Sanctuary and the Law

I spent last summer working for a federal judge in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. I saw one art forgery case, three tax fraud cases, and one cartel crackdown. There was one kind of case, however, that I saw every week, up to as many as four times a day. These cases were so routine and efficient that the judge would take a plea and sentence in the same hearing. Under the U.S. Code, these cases are known as § 1326 Reentry After Removal, more colloquially referred to as Illegal Reentry. Case after case, week after week, I would watch another Latino man shuffle to the desk with chains around his ankles and wrists. Many I saw did not have any criminal record except for prior illegal reentries into the United States—despite having been deported two, three, or four times, they returned to the United States time and time again. When in court, they would each insist that they would not return. Yet many were from Michoacán, a state in Mexico controlled by cartels, and said that they feared for their lives. One had an autistic daughter whom he said could not be cared for in his home state in Mexico. Every one of them had children who are American citizens in Oregon.

One man in particular captured my interest. Francisco Aguirre-Velasquez, originally from El Salvador, had found sanctuary from deportation in Portland Augustana Lutheran Church for seven months. In court last summer, he claimed that when he had initially been deported in 2000, the immigration judge had failed to inform him correctly of his options, including applying for asylum in the United States. Considering his repeated tortures at the hands of the Salvadoran junta and death threats in his home village, he was sure that if he was deported, even in 2015, his life would be at risk in El Salvador. The government’s response to Aguirre- Velasquez was to cite a drug felony of which he had been convicted in 1999. The government argued it could not allow an illegal immigrant with a criminal record to remain in the country. This response makes pragmatic sense: no country wants to allow convicted criminals to freely roam. Aguirre-Velasquez responded that his lawyer in 1999 had told him to take a plea deal, even though he claimed innocence. Even if he had committed that crime in 1999, he had since become a new person: after (illegally) returning to the U.S., he started a family and became a community organizer.

And yet, for seven months, a church had sheltered him in defiance of Immigration Customs and Enforcement, or ICE. I saw the earnest moral commitments of this congregation reflect the moral commitments that I hold as a Christian myself, commitments which include the injunction to welcome the stranger[1] and forgive past sins. But Christians are also beholden to another principle: the moral necessity of peace and order. After all, Paul warns all Christians to “be subject to the governing authorities.”[2] This case illustrated how these two principles could come into conflict. The leaders and the congregation of Augustana Lutheran had, presumably, recognized this conflict. But they resolved to defy the law.

In 1982, Pastor John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona made the first official declaration of a ‘sanctuary church,’ a church that would offer refuge to those fleeing the Central American conflicts raging at the time. Angered by the U.S. government’s unwillingness to provide asylum to political refugees fleeing the Central American violence, Southside Presbyterian— and soon tens and hundreds of other congregations— offered its church as place of refuge for unauthorized immigrants. Churches from all denominations, both Catholic and Protestant, participated in the movement. By 1986, however, the high-profile Tucson Sanctuary Trial demonstrated that the U.S. government would not shy away from prosecuting religious groups. A Catholic priest and nun, three lay workers, and Pastor Fife were found guilty of conspiring to smuggle unauthorized aliens from Guatemala and El Salvador into the United States. After the sentences were announced, the nun, Sister Nicgorski, responded, “If I am guilty of anything, then I am guilty of living out the Gospel.”[3]

By the end of the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement had petered out. In recent years, however, some churches have begun to harbor unauthorized immigrants again, deliberately continuing the 1980s movement. Apart from Aguirre-Velasquez, at least six other illegal immigrants have found sanctuary in churches across the U.S. this year.[4] In contrast to the original Sanctuary movement, not all of those who seek sanctuary today are refugees from violence themselves. More often, they are long-standing, albeit unauthorized members of their local communities, whom, after a wrong turn or speeding ticket, are issued a deportation order from ICE.

The Sanctuary Movement chose their commitment to harbor the harborless over a commitment to the governing authorities. Their choice of one moral principle over another is based in part upon a historical appeal to the Christian tradition of sanctuary throughout Late Antiquity and the medieval period. In premodern Christianity, sanctuary was a right by law. Sanctuary existed as a strong legal tradition from the reign of Theodosius and throughout the medieval period in canon and English common law. Late imperial jurists like Menochius understood sanctuary as the expression of a divine law and Christian sovereign authority over and above the edicts of even the Christian emperors. There were restrictions: murderers and thieves were commonly excluded from claiming sanctuary. But for over a thousand years, people under the secular law could flee to churches for protection, presenting church leaders with an opportunity to intercede and encourage penance. There was no contradiction between the moral principles of providing welfare and abiding by the law, unlike in the modern Sanctuary movement.

