The Sanctuary Movement Case, 1985

After 19 years of practicing corporate litigation with prominent law firms in New York City and Minneapolis, I was a tabula rasa in what turned out to be important topics for me. I had no knowledge of, or interest in, international human rights law in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. Nor did I have any knowledge of, or interest in, Latin America in general or El Salvador in particular. At the same time I was struggling with the question of how to integrate my newly re-acquired Christian faith with my professional life.

In 1985 all of this started to change.

My senior partner at Faegre & Benson asked me to provide legal counsel to the firm’s client, the American Lutheran Church. The problem: how should the ALC respond to the news that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service had sent undercover agents into worship services and Bible study meetings at Lutheran and Presbyterian churches in Arizona that were involved in the Sanctuary Movement?

As I soon discovered, that Movement was a loose association of Christian congregations that declared themselves sanctuaries or safe spaces for Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing their civil wars in the 1980s. The news about the “spies in the churches” was revealed by the U.S. Government in its prosecution of some of the Movement’s leaders for harboring and transporting illegal aliens, some of whom were later convicted of these charges.[1]

In the meantime, the ALC and my own church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), decided to join together to sue the U.S. Government over the “spies in the churches.” Eventually the U.S. District Court in Phoenix agreed with the churches that the First Amendment’s “freedom of religion” clause[2] provided protection against certain government investigations.

The court said that the churches “in the free exercise of their constitutionally protected religious activities, are protected against governmental intrusion in the absence of a good faith purpose for the subject investigation. The government is constitutionally precluded from unbridled and inappropriate covert activity which has as its purpose or objective the abridgment of the first amendment freedoms of those involved. Additionally, the participants involved in such investigations must adhere scrupulously to the scope and extent of the invitation to participate that may have been extended or offered to them.”[3]

I should add that the courtroom work in this case was done by two lawyers at the Phoenix firm of Lewis and Roca–Peter Baird[4] and Janet Napolitano.[5]

This case marked a turning point in my legal career as will be evident in my subsequent posts Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer  and My Pilgrimage to El Salvador, April 1989.

By Duane W. Krohnke, a retired lawyer, adjunct law professor, and volunteer with The Advocates for Human Rights.

[1] One of the founders of the Sanctuary Movement was Rev. John Fife of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church. He was one of those convicted in 1986 in the criminal case. Six years later he was elected the national leader (Moderator) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)..(Wikipedia, John Fife, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Fife.)

[2] “Congress shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion].” (U.S. Const., Amend. I.)

[3] Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) v. U.S., 752 F. Supp. 1505, 1516 (D. Ariz. 1990), on remand from, 870 F.2d 518 (9th Cir. 1989).

[4] Peter Baird, http://www.lrlaw.com/files/Uploads/Documents/Baird%20Bio.pdf; Phoenix veteran attorney Peter Baird dies, Phoenix Bus. J.(Aug. 31, 2009), http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/stories/2009/08/31/daily19.html.

[5] Napolitano now, of course, is the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. (Wikipedia, Janet Napolitano, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Napolitano.)

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

refugees-welcome
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.