political refugees in sanctuary were in need it. In addition, the Grand Rapids Sanctuary needed to seek out material and financial support for the ongoing needs of those living in sanctuary.

In April of 1987, six adults and one child arrived in Grand Rapids at the Koinonia House. A few days later a press conference was held on the front porch of the Koinonia House (pictured below) and this marked the beginning of several years that the Grand Rapids Sanctuary offered a safe haven for those who were fleeing violence in Central America. sanctuary-members-on-k-house-porch

This is the fundamental difference between Sanctuary Cities and Sanctuary Movements. Sanctuary Movements are not symbolic, rather they seeking to offer concrete forms of safety and support, even if it means that those engaged in sanctuary work are at risk of state harassment or repression in the process.

Now, I am not arguing against Grand Rapids becoming a Sanctuary City, but the important work, the necessary work that needs to be done is when households, organizations and faith-based groups are willing to practice being sanctuaries for those at risk from state violence, hate groups and other manifestations of White Supremacy.

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