Sanctuary law depended upon an assumption of sacred space, a delineation between the sacred and the profane. Even the civil authorities accepted the church as sacred and thus inviolable. At the beginning of City of God, Augustine recounts that the pagan citizens of Rome fled to churches for sanctuary from the plundering soldiers of Alaric:

For to this earthly city belong the enemies against whom I have to defend the city of God . . . many are so inflamed with hatred against it, and are so ungrateful to its Redeemer for His signal benefits, as to forget that they would now be unable to utter a single word to its prejudice, had they not found in its sacred places, as they fled from the enemy’s steel, that life in which they now boast themselves . . . in the sack of the city they were open sanctuary for all who fled to them, whether Christian or Pagan. To their very threshold the blood-thirsty enemy raged; there his murderous fury owned a limit.[5]

The pagan raiders’ violence found a “limit” at the threshold to the Christian churches in Rome. These “sacred places” provided refuge, even for the Romans who turned away from God after the destruction had ceased. For citizens of Rome fleeing foreign violence, these sacred places demarcated a boundary between the places of man, ever subject to destruction and decay, and the inviolable refuges of God.

The death of St. Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170 C.E., violated the seemingly inviolable. In the most infamous case of the medieval period, four knights slew Becket for his defiance of King Henry II at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral during vespers. In T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, a chorus of women wail following Becket’s death:

Clean the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them. The land is foul, the water is foul, our beasts and ourselves defiled with blood. A rain of blood has blinded my eyes. Where is England? Where is Kent? Where is Canterbury?[6]

Defiance of the boundary between the sacred and the profane disorients the women. It overturns their basic orientation in the world: “Where is England?” The murder marked an “instant eternity of evil and wrong,” in which the violation of the church’s holiness rendered the whole world “wholly foul” and profane.[7] Becket’s murder shook the medieval Christian world because it violated the accepted sanctity of the physical church. It demonstrated that the church could not always protect those who seek refuge. This medieval realization of the potential violability of sacred space remains today.

Sanctuary law and the recognition of churches’ sanctity disappeared altogether alongside the onset of the modern state. The eighteenth-century Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria, severely criticized sanctuary in On Crimes and Punishments: “Within the borders of a country there should be no place independent of its laws.”[8] There no longer exists room for churches to provide a space outside of the domain of secular law. The Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s ended in prosecutions. Today, ICE can knock down the doors of any church.

The modern demands of the state make sanctuary, a practice that previously could appeal to the authority of the law and the Church for its defense, extralegal. Within the law, Christian American citizens should try to support and enlarge the secular equivalent of a sanctuary or asylum that the United States already enforces. Again and again, however, legal attempts to reform immigration law have failed to reconcile secular law with the Christian moral imperative to care for the vulnerable. After all, if the U.S. government properly supported the legal institution of asylum, Aguirre-Velasquez may never have been initially deported. If Aguirre-Velasquez had received adequate legal counsel when first charged with a crime in 1999 and been correctly informed of the consequences of taking a plea deal, he may not have faced his immigration judge with a criminal record and could have been eligible for asylum. Perhaps if he had had a translator at his immigration proceedings, he could have more adequately advocated for himself. And, if he had not been deported in 2000, he would not have faced the federal felony of Illegal Reentry, which makes an asylum status even less likely.

From a Christian perspective, however, this appeal to stay within the law is not enough to dismiss sanctuary altogether. The historical tradition of sanctuary reveals that the two Christian moral principles—to care for the vulnerable and to obey the governing law—were not always in tension. The purpose of the latter principle of obedience is to preserve peace and order. Yet, if the governing law disrupts rather than preserves peace, Christians have a moral responsibility to act extralegally. In the words of Eliot’s Becket: “I give my life to the Law of God/above the Law of Man.”[9] At times, secular law demands the deportation of those at risk of losing their lives. This law does not align with the Christian moral imperative to see all life as sacred and thus worthy of protection. Offering sanctuary is an attempt to maintain peace and unity within communities by keeping endangered families together and out of harm’s way. Refugees have a moral claim to be in the United States because of the imminent threat to their lives. It is the Christian’s responsibility to ensure that this moral claim is not ignored. We must pray that conditions will change for the afflicted and that the law will be reformed. We must also pray for the brave church leaders and congregations that open their doors to the suffering and hope to recover the Church’s sanctity in a secular world.



1 Matthew 25:35 ESV.
2 Romans 13:1.
3 Murray Dubin, “8 Guilty in Sanctuary Trial,”, 2 May 1986.
4 Rosy Carroll, “Undocumented Latino migrants seek sanctuary in U.S. churches,” The Guardian, 22 Jan 2015.
5 Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Volume II St. Augustin: City of God, Christine Doctrine (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), 1–2.
6 T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1950), 213–4.
7 Ibid.
8 Cesare Beccaria, On Crimes and Punishments, ed. Richard Bellamy, trans. Richard Davies (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 92.
9 T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909–1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1950).

Megan Stater (CC ‘16) is majoring in Philosophy and Religion at Columbia College. Her favorite time period is the twelfth century, which is reflected in her choice to write a thesis on medieval anchoritism. She hails from the red hills of Dundee, Oregon.

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