The New Sanctuary Movement: Protecting and welcoming

Two key precepts have always found some form of expression in religious traditions across the ages: One is that we love our neighbor by welcoming the stranger, and the other is that the sacred ground of a house of worship cannot be violated by secular authorities. These two teachings came together in the United States in the 1980s as a range of religious groups began providing safe havens in churches and temples for Central American refugees who were forced to flee their countries but were denied protection by the U.S. government. The “sanctuary movement,” as this came to be known, endured for about a decade, until U.S. policy toward these refugees changed.

Today, in response to a renewed crackdown on undocumented immigrants in workplace raids and deportations, the so-called “New Sanctuary Movement” is again taking root in congregations across the Judeo-Christian spectrum, but now it also comprises Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist groups and individuals as well.

Launched in 2007, the New Sanctuary Movement stretches from Massachusetts to Washington state, with 35 different networks in at least 10 states. The Associated Press estimated in 2008 that there were at least 13 undocumented immigrants receiving physical sanctuary at congregations around the country. Thousands more immigrants – illegal and legal – have been aided by the movement with clothing, food, money and legal counseling. Among the movement’s main goals is a more compassionate U.S. immigration policy.

But the New Sanctuary Movement is not embraced by all religious groups and individuals. And the movement itself has yet to face a concerted challenge from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has so far refrained from bringing charges against participating congregations. How far will this New Sanctuary Movement grow? Will it, like its first incarnation, succeed in changing U.S. immigration law? Or will it fail to gain a hearing as Americans scramble for increasingly scarce jobs.


Why it matters

The commitment to religious principles and the battle for them in the public sphere have led to massive social changes in the U.S., including the abolition of slavery, the birth of the civil rights movement and the fight to end legal abortion.


Places of worship have offered protection in the form of sanctuary to those sought by the law since ancient times. The Hebrews had six sanctuary cities, and the Greeks sought sanctuary in the temple of Diana at Ephesus. In the Middle Ages, anyone entering a church was considered under the protection of God, a status that trumped the interests of the state.

Religious groups in the U.S. revived the idea of church-based sanctuary in the 1980s to protect Central Americans, especially Guatemalans and Salvadorans, who fled violent upheaval in their countries. Most were ineligible for political asylum because their countries were U.S. allies. About 500 churches were involved nationwide, and 16 activists were indicted. Eventually, the U.S. changed its policy on amnesty for refugees from these countries.

In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which requires local governments to cooperate with federal authorities. Many cities and towns have ignored the law, becoming “sanctuary cities” – places where local law enforcement and municipal officials do not ask residents about their immigration status or allocate public funds to comply with the law. There are now sanctuary cities in 30 states.

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (Under “Search bill text,” enter bill number “S 1348”) would have smoothed a path to legal status and citizenship for the nation’s approximately 12 million undocumented aliens. The bill, supported by John McCain, failed to pass. About this time, the New Sanctuary Movement blossomed, in response to what involved activists saw as growing hostility toward immigrants, both documented and undocumented.



Organizations that support the New Sanctuary Movement

  • Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice

    Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice is an interfaith network of 600 Los Angeles area religious and lay leaders who focus on the working poor, including illegal immigrants. Rabbi Jonathan Klein is executive director.

  • Interfaith Immigration Coalition

    The Interfaith Immigration Coalition is a group of faith-based organizations that work for immigration reform and justice. Its umbrella covers 500 national and local faith-based organizations and individuals and includes Mennonite, Jewish, Catholic, Christian, Quaker and Unitarian groups.

  • Interfaith Worker Justice

    Interfaith Worker Justice, based in Chicago, tries to organize people of faith in the United States to push for better working conditions, benefits and wages for low-income people. Its Web site states that “among the key principles shared by all faiths are the importance of paying workers fairly for their labor and the right of workers to perform their responsibilities with dignity.”

  • National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom

    The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom advocates for the religious rights of the Amish and Mennonites in America.

  • Third Way Café

    Third Way Café, produced by Mennonite Media on behalf of the Mennonite Churches of the U.S. and Canada, is an organization dedicated to providing educational resources on the history and present day news on Mennonites. The organization has over over 3,000 pages of information and resources on its website. Contact through the website.

