Sanctuary: The Meanings and Boundaries of a Word

Camille Alexandra Polk | December 2020

The term sanctuary evokes an indeterminable number of images. My own first thought runs to the world-famous Quasimodo shouting “sanctuary” on the balcony of a cathedral after rescuing Esmerelda from a raging flame of persecution in the 1996 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This association may seem silly, but it captures the essence of sanctuary – a person rooted in faith sheltering a vulnerable individual on sacred premises from an oppressor.

Power infuses this deeply religious tradition. The spiritually symbolic weight of sanctuary cannot be transferred to the secular realm nor can its resistance to state authority. Sanctuary responds to the call of a higher power and is rooted in scripture. Biblical verses such as Numbers 35:11, Matthew 25:35, Hebrews 13:2, and Leviticus 19:33, amongst others, call for compassion to the stranger and lay the scriptural groundwork for sanctuary. Sanctuary in a secular form cannot lay claim to sacrality of these principles as that would conflict with the separation of church and state.

Faith communities breathe life into sanctuary activism. Sanctuary resists a state that represses “the other.” The federal government holds local governments to their duty of acting in state interest. While local governments may have some wiggle room to resist federal authorities’ calls to repress the nation, by nature they symbolically are part of the harmful state. The appropriation of the term sanctuary by local governments or local law enforcement further confuses the principles of sanctuary by removing the resistance component.

Sanctuary, a religiously-charged term, bears politically resistant connotations even when applied to secular jurisdictions. The phrase “secular sanctuary” in itself presents an oxymoron, and its misappropriation runs the risk of promising too much but delivering too little with respect to actual protections. Local authority is still subject to federal powers, which ultimately decide the fate of undocumented immigrants.

For example, the LAPD can willfully not cooperate with federal partnerships such as those outlined in section 287(g), which enables local law enforcement officers to fulfill the mission of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by detaining undocumented people who cross paths with the law. This non-cooperation with federal immigration programs does not carry the same protections of American sanctuary traditions, however. Houses of worship are considered “sensitive locations” by ICE, meaning agents will only disrupt the community if there is an imminent threat. This designation protects many churches and synagogues that practice sanctuary from law enforcement crossing their physical boundaries. Whereas in a so-called sanctuary city, ICE can roam the streets, receive federal warrants to search an immigrant’s house or workplace, and intimidate undocumented populations. So, what we see developing in sanctuary cities is not actually sanctuary but is positive immigration policy.

So, while sanctuary may mean many things, a few distinguishing characteristics of the American sanctuary tradition hold true: first and foremost, sanctuary is rooted in one’s fealty to a higher power, it is a form of activism against unjust state authority, and it is provided protection through special categorization by law enforcement agencies. Ultimately, cities do not possess any of these characteristics. Labeling oneself a sanctuary city does a disservice to those who rely on sanctuary as a lifeline and tool for survival however precarious that may be.