The New Sanctuary Coalition of New York: Understanding the Role of the Organization within the New Sanctuary Movement

Camilo Toruño | May 2021

The New Sanctuary Coalition of New York (NSC) was founded in 2007 as a multi-faith organization that “creates support systems for and empowers those navigating the immigration system.” Operating within the broader New Sanctuary Movement, this organization identifies two primary goals. The first objective is to assist Friends (both immigrants and volunteers) in working through the immigration system. The second purpose is more ideological – to generate advocacy and mobilization among citizens and faith leaders to support migrants. From the description of NSC on its website, there is an indication of two playing fields, so to speak: a political one and a religious one.

NSC has many different programs that operate across the political and religious spectrum. There is the Accompaniment Program, the Pro Se Immigration Clinic, the (anti)Detention Program and L.I.F.E Bond Fund, Jericho Walk, Sanctuary Hood, and social work. The Pro Se clinic and accompaniment that NSC organizes are two examples that showcase the political and religious objectives of the organization. The pro se clinic is a weekly workshop in which volunteers and lawyers provide legal support and referrals to migrants, and it primarily consists of assisting migrants in filling out the asylum application. The NSC website describes the clinic as working “to eliminate the perception of our Friends as passive victims by empowering them with information about how they can pursue their own defensive strategies even without lawyers.” Clearly, this program operates within the political system, attempting to assist migrants with their court cases and applications to attain legal status in the United States. Accompaniment, on the other hand, has a more religious or ideological spin to it. According to their website, “NSC is committed to creating sanctuary anywhere our Friends feel threatened so that they can advocate for themselves and lead lives free of the fear of persecution based on immigration status.” Through accompaniment, faith leaders and citizen volunteers offer emotional and spiritual support in the face of the immigration system.

Grace Yukich, in her book One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America, identifies the New Sanctuary Movement as a multi-targeted social movement, which Yukich defines as “a movement or movement organization that simultaneously seeks change in more than one arena” (10). In fact, Yukich spent extensive time conducting ethnographic research with NSC that helped her identify this framework. This understanding of multiple focuses puts in perspective the work that NSC carries out as an organization working with faith-motivated people but also political activists. As Yukich identifies in her book, this structure brings both benefits and challenges. On one hand, the “integrationist” philosophy of an organization like NSC has the potential to “construct an image of religion and activism as integrated entities with overlapping beliefs, institutions, and practices” (125). A “distinction discourse” on the other hand, portrays religion and political activism as distinct phenomena” (125). Through her ethnographic research with NSC, Yukich identified this tension between people “invested in a more religious vision and those committed to more political tactics and targets” (134). These competing priorities jeopardize NSC’s ability to help their Friends within the New Sanctuary Movement.

The Challenge for New Sanctuary Coalition Today

More than a decade after Yukich spent time researching NSC, I looked to this organization to gain insight in the ways it has changed and grown over time. Through an interview with a former long-term volunteer who served in the role of clinic leader, I learned about some of the organizational challenges facing NSC. As an organization, not a congregation, operating within the New Sanctuary Movement, NSC faces structural and administrative problems. This leaves me to ask, what is the role of the nonprofit organization within the New Sanctuary Movement?

Through my interview and my experiences as a former volunteer for NSC, I learned that NSC is fiscally sponsored by Judson Memorial Church. Nonprofits need a board of directors, which is a group that is fiscally responsible for governing the organization. In order to qualify as a nonprofit, however, organizations need to file for a 501(c)(3), which allows people to donate tax free. Filing for the 501(c)(3) status is a daunting undertaking, so NSC was fiscally sponsored by Judson Memorial Church with the understanding that it would eventually become an independent entity. However, this transition hasn’t happened and has resulted in a crisis of leadership at NSC. This tension was recently acknowledged in an email to the volunteer community, which stated “The communication between the Judson Board, the Advisory Board, staff, and volunteers, has been inconsistent and inadequate. Roles were not well defined and communication systems were insufficient and, in some cases, nonexistent.” To return to Yukich’s framing, by bringing together religious and political agendas to operate as an organization, NSC has recently struggled with leadership and administrative structure. This experience is a concrete challenge to Yukich’s framing of a movement organization that operates in two arenas: the religious and the political.

So, do nonprofit organizations have a place within the New Sanctuary Movement? There is a powerful perspective that nonprofits are not conducive to profound social change. Dylan Rodriguez, a Pinoy scholar and activist at the University of California, Riverside, defines the non-profit industrial complex as “a set of symbiotic relationships that link political and financial technologies of state and owning class control with surveillance over public political ideology, including and especially emergent progressive and leftist social movements” (8). In other words, the government tames a lot of social movements through financial technologies like the 501(c)(3) status. Perhaps we can see this at work with NSC. The government’s ability to subdue the Sanctuary Movement by making churches sensitive locations is eerily similar. Congregations, especially since the mid-2000s rise of the New Sanctuary Movement, have largely been transformed from places of civil initiative and resistance to carceral-like spaces for those in sanctuary. One thing is clear from both these examples of government subjugation: the New Sanctuary Movement must return to its activist roots of resistance. NSC faces the real challenges of reworking its organizational structure, but its multi-targeted mission of political resistance and religious support cannot be lost.


*Since the time this column was written, the New Sanctuary Coalition of New York has “shifted its program focus, from direct services to friends in the immigrant community and their families who are caught in the unjust detention and deportation system in this country, to one of broader education about and advocacy towards ending the harms of that system.” As such, as of August 10, 2021, the programs described above are currently not operating.