By Susan Bibler Coutin
University of California, Irvine
Congregations that declared themselves sanctuaries during the 1980s were motivated by a sense of emergency. Civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala had led to death squad activity, assassinations, disappearances, torture, and widespread displacement, yet the United States, which was funding Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments, denied Central Americans’ asylum applications at a rate of 97-99%. Religious activists who met Central Americans felt compelled to take action. One participant told me, “When I met Central American refugees face-to-face, it was transforming. When I heard their stories, when I saw them cry, it was gut-wrenching for me. I knew I had to do something.” Though the movement took its name from the prototypical practice of housing an asylum seeker within a congregation, sanctuary workers also organized vigils and demonstrations, publicized human rights violations, prepared asylum applications, assisted border crossers, lobbied Congress, raised bail bond money, and provided social services. The movement was also transnational in that U.S. activists traveled to Central America to accompany at-risk communities, while Central Americans also took on leadership roles within the movement.
Sanctuary work challenged existing power structures. U.S. movement members were prosecuted for alien smuggling and conspiracy and some Central American participants were placed in deportation proceedings. Though sanctuary has sometimes been characterized as civil disobedience, movement members argued that they were practicing civil initiative, that is, taking actions to enforce international and U.S. refugee laws that their government was violating. Their legal efforts had long-term impacts. In 1997, Congress passed the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, which, in the long run, allowed Salvadorans and Guatemalans who had sought asylum during the 1980s to become lawful permanent residents.
The fact that communities are once again resorting to declaring themselves sanctuaries is a sign of the dire sense of emergency experienced by many noncitizens. As was the case in the 1980s, sanctuary today takes multiple forms, ranging from efforts to integrate immigrant populations to policies that limit local police agencies’ collaboration with federal immigration enforcement. These practices also challenge power structures, as evidenced by the Trump administration’s threat to prevent sanctuary jurisdictions from receiving federal funding. As was the case in the 1980s, sanctuary today transcends borders through both international collaborations and the leadership of immigrant-activists. And, just as sanctuary practices in the 1980s led to unforeseen outcomes in the 1990s, so too are today’s actions likely to shape the course of law and policy in ways that cannot now be predicted.