Fighting Injustice: The New Sanctuary Movement

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Anti-immigrant legislation and sentiment have sparked the return of the 1980’s Sanctuary Movement.  The New Sanctuary Movement continues the tradition of standing up for human and immigrant rights in opposition to unjust policies. May 2007

House Resolution 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, or the Sensenbrenner Bill, was passed by the House of Representatives on December 16, 2005. Two hundred and thirty-nine representatives agreed that“unlawful presence” in the United States should be considered a felony and anyone assisting individuals with “reckless disregard” for their documentation status should be subject to criminal penalties and up to five years in jail. This bill and rampant anti-immigrant sentiment clashed with the values and beliefs of members of many religious communities across the country, sparking the New Sanctuary Movement.

The original sanctuary movement took place in the 1980s in response to the United States’ immoral policies towards Central America. Allowing anyone fleeing those countries to claim asylum in the United States would have meant admitting that the U.S.- supported governments were persecuting their people, so most refugees were returned to their countries of origin to face oppression and terror. In direct opposition to immigration laws of the time, many congregations offered refuge to those escaping war. The New Sanctuary Movement continues the tradition of standing up for human and immigrant rights in opposition to unjust policies.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney is one of the many brave clergy members standing up for immigrant rights. In March 2006, he publicly announced he would instruct priests and laypeople working in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to disregard sections of HR 4437 preventing them from knowingly helping undocumented immigrants. On March 27th hundreds of religious leaders came to Washington, DC, to insist that the Senate Judiciary Committee factor moral ramifications and human cost into their deliberations. The continuing deportation of immigrant parents, which leaves their children stranded and separated from their family in the United States, has brought religious communities together in the struggle towards comprehensive immigration reform.

In addition to assisting anyone who comes to them for help, the members of the New Sanctuary Movement want to ensure that families are not divided due to unfair deportation. On January 29, 2007, representatives from 18 cities around the country convened in Washington, DC, to organize efforts to prevent parents with U.S. citizen children from being unfairly deported. From this primary goal follows others of providing legal assistance, financial aid, and even shelter where possible to families facing deportation.

Churches in the border region and particularly in California are reaching out to immigrant families in their communities in danger of being separated by deportation. The 188-year-old Our Lady Queen of Angels in downtown Los Angeles, CA, is one church whole-heartedly embracing this mission. Father Richard Estrada recently oversaw construction of a new addition to the church, intended specifically for the housing of an immigrant family fighting deportation. The movement focuses on providing sanctuary to families that are in deportation proceedings and have children who are U.S. citizens. Families’ identities will be made public while they are fighting deportation, so the host congregation will not be in violation of any federal laws. (For more information on legal issues and the sanctuary movement)

Faith communities from across the country are responding to the need for immigration reform and immigrant rights. For example, the town council of Hightstown, New Jersey, recently approved a no-questions-asked policy for undocumented immigrants. The town’s estimated 1,300 Latin Americans (in a borough of 5,300) can now contact the local police to report robberies, domestic violence and other crimes without fear, regardless of their legal status. These measures make Hightstown part of a growing number of cities to enact local tolerance policies in rejection of the federal government’s call for harsher enforcement. Seattle, Washington, and Cambridge, Massachusetts are also “sanctuary” cities, as are many cities across the state of Texas.

The movement has met with considerable resistance from those who wish to see harsher penalties for undocumented immigrants in the United States. The Texas House of Representatives recently began hearings on a measure to cut off federal funding to sanctuary cities for such policies as restricting a police officer from inquiring about immigration status until arresting someone on criminal charges. Special Order 40, a Los Angeles Police Department mandate that prohibits police cooperation with federal immigration agencies, is the subject of a lawsuit brought against the LAPD on April 11. Nonetheless, member congregations and sanctuary cities are committed to bringing about compassionate immigration reform and protecting the rights of all persons in the United States.

The New Sanctuary Movement has two main coordinating organizations: Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE; and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). CLUE-CA focuses on California movements, and their agenda includes education, advocacy, and taking a “public, moral stand for immigrants’ rights” while fighting unjust deportation. Together with the New York Sanctuary Coalition, these two organizations provide a national framework, although the movement is directed primarily by the participants. Each community is largely responsible for tailoring their participation to local needs while the movement as a whole coordinates state and national efforts. The whole movement is greater than the sum of each individual congregation and community, and it gains momentum and strength as more and more Americans are called to protest the unjust deportation and inferior treatment of migrant workers and families.

–Kate Brittain

For more information about the New Sanctuary movement, look into the following resources:

    * Contact as an ally or as a host congregation for more information
    * Look up the New Sanctuary Movement Coalition representative for your area:
    * New Sanctuary Movement (main):
    * CLUE-CA:
    * Interfaith Worker Justice:
    * Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights: