Sanctuary: What it is, what it isn’t, why it’s important

Minnesotans demonstrate in support of refugees – 2015 (Photo by Mary Turck)

When Donald Trump targeted “sanctuary cities,” threatening to cut off all federal funding, what was he talking about? Turns out – as usual – that the answer is more complex than the sound bite. Here’s a quick primer on sanctuary, both in misnamed “sanctuary cities”and in the real and resurgent sanctuary church movement.


What is sanctuary?

“Sanctuary” dates back to at least the fourth century, and spans much of the globe. Here’s a quick description of some of the history:

“Sanctuary–the practice of a wrongdoer taking refuge in a church to escape physical harm–was an important social practice in Europe from late antiquity well into the Middle Ages. Although the state no longer formally recognizes sanctuary, the practice regularly resurfaces in times of genocide and political injustice. The historical and biblical roots of sanctuary inspired some citizens of a small town in France during World War II to make their own town of Le Chambon into a sanctuary for Jews during the Holocaust. Similarly, in the ‘sanctuary movement’ in the 1980s in the United States, American churches sheltered illegal Central American immigrants fleeing violence. Less happily, during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Hutu lured the Tutsi into church buildings by promising them sanctuary–an offer that clearly seemed plausible in their social setting. Tragically, the Hutu killed the sanctuary seekers: church buildings were the ‘killing fields’ of Rwanda. Sanctuary has mattered in significant ways even in modern history.”

Historically, sanctuary offers a place of protection from physical harm. The sanctuary movement of the 1980s offered protection from deportation to Central American refugees fleeing violence and political repression in their home countries. That meant offering physical sanctuary to individuals and families inside church buildings. While churches could not actually prevent law enforcement officers from entering, they believed that government officials would avoid breaking down church doors because it would make them look bad.

What sanctuary isn’t – separation ordinances, not “sanctuary cities”

When Trump denounced sanctuary cities, he probably meant cities that have passed “separation ordinances,” which are NOT sanctuary. No city can bar immigration officers from entering or arresting people. The separation ordinances, while very significant, do not do that.

Minneapolis and St. Paul, along with more than 500 other cities and counties across the country, have passed separation ordinances. These ordinances aim to foster immigrant cooperation with police when they are victims or witnesses of crimes, and, more generally, to foster trust between local government and residents.

The Minneapolis ordinance provides that city employees “shall only solicit immigration information or inquire about information status when specifically required to do so by law or program guidelines as a condition of eligibility for the service sought.” Law enforcement officers are similarly limited to “Investigate and inquire about immigration status when relevant to the potential or actual prosecution of the case or when immigration status is an element of the crime.”

In St. Paul, police recently responded to fear raised by Trump’s threats by releasing a video in four languages:

“The videos from officers who speak Spanish, Hmong, Somali and Karen stress that St. Paul officers are not immigration officials. They reference a St. Paul ordinance that prevents city staff from asking people about their immigration status.

“If people think that victims, witnesses or others who call the police could be questioned by officers about their immigration status, police worry it would have a chilling effect on them making reports, said St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. John Lozoya, in charge of the department’s Community Engagement Unit.”

Many local officials across the country have reaffirmed their commitment to welcoming and safeguarding immigrants.

Why sanctuary is important

Sanctuary – the real thing, sheltering immigrants in churches – remains a live issue. During the first week of December, 13 Minnesota churches said they will offer physical sanctuary and more than 20 others pledged their support.  St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Worthington announced that it will offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants.

Nationally, San Diego Catholic Bishop Robert McElroy expressed the strong opposition of the church to Trump’s immigration policies:

“’During the past months the specter of a massive deportation campaign aimed at ripping more than 10 million undocumented immigrants from their lives and families has realistically emerged as potential federal policy,’ McElroy said.

“’We must label this policy proposal for what it is — an act of injustice which would stain our national honor in the same manner as the progressive dispossessions of the Native American peoples of the United States and the interment of the Japanese’ during World War II, he said.”

At many universities, students are pushing for declarations of sanctuary. The Star Tribune reports:

“At the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff signed a petition urging officials to prevent campus police from cooperating with immigration authorities and provide legal counsel to immigrant students facing deportation. The petition also calls on the U to commit to helping find jobs for students who would lose their work permits if Trump ends an Obama administration deportation reprieve program for young people brought to the country illegally as children.”

University President Eric Kaler said the U will support immigrant students, but would not commit to sanctuary.

The California legislature opposes Trump’s policies and is working on legislation to resist in several different ways, including passing resolutions opposing mass deportations, creating “‘safe zones’ prohibiting immigration enforcement on public schools, hospital and courthouse grounds,” and offering legal assistance to immigrants in deportation hearings.

Actual sanctuary in churches offers actual protection to only a very small number of people. Sanctuary’s larger impact is in its challenge to the conscience of the community.

By: Guest blogger Mary Turck, a freelance writer and editor who teaches writing and journalism at Metropolitan State University and Macalester College. She is the former editor of the TC Daily Planet and of the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, a recovering attorney, and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues. 

The Right Thing to Do

iStock image1

by Deepinder Singh Mayell

“The time to fix our broken immigration system is now.”  President Obama made this statement on the Senate floor in May 2007.  Over five years later, “now” might be getting a little closer.  With a large Latino turnout being credited as a key part of President Obama’s re-election this November, immigration reform is poised to take center stage in the national spotlight in the coming years.  Of newcomers to the United States, the President stated, “it is the constant flow of immigrants that help make America what it is. […] To this day America reaps incredible economic rewards because we remain a magnet for the best and brightest from across the globe.”[1] Both parties are changing their tone and easing their anti-immigrant rhetoric and on June 15, 2012, President Obama signed a memo calling for deferred action for certain undocumented young people who came to the United States as children.

But despite the improvement in the political climate, it is important to note that immigrants have faced an increasingly hostile environment in the last several years and a policy of rampant enforcement that is alarming.   The policies regarding deportation and detention have resulted in the unfair punishment of thousands seeking a new life in the United States.

  • Since 2009, the average number of deportations per year is about 400,000 which is double the annual average during George W. Bush’s first term and thirty per cent more that the average when he left office.[2]
  • In 2011, Minnesota deported 3,215 individuals which is nearly a fifty per cent increase from 2006.[3]
  • In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security held a record-breaking 429,000 immigrants, including children, in over 250 facilities across the country, and currently maintains a daily capacity of 33,400 beds [4]
  • About half of all immigrants held in detention have no criminal record at all.[5]

These policies are also not consistent with international human rights law.[6] For example, under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), non-citizens within the United States have the right to liberty and security of person, freedom from arbitrary arrest or detention, and are entitled to prompt review of their detention by an independent court.[7] The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants has reported that “the United States detention and deportation system for migrants lacks the kinds of safeguards that prevent certain deportation decisions and the detention of certain immigrants from being arbitrary within the ICCPR.”[8]

The conditions in detention facilities can be appalling and detainees have complained about grossly inadequate health care, physical and sexual abuse, overcrowding, and discrimination.[9]  In addition, NGOs have reported the use of shackling, tasers, and solitary confinement for disciplinary purposes and the lack of proper medication, nutrition, and recreation.[10]  The immigrants The Advocates works with, people who are fleeing persecution in their home countries and hoping to gain asylum in the United States, are particularly vulnerable.  Asylum seekers are often victims of violence, sexual assault, and torture and being held in a prison-like setting can have significant long-term mental health consequences.

Although The Advocates’ asylum program does far better than the average in helping people obtain asylum, the asylum grant rate in our Immigration Court is one of the lowest in the country at seventeen percent, while the national average is sixty-one percent.[11] Persons seeking asylum often have to wait up to three years to have their cases decided by a judge.  Meanwhile, they cannot reunite with their families who they have often left behind when escaping the horrors of persecution and torture.

Recently, President Obama stated, “As long as I’m president, I will not give up on this issue, not only because it’s the right thing to do for our economy … not just because it’s the right thing to do for our security, but because it’s the right thing to do period.”[12] It is more important than ever, in this changing environment, for those who believe in positive immigration reform to push to define “the right thing to do.”  The Advocates for Human Rights has advocated locally and nationally to ensure the rights of thousands of immigrants and has stood against mandatory detention.  In the coming years, The Advocates will continue to push to change our immigration system so that it does not focus on punishment and imprisonment but instead secures dignity, fairness, and human rights for all.

What you can go to get involved:

Call your Congressperson to tell them it is time to create fair and humane immigration laws and procedures that reflect international norms of human rights.

Volunteer for The Advocates as pro bono counsel to represent low-income asylum seekers from Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota. The Advocates has been doing this work for almost thirty years and has mentor attorneys and resources to help you.  If you are an attorney or interpreter and would like to help on an asylum case please contact Sarah Brenes at

Donate to The Advocates to support the asylum program and the other work we do to help immigrants. These new Americans make valuable contributions to our communities and culture, are committed to our country, and have the same human rights as our immigrant ancestors did.

Join the Detention Watch Network!  The Advocates is a steering committee member of the Detention Watch Network which is a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to educate the public and policy makers about the immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for humane reform so that all who come to our shores receive fair and humane treatment.  Click here to get involved:

Deepinder Singh Mayell is the Director of the Refugee & Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.

[2] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Yearbook, February 2012

[6] See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arts. 2, 7, 9, 10, 13, and 14.

[7] ICCPR, art. 9.

[8] Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, ¶ 24 (2008).

[11] Executive Office for Immigration Review, FY2011 Statistical Year Book, February 2012