The Legacy of the Sanctuary Movement in the Midwest

Sara Kaufmann | December 2020

During July 2019, Francisca Lino marked her two-year anniversary of taking sanctuary in a church in Humboldt Park, Chicago. Lino entered the United States in 1999 and started the process of receiving legal status in 2001. When she was interviewed for her green card in 2004, she was tagged for expedited deportation and has been fighting her deportation ever since in order to stay united with her U.S.-born children.

Francisca Lino is not the first undocumented immigrant to find refuge in a house of worship and likely will not be the last. The Sanctuary Movement originally emerged in the 1980s to stand in solidarity with Central Americans crossing the Mexican border to escape the widespread U.S.-backed violence in their home countries. Churches opened their doors to undocumented immigrants, providing shelter and legal services to help them gain citizenship. While the Sanctuary Movement first developed in Tucson, Arizona, it soon emerged in major cities across the United States.

The emergence of the Sanctuary Movement in Arizona had strong implications for many Chicago-based activist communities. The Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America (CRTFCA) was a dominant source of protest against U.S. immigration policies and involvement in Latin America. On July 18, 1982, the Wellington Avenue Church of Chicago voted to join the Sanctuary Movement, becoming the first church in the city to pledge assistance to undocumented immigrants.

Undocumented migrants wear masks at Church
Undocumented migrants from El Salvador wear masks to hide their identities at the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ on Aug. 9, 1982. (Chicago Tribune)

A religious leader at the Wellington Avenue Church, Rev. David Chevrier expressed concern at breaking the law, but ultimately declared sanctuary as a means to aid the refugees and focus public attention on their struggles. Within its first year of involvement, the Wellington Avenue Church housed eight immigrants and consistently staffed members of the congregation to stay in the church in case the authorities would attempt to arrest the refugees.

Chicago was not the only midwestern city in which churches openly defied federal immigration policy and welcomed undocumented immigrants into their doors. In 1983, the congregation at Cross Lutheran Church – a historically black church in Milwaukee – voted to become a Sanctuary site as “the laws passed conflicted with our Christian duty to love and help our neighbors and those in need.” Cross Lutheran Church connected the struggles of African American citizens with undocumented immigrants, affirming: “Black churches have been slow to enter the sanctuary program because the black community has its own problems. But Black Christians have a long history of relating to the exiles and outcasts.”

Ultimately, Cross Lutheran Church referenced similarities between the Underground Railroad and the Sanctuary Movement to defend their civil disobedience against the government’s immigration policy. In September of 1983, Cross Lutheran Church publicly announced their protection of a Guatemalan refugee whose union activities threatened his life in his home country.

A poster supporting the Sanctuary Movement
A poster supporting the Sanctuary Movement and solidarity with undocumented migrants from September 28, 1986 (Sergio M. González)

Despite their distance from the southern borderlands, solidarity for the 1980s Sanctuary Movement emerged in mid-western cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee. Numerous undocumented migrants took temporary refuge in churches and other houses of worship as calls for immigration reform and critiques of U.S. interventions in Central America became prominent in mainstream media. 

The Revival of Sanctuary 

During the mid 1990s, involvement in the Sanctuary Movement gradually declined. However, the Sanctuary Movement never fully disappeared and transformed itself over the years. The first wave of the New Sanctuary Movement began in the mid-2000s, while the second wave appeared with the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump.

While in the 1980s the focus of the Sanctuary Movement was to assist immigrants who recently arrived in the United States, the New Sanctuary Movement turned their energy towards immigrants who had already lived in the United States for many years but still did not have official documentation (papeles). In both Chicago and Milwaukee religious congregations emphasized the immorality of deporting peaceful and productive members of the community. As these migrants often have children who were born in the United States, federal immigration policy led to the separation of thousands of families across the country.

In Chicago, religious institutions historically tied to the Sanctuary Movement still firmly hold the same critiques of the United States’ immigration policy. Elvira Arellano, a Mexican-born migrant, took sanctuary in a Humboldt Park church in the early 2000s. Since then, she has taken part in rallies for the rights of undocumented immigrants and continues her battle for citizenship to this day. On January 27, 2008, Wellington Avenue Church of Chicago reaffirmed its solidarity with “our neighbors from the South.” As of 2020, the Wellington Avenue Church has continued their legacy of almost 30 years of immigrant sanctuary and solidarity.

 Immigrant Welcoming Congregation Gathering
A poster for a 2017 Immigrant Welcoming Congregation Gathering (CRLN)

In both Chicago and Milwaukee, many religious leaders and communities understand their faith through a lens of social justice, valuing their participation in the Sanctuary Movement as both a deed of faith and political action. The literature on the Sanctuary Movement often underscores regions closer to the physical border such as Tucson, Arizona, or cities with major immigrant populations such as New York City or Los Angeles. Yet, calls for solidarity with Central American migrants developed across the country with particularly strong responses in the Midwest. The case of Francisca Lino is a reminder that the need for immigration reform is as strong as it was in the 1980s and that almost 40 years later, the Sanctuary Movement still continues its fight in solidarity with the undocumented.


Additional Sources:

-Sergio González, “Churches Are Not Just Buildings, They Are People’: Refugee Activism and Religious Spaces” Latinx Midwest Reader

-Renny Golden and Michael McConnell, Sanctuary: The New Underground Railroad (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1986)

-Carlos Ruiz-Martinez, “Discerning Sanctuary: The Adorers of the Blood of Christ and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement, 1983-1996″ U.S. Catholic Historian