Sanctuary Auxiliary Ministries Empowered by Biblical Rhetoric

Arleth Rodrigues Rascon | December 2020

Civil Religion as a Tactic

“The United States is a Democracy, not a Theocracy,” stressed government officials in response to the rapid rise of theological defenses of sanctuary offerings in the 1980s.

The first line of the first U.S. Constitutional Amendment instructs Congress to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” legally separating church and state. Yet at the center of the migrant showdown: Tucson, Arizona, clergy, laity, and auxiliary groups cite Biblical texts as their primary justification for defying U.S authority and offering sanctuary since the 1980s.

Utilizing Christian theological rhetoric for the purpose of civil disobedience is not unusual in America, however.

Arguing against U.S. policy and practice that they deemed to be “immoral” and “illegal,” Tucson-based Sanctuary Movement activists embodied Biblical texts, living out what its early leaders termed “civil initiative,” which contended with the 1980 Refugee Act.

Scriptural Awakening

The Sanctuary Movement resurfaced in the 1980s when, under the name of God, Reverend John Fife and  Jim Corbett defied the U.S government by offering refuge to Central American refugees fleeing violence and persecution. According to them, breaking the law was a moral imperative demanded by God in Numbers 35:11-12:

select some towns to be your cities of refuge, to which a person who has killed someone accidentally may flee. They will be places of refuge from the avenger, so that anyone accused of murder may not die before they stand trial before the assembly.”

As a first-hand witness of the death, despair, and dire necessity of migrants, Tucson, Arizona became a trailblazer for sanctuary when the U.S. became the key destination for many migrants to seek refuge. As Reverend Alexia Salvatierra maintained, congregations offering sanctuary in the 1980s came to a consensus that Central Americans seeking asylum were deprived of fair hearings by the U.S government and thus readily adopted Numbers 35:11-12 as the movement’s main scriptural justification. 

Extending the scriptural morale of the 1980s movement, the reinvigorated New Sanctuary Movement was influenced in 2007 by Mathew 25:35 and Leviticus 19:35. Both scriptures emphasize love and care for strangers, virtues in demand when having an undocumented immigrant status is deplored by a vast majority of society. Through both scriptures, the New Sanctuary Movement’s missions are extolled and defended by its workers.  

The movement’s Biblical foundations for offering asylum gave breadth to various auxiliary ministries. Thus, such auxiliary ministries also derived their missions from Biblical scriptures, framing the texts as moral and legal vindication. 

Counteractive Mission Duo 

The alarming rise of migrant deaths in the Sonoran desert due to dehydration inspired Reverend Robin Hoover to found the non-profit organization Humane Borders. Its mission: maintaining “a system of water stations in the Sonoran Desert on routes used by migrants making the perilous journey” to the United States on foot. The organization draws from the central scriptural compass of Isaiah 49:10:

“They shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water guide them.”

Humane Borders water jug
Humane Borders water jug. Photo Courtesy of

Almost verbatim, the scripture describes the sanctuary auxiliary ministry’s expeditions where water is depicted as a human right not just in humanitarian ordeals, but scriptural ideals. Given that Humane Borders quite literally places jugs of water along barren strips of desert land for migrants in hope of abating dehydration fatalities, the organization is in danger of being accused and criminally charged for littering, trespassing, and harboring. To effectively and tactfully execute their mission, founder Hoover sought legal approval from appropriate federal agencies to ensure the ministry’s work complied with “the law of the land.”

Fulfilling its scripturally-inspired humanitarian mission, Humane Borders obtained cooperation with U.S Customs and Border Protection (Border Patrol). In line with the First Amendment, there were no prohibitions of religious practice, and there was a separation of the “church” (Humane Borders Biblical arguments) and the “state” (Border Patrol). Yet there was a counteractive cooperation created between a federal agency and a theologically inspired group. Humane Borders and Border Patrol share the same working territory, yet they have impossibly distinct missions. Nevertheless, they exist in parallel to each other. 

Humane Border’s identity and mission as a humanitarian effort inspired by Biblical principles provides the group with a shield of vital moral, humanitarian, and theological legitimacy against operational scrutiny.

Biblical Name Denotation 

Founded in 2002, another faith-based sanctuary aid group arose, the Samaritans. Their mission: save lives in the Southern Arizona Desert. More specifically, the organization aims to provide emergency medical assistance, food, and water to migrants crossing the Sonoran desert. 

Samaritan volunteer workers
Samaritan volunteer workers. Photo Courtesy of

Similar to Humane Borders, several of the Samaritans’ projects could be targeted as harboring. Nevertheless, this auxiliary group still exists today, attracting thousands of volunteers from across the U.S. to continue its mission. What about the Samaritans draws American support and fuels its existence?

Samaritans explicitly derives its mission from Luke 10:25-37. In this parable, Jesus explains that to inherit everlasting life, “loving your neighbor” is required. Jesus illustrates a Samaritan as the character that exemplifies “loving your neighbor”: 

“But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.”

In a societal culture where immigrants face reprimands but Christian principles are idealized, the moniker of “Samaritans” resonates across the political and theological spectrum. ‘Samaritan’ lends moral exemplariness to the desert ministry. Adopting the scriptural identity of a Samaritan, however, does not just win over the public domain but also serves as a shield against heavy legal scrutiny in a nation where Christianity is celebrated in everyday national rituals. 

Scriptural Mobilization 

Taking advantage of the Christian civil religious culture of the American society, sanctuary auxiliary groups in the Tucson area have adopted scriptural roots, missions, and Biblical identities to mobilize their efforts. 

Biblical imperatives have driven the Sanctuary Movement and the various border ministries today. Ironically, the same American culture that invokes and galvanizes a Hebrew God through civil practices empower sanctuary auxiliary groups. As a result, Humane Borders, Samaritans, and others execute their missions in an attempt to counteract damaging immigrant policy covertly and effectively.