The New Sanctuary Movement: Seeking Refuge in Places of Worship

By Melanie C. Hagan posted 11-20-2017 09:45


In the 1980s, refugees from Central America fled to the United States to escape military oppression and civil wars. A sanctuary movement arose in response, with more than 500 congregations participating by providing transport and housing.

Decades later, a new congregational sanctuary movement is afoot. Congregations across the country are opening their doors to provide sanctuary to undocumented immigrants facing deportation. This new sanctuary movement is bolstered by a 2011 memo setting forth an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement policy designed to ensure that ICE enforcement actions not occur at “sensitive locations,” such as schools, hospitals, churches, funerals and weddings, or public demonstrations.

As of December 2016, 450 houses of worship across the United States had offered to provide sanctuary or other assistance to undocumented immigrants. Michigan churches have been among those faith communities offering sanctuary. As of March 2017, 6 metro Detroit faith communities and 3 Kalamazoo churches joined the movement. In July 2017, 1 Washtenaw County church joined the sanctuary effort, with others expected to join.

The legal landscape of congregational sanctuary is unclear. For example, would someone participating in congregational sanctuary be harboring that person under 8 USC 1324? Some courts have interpreted that provision to require concealment, United States v Costello, 666 F3d 1040 (7th Cir 2012), while other courts have interpreted harboring to be simple sheltering, United States v Acosta de Evans, 531 F2d 428 (9th Cir 1976). So, if a congregation publicizes that it is providing sanctuary to an undocumented individual, in some jurisdictions that would not be harboring, while in others it may be.

But over the past 40 years, no congregation has been prosecuted for allowing undocumented people to find shelter within its walls. Whether the INS will continue to adhere to the sensitive locations policy and whether courts will agree on what constitutes harboring remain to be seen.