When Donald Trump targeted “sanctuary cities,” threatening to cut off all federal funding, what was he talking about? Turns out – as usual – that the answer is more complex than the sound bite. Here’s a quick primer on sanctuary, both in misnamed “sanctuary cities” and in the real and resurgent sanctuary church movement.
What is sanctuary?
“Sanctuary” dates back to at least the fourth century, and spans much of the globe. Here’s a quick description of some of the history:
“Sanctuary–the practice of a wrongdoer taking refuge in a church to escape physical harm–was an important social practice in Europe from late antiquity well into the Middle Ages. Although the state no longer formally recognizes sanctuary, the practice regularly resurfaces in times of genocide and political injustice. The historical and biblical roots of sanctuary inspired some citizens of a small town in France during World War II to make their own town of Le Chambon into a sanctuary for Jews during the Holocaust. Similarly, in the ‘sanctuary movement’ in the 1980s in the United States, American churches sheltered illegal Central American immigrants fleeing violence. Less happily, during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Hutu lured the Tutsi into church buildings by promising them sanctuary–an offer that clearly seemed plausible in their social setting. Tragically, the Hutu killed the sanctuary seekers: church buildings were the ‘killing fields’ of Rwanda. Sanctuary has mattered in significant ways even in modern history.”
Historically, sanctuary offers a place of protection from physical harm. The sanctuary movement of the 1980s offered protection from deportation to Central American refugees fleeing violence and political repression in their home countries. That meant offering physical sanctuary to individuals and families inside church buildings. While churches could not actually prevent law enforcement officers from entering, they believed that government officials would avoid breaking down church doors because it would make them look bad.
What sanctuary isn’t – separation ordinances, not “sanctuary cities”
When Trump denounced sanctuary cities, he probably meant cities that have passed “separation ordinances,” which are NOT sanctuary. No city can bar immigration officers from entering or arresting people. The separation ordinances, while very significant, do not do that.
Minneapolis and St. Paul, along with more than 500 other cities and counties across the country, have passed separation ordinances. These ordinances aim to foster immigrant cooperation with police when they are victims or witnesses of crimes, and, more generally, to foster trust between local government and residents.
The Minneapolis ordinance provides that city employees “shall only solicit immigration information or inquire about information status when specifically required to do so by law or program guidelines as a condition of eligibility for the service sought.” Law enforcement officers are similarly limited to “Investigate and inquire about immigration status when relevant to the potential or actual prosecution of the case or when immigration status is an element of the crime.”
In St. Paul, police recently responded to fear raised by Trump’s threats by releasing a video in four languages:
“The videos from officers who speak Spanish, Hmong, Somali and Karen stress that St. Paul officers are not immigration officials. They reference a St. Paul ordinance that prevents city staff from asking people about their immigration status.
“If people think that victims, witnesses or others who call the police could be questioned by officers about their immigration status, police worry it would have a chilling effect on them making reports, said St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. John Lozoya, in charge of the department’s Community Engagement Unit.”
Many local officials across the country have reaffirmed their commitment to welcoming and safeguarding immigrants.
Why sanctuary is important
Sanctuary – the real thing, sheltering immigrants in churches – remains a live issue. During the first week of December, 13 Minnesota churches said they will offer physical sanctuary and more than 20 others pledged their support. St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington announced that it will offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.
Nationally, San Diego Catholic Bishop Robert McElroy expressed the strong opposition of the church to Trump’s immigration policies:
“’During the past months the specter of a massive deportation campaign aimed at ripping more than 10 million undocumented immigrants from their lives and families has realistically emerged as potential federal policy,’ McElroy said.
“’We must label this policy proposal for what it is — an act of injustice which would stain our national honor in the same manner as the progressive dispossessions of the Native American peoples of the United States and the interment of the Japanese’ during World War II, he said.”
At many universities, students are pushing for declarations of sanctuary. The Star Tribune reports:
“At the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff signed a petition urging officials to prevent campus police from cooperating with immigration authorities and provide legal counsel to immigrant students facing deportation. The petition also calls on the U to commit to helping find jobs for students who would lose their work permits if Trump ends an Obama administration deportation reprieve program for young people brought to the country illegally as children.”
University President Eric Kaler said the U will support immigrant students, but would not commit to sanctuary.
The California legislature opposes Trump’s policies and is working on legislation to resist in several different ways, including passing resolutions opposing mass deportations, creating “‘safe zones’ prohibiting immigration enforcement on public schools, hospital and courthouse grounds,” and offering legal assistance to immigrants in deportation hearings.
Actual sanctuary in churches offers actual protection to only a very small number of people. Sanctuary’s larger impact is in its challenge to the conscience of the community.