Organizations that oppose the New Sanctuary Movement

  • Americans for Legal Immigration

    Americans for Legal Immigration is a grass-roots advocacy group in favor of reducing illegal immigration through the enforcement of law. It is based in Raleigh, N.C.

  • Federation for American Immigration Reform

    The Federation for American Immigration Reform is a nonprofit group that advocates for immigration reform, including heightened border security, revised immigration levels and a halt to illegal immigration. It advises city and state officials and activists against sanctuary policies in the belief that they are illegal and counterproductive to immigration reform. Its website sketches a history of noncompliance with immigration law, including the sanctuary movement. It also lists local immigration groups for many states. The press secretary is Cassie Williams.

  • Immigration Reform Law Institute

    The Immigration Reform Law Institute is the legal arm of FAIR (see above) and describes itself as a public interest law organization working to protect U.S. citizens from injuries and damage caused by illegal immigration. It is based in Washington, D.C. Kris W. Kobach is its chief counsel.

Other religiously motivated immigrant aid groups

  • Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

    Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform is a campaign of Sojourners that educates and mobilizes Christian organizations, churches, and leaders from across the theological and political spectrum to advocate for comprehensive U.S. immigration reform and compassionate immigration policies at the state level.

  • Justice for Immigrants

    Justice for Immigrants is a project of the Catholic Campaign for Immigration Reform, a part of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is a coalition of many Catholic groups. The communications manager is Mark Priceman.

Secular immigrant aid groups

Think tanks

National sources

  • Kevin Appleby

    Kevin Appleby is director of the Office of Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which works with both grass-roots Catholic groups and the bishops to advocate for immigration reform.

  • Roy Beck

    Roy Beck is CEO and founder of Numbers USA, an Arlington, Va.-based group advocating a reduction in immigration to the United States. Beck spoke on a panel at the September 2008 RNA conference.

    Contact: 703-683-5004 ext. 116.
  • Kim Bobo

    Kim Bobo is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, which works with faith communities to provide sanctuary and support for illegal immigrants. She is the author of Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid – And What We Can Do About It (2008).

  • Clayborne Carson

    Clayborne Carson is a Stanford University history professor and founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. He is an expert on the interface between faith and social justice.

  • Muzaffar Chishti

    Muzaffar Chishti is director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University’s School of Law. His work focuses on U.S. immigration policy, the intersection of labor and immigration law, civil liberties and immigrant integration. He has been critical of the New Sanctuary Movement for its failure to distinguish between civil and criminal immigration cases.

  • Michael Feinberg

    Rabbi Michael Feinberg is executive director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition. He is an ordained Reconstructionist rabbi and identifies as a democratic socialist. He has described providing sanctuary for immigrants as an act of “radical hospitality,” in line with the religious principle of welcoming the stranger.

  • Gregory Freeland

    Gregory Freeland is an associate professor of political science at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and director of its Center for Equality and Justice. He is familiar with the organization, goals and spread of the New Sanctuary Movement.

  • William Gheen

    William Gheen is president of Americans for Legal Immigration, which is based in Raleigh, N.C. The organization does not support providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants.

  • Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo

    Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo is a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and an expert on issues of illegal immigration and the illegal-immigrant rights movement in the United States. She is the author of Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.

  • Peggy Levitt

    Peggy Levitt is a professor of Latin American studies and sociology at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., and an associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. She is the author of several books, including God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape

  • Margie McHugh

    Margie McHugh is co-director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

  • Ira Mehlman

    Ira Mehlman is media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR advocates for changes in immigration law that would reduce the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. Mehlman contends that Jews could face increased anti-Semitism if more immigrants are allowed into the U.S. Contact Mehlman through FAIR press secretary Cassie Williams.

  • Doris Meissner

    Doris Meissner is a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. She was formerly a commissioner at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversaw immigration before the establishment of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency in 2003.

  • Nancy Morawetz

    Nancy Morawetz is a professor of clinical law at New York University. She is an expert on immigration and teaches courses on immigrant rights clinics. She can discuss the U.S. system of detention and deportation.

  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington, D.C., enforces U.S. immigration law.

