5 Ways Art Supports the Sanctuary Movement

Grace Montoya and Nicholas Ardila | December 2020

Art has power: power to illuminate, educate, and move people. It awakens a curiosity to investigate deeper, to know and feel just what an artist is trying to capture. When coupled with a movement, art is a powerful tool to create social change. Over the past 40 years, the Sanctuary Movement has channeled the power of art to further its mission of inclusion for immigrants and implementation of comprehensive US immigration reform. 

For those unfamiliar with the Sanctuary Movement, it is a religiopolitical campaign born in the 1980s with the goal of providing assistance to Central Americans fleeing civil war. In 2007, the movement resurfaced as the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM), which seeks to provide assistance to undocumented immigrants in the US and pushes for comprehensive immigration reform. Recently during Trump’s presidency, there has been a resurgence of the Sanctuary Movement in the form of sanctuary churches and sanctuary cities

The ways art has manifested throughout the progression of the movement have been diverse and quite influential. From photographs to murals, the movement uses art to demonstrate refugees’ power and resistance. Furthermore, art depicts the devotion NSM proponents show for sanctuary seekers and the community that is being built across the barrier of safety.

  1. Art Sanctuary
Samuel S Fleisher Art Memorial Historical Marker
Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia is a declared Art Sanctuary Space. Courtesy of Nick-philly.

Throughout the Sanctuary Movement, the act of sanctuary has been at the forefront of tactics to assist immigrants and resist the US government’s discriminatory policies. Two types of sanctuary spaces have arisen 1) physical: locations where undocumented individuals take shelter – generally churches 2) non-cooperation: spaces where the legal status of individuals is not shared with legal enforcement authorities – including cities, states, campuses, etc. In 2018, activists and artists pushed for art spaces – such as museums, theatres, and libraries – to declare non-cooperation sanctuary. The call for art sanctuaries arose from Art Space Sanctuary, a New York based non-profit motivated by the guiding principle that, “[e]veryone should have access to education, culture and the arts without any fear.” Art Space Sanctuary has regularly partnered with the New York Sanctuary Coalition to provide programming to art institutions about sanctuary and supporting immigrant communities. Art sanctuary has challenged art institutions to center the needs of immigrant communities and provide support for immigrants in the art world.

  1. Photography
Elvira Arellano
Elvira Arellano alongside la Virgen de Guadalupe in Chicago’s Adalberto United Methodist Church. Photo sourced from Getty Images.

As the Sanctuary Movement grew in the 1980s, it was common for immigrants seeking sanctuary to be seen and photographed wearing masks. When churches publicly declared sanctuary, local leaders invited the press to report and photograph the declaration. At these public events, sanctuary seekers wore masks and hats to protect their identities. For instance, in the Wellington Avenue Church declaration of sanctuary photograph, Salvadoran sanctuary seekers sit in a still silence wearing their masks. While the coverings protected refugees’ identities, they also stripped immigrants of those identities, providing stark imagery of Central Americans who were regarded as non-people by the US government as it sought to erase their existence. 

Conversely, one of the most distinctive features of the NSM to its predecessor is its focus on migrants’ identities. The NSM utilizes raw, vivid photographs centering on immigrants as showcased above with Elvira Arellano. We see Arellano and the Virgen of Guadalupe focused in the image showcasing not only Elvira’s faith but her likeness to the holy mother. In this photo, we are forced to look upon Elvira as more than an immigrant or a sanctuary seeker – we are forced to behold her in her fullness as a human deserving of dignity and care. Photography of the NSM showcases the humanity of undocumented immigrants and seeks to display immigrant identities in their raw beauty and richness.

  1. Poetry
Javier Zamora
Javier Zamora, a poet of the undocumented experience, delivers a speech at the Summit on Race in America. Courtesy of LBJLibraryNow.

Many poets have used their words to center the immigrant experience and explore the liminality (or sense of in-betweeness) one feels while living undocumented in a new country. Photographed above is the poet Javier Zamora, whose debut poetry collection “Unaccompanied,” explores his migration from El Salvador to the U.S. and experience living undocumented. Zamora captures his story and the story of his family in a collection of gut-wrenching poems that convey the impact of immigration. Similar to Zamora, many other poets have also decided to write about their personal experiences related to immigration and living in the “in-between.” In poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem “Everyday We Get More Illegal,” the resilience of immigrants is felt in the face of a government and system that seek to erase undocumented individuals by means of detention, deportation, and death. These poems and the poets who write them create a collective narrative around immigration through the lens of the lived experiences of immigrants. The recentering of immigrant stories in the form of poetry allows for immigrants to control their personal art and share the depth of their experiences with others.

  1. Murals
Mural in Del Rio, Texas with the statement “Amistad sin Fronteras.”
Mural in Del Rio, Texas with the statement “Amistad sin Fronteras.” Courtesy of Jonathan Mcintosh.

In the larger movement for comprehensive immigration reform and sanctuary spaces, there has grown a large collection of murals that highlight the desires and dreams of immigrants ranging from water during the hard journey across the border to dignity and visibility. The mural above, located in Del Rio, Texas in a community by Lake Amistad, shows two Latinx people holding hands over a great distance. Alongside them is the statement “Amistad sin Fronteras,” which translates to “Friendship without Borders.” Additionally, Lake Amistad is on US and Mexico border, giving this mural the double meaning of eradicating not only abstract borders but physical ones that separate the U.S. from Latin American countries. Behind the two friends poses a globe stopped at North and South America showing how these two continents are connected just like the arms of the two friends at the forefront of the mural. “Amistad sin Fronteras” captures the sense of solidarity in the Sanctuary Movement that reaches across borders. At the heart of this mural and murals like is the aim to create a sense of community through sharing immigrant stories and feelings.

  1. Story Telling
Elvira Arellano Press Conference
Elvira Arellano Press Conference 8-21-07. Courtesy of Korean Resource Center 민족학교.

The art of storytelling has been an effective medium to garner support for the Sanctuary Movement and build community between its members and immigrants. The 1980 Sanctuary Movement is known for its “coupling of sanctuary with testimonies.” Central American sanctuary seekers and American church congregants created bonds through Central American refugees sharing testimonials of horrific experiences from their war-stricken countries. The art of storytelling tore the veil of ignorance for the American public and created a bond between U.S. citizens and Central American refugees, although this bond solely depicted refugees as victims in need of assistance instead of people with fuller identities other than their traumas. Since the 2007 rise of the NSM, the focus of storytelling has shifted from horrific experiences to a focus on the personal lives that undocumented immigrants have created in the U.S. An emphasis has been placed on specific, “positive” identities that undocumented immigrants hold such as being a parishioner of a religious congregation or a parent. The goal of this storytelling is to depict a model citizen who should not be deported.

In “Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements,” Dr. Joseph E. Davis writes about the storytelling process as a social transaction that connects people. Davis further details how “through identification and “co-creation” of a story the storyteller and reader/listener create a “we” involving some degree of affective bond and a sense of solidarity” (19). The art of storytelling has remained an effective tool from the start of the Sanctuary Movement because it allows solidarity to grow from simply listening, creating bonds between strangers. The Sanctuary Movement relies on community and a collective desire to promote positive changes for all people living in the U.S. regardless of legal status. Storytelling connects this community together and creates bonds that allow for change.