Beyond a Culture of Disbelief: An Archival Lens on Sanctuary’s Limitations and Challenges

Natalie De Rosa | December 2020

As sanctuary has vigorously reemerged in the public discourse amid Donald Trump’s presidency, from the emergence of the sanctuary city movement to a revival of religious activism to house and protect undocumented immigrants, the debate all too often falls into a binary. On the one side are those who peddle anti-immigrant rhetoric: states’ measures to ban sanctuary cities, conservatives’ alarm about alleged crime increases brought stateside by immigrants, and President Trump’s numerous remarks disparaging immigration into the U.S., among other examples. On the other hand, both secular and religious progressives have lauded efforts to protect undocumented immigrants, with activists not only condemning actions taken by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to intimidate and assault immigrants but also resorting to sanctuary—cities, campuses, churches, and beyond—as a means of resistance to U.S. immigration policy. 

While these public debates highlight the tensions between those who perpetuate a culture of disbelief and sanctuary’s advocates, popular representations of sanctuary often miss its limitations and challenges. Through archival glimpses of the movement, both in its 1980s origins and present-day iterations, we can observe the ways that identity, including race, gender, and religious background, impacts how individuals and organizations enter in and engage with sanctuary. The archival samples below represent a broad range of backgrounds—from the perspectives of migrants, women, Catholics, and other identity groups—and draw attention to the unique challenges each group confronts. Examining the movement’s past allows for current and future sanctuary activists to reevaluate how they could better engage in sanctuary practices.


Clipping of the 1987 New York Times article entitled "In Sanctuary Movement, Unabated Strength but Shifting Aims"
New York Times article “In Sanctuary Movement, Unabated Strength but Shifting Aims” by Peter Applebome from the Oct 27, 1987 edition (A00018). Courtesy of the New York Times Article Archive. 

Above, a 1987 New York Times article examines the accomplishments and challenges during the Sanctuary Movement’s initial rise. Quoting Doris Meisner, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the article notes, “[sanctuary advocates] have been far more successful than they expected. Having refugees tell their stories is very compelling. It’s a marvelous organizing technique.” Since the movement’s inception, organizers demonstrated a tight balancing act in issuing migrants autonomy over their stories—allowing them to share their experiences as they experienced them and requiring them to publicly relay and relive their trauma to build momentum for the movement. The dilemma is not confined to the 1980s movement: according to Grace Yukich, author of “One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America,” the resurgence of sanctuary in 2007 also saw challenges in holding immigrants’ stories at the heart of the movement but failing to actually incorporate immigrants into its coalitions (143-144).


Excerpt from an interview with Rev. Peter Sammon
Excerpt from an interview with Rev. Peter Sammon, a priest at St. Theresa’s Parish in San Francisco during the 1980s Sanctuary Movement. Courtesy of Graduate Theological Union Special Collections and Archives.

As Rev. Sammon describes, the decision to declare sanctuary has not only been divisive within individual congregations, the case of Catholicism demonstrates how disagreements on sanctuary echo within the entire institution of the church. In examining the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) in Illinois, who first showed some hesitancy in declaring sanctuary before diving into the movement, Carlos Ruiz Martinez writes that the Catholic Church held an “ambivalent stance” on sanctuary (62). Sammon’s quote and the case of the ASC demonstrate how religious background informs how different congregations may enter into a predominantly Protestant movement. In the present day, Muslim congregations who declare sanctuary are put in a precarious situation, with one mosque retracting their declaration of sanctuary due to an uptick in anti-Muslim violence.


two sketches and two photographs documenting two immigrants' time in sanctuary
A collection of pieces documenting two immigrants’ time in sanctuary. Courtesy of Cinthya Santos-Briones from her project “Living in Sanctuary,” which looks at the Sanctuary Movement in Chicago.

For many who have taken refuge in houses of worship in recent years, sanctuary is a last resort against deportation. In the image above, the ankle monitor gives ICE access to the sanctuary seeker’s location. Though churches are considered sensitive locations where ICE should not arrest people, the world outside of the church is fair game. As a result, sanctuary seekers remain confined to churches for months and sometimes years on end while hoping for legal reprieve. Because of the indefinite nature of sanctuary, scholars and church leaders alike have debated whether sanctuary, while well-intended, could take the form of imprisonment, restricting sanctuary seekers to only church grounds.