  • Daniel Okada

    Daniel Okada is an assistant professor of criminal justice at California State University Sacramento. He is co-chair of the Justice Studies Association’s 2009 conference, which focused partly on the New Sanctuary Movement and other contributions of religious congregations to the plight of illegal aliens.

  • Samuel Rodriguez

    The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. He has criticized conservative evangelicals who have spoken against or have remained silent on immigration and argued that the August 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, was driven, in part, by anti-immigrant rhetoric. Arrange an interview through the Kairos Co.

  • Alexia Salvatierra

    The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra is a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice-California. She has been active in the New Sanctuary Movement and can discuss its organization on the national and local level.

    Contact: 213-219-2449.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Kim Crawford Harvie

    The Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie is pastor of Arlington Street Church, a Unitarian Universalist church in Boston. The congregation joined the New Sanctuary Movement.

  • Juan Carlos Ruiz

    The Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz is the founding director of Asociación Tepeyac, an immigrant community services agency in the Bronx, N.Y. He is the northeast coordinator of the New Sanctuary Movement and is involved with local sanctuary networks.

  • Donna Schaper

    Donna Schaper is the senior pastor at Judson Memorial Church in New York, N.Y., and co-author of Labyrinths From the Outside In: Walking to Spiritual Insight – A Beginner’s Guide.

    The church voted to become a member of the New Sanctuary Movement in 2007.

In the South

  • Rodney Hunt

    Rodney Hunt is president of the Mississippi Federation for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, a Jackson-based group that seeks immigration reform.

    Contact: 601-894-2215.
  • David Martin

    David Martin is a nonresident fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and a professor of international law at the University of Virginia in Charlotte.

    In the Midwest

    • Dave Gorak

      Dave Gorak is executive director of the Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration, which is based in LaValle, Wis. He is critical of the New Sanctuary Movement and its supporters.

      Contact: 608-985-7864.
    • Rosanna Pulido

      Rosanna Pulido is the founder and leader of the Chicago and Illinois chapters of the Minuteman Project. She has spoken against Chicago churches that have sheltered illegal immigrants.

      Contact: 773-250-3399.
    • John Wozniak

      John Wozniak is a professor and chairman of the sociology department at Western Illinois University in Macomb. He is president of the Justice Studies Association, where the 2009 annual conference focused on “Immigration, Sanctuary, Worlds Without Borders.”

    In the West

    • Laurie Coskey

      Rabbi Laurie Coskey is based in San Diego, Calif., and is executive director of the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. Coskey is also a member of the steering committee of the New Sanctuary Movement.

    • Wiley Drake

      The Rev. Wiley Drake is pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif. He has been critical of groups that support illegal immigrants.

    • East Bay Sanctuary Covenant

      The East Bay Sanctuary Covenant is an organization of faith-based groups in the Berkeley, Calif., area that have pledged to provide sanctuary and other assistance to immigrants.

      Contact: 510-540-5296.
    • John Fife

      The Rev. John Fife retired in 2005 after serving 30 years as pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz. Fife works with humanitarian programs, including Humane Borders, that provide food, water and medical care for migrants crossing the Arizona desert. He is co-founder of the immigrant rights group No More Death.

      He was one of eight people, including a Catholic priest and a nun, convicted of federal immigrant smuggling for their involvement in the original Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s.

    • Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights

      The Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (ICIR) is an organization formed by California religious leaders to support the rights and fair treatment of immigrants. Rev. Deborah Lee is project director.

    • Mark Knutson

      The Rev. Mark Knutson is senior pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland, Ore. His church is one of two in the city involved in the New Sanctuary Movement. He has said his congregation would house an immigrant if the person needed sanctuary.

    • Michael Ramos

      Michael Ramos is executive director of the Church Council of Greater Seattle. He has helped organize a New Sanctuary network in that area.

    • Alberto Rodriguez

      Alberto Rodriguez is the founder of You Don’t Speak For Me!, a grass-roots collective of Latino activists who oppose illegal immigration. He has spoken against illegal immigrants and those who support them. He lives in Scottsdale, Ariz.

      Contact: 267-981-9017.
    • Liana Rowe

      The Rev. Liana Rowe is a United Church of Christ minister and an organizer with Interfaith Worker Justice in Phoenix, Ariz. She is a longtime immigrant rights activist and coordinates a New Sanctuary Movement network across the state.

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