In the thirty-fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible, the writer lays out a remedy for a social and legal problem. In ancient Israel, the penalty for murder was death, “a life for a life.” Family members of the slain person normally carry out the sentence. However, the writers of Numbers recognized that it would not be fair for accidental killers to receive the same punishment as those who kill intentionally. Raging family members could not be expected to stop midstream and investigate; the community is instructed to create cities of refuge where the accused can be kept safe until they can receive a fair hearing. The cities of refuge are the solution for people who committed a crime and received an unfair penalty.
This ancient remedy is the root of the sanctuary church tradition. Since the fourth century in England, churches have offered protection and shelter to those accused of a crime but who would be likely to be punished unfairly if left unprotected. Christians and churches along the Underground Railroad followed this example, as did Christians in Nazi Germany who protected Jews and churches in the 1960s who protected draft-dodgers avoiding service in Vietnam. The most prominent movement using the term “sanctuary” in the twentieth century was the Central American sanctuary movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
In Tucson, Arizona, Reverend John Fife of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and Quaker leader Jim Corbett encountered Central Americans running for their lives from death squads who were targeting not only revolutionaries but also Christian leaders of justice movements. These asylum-seekers were facing different criteria than individuals escaping Communist countries; the United States was an ally and funder of the governments supporting the death squads. When Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were documenting government-sponsored massacres, a very small percentage of Central Americans were winning asylum cases. The sanctuary movement began at Southside Presbyterian Church in 1982, under Reverend Fife’s leadership, and ended up involving around 500 congregations across the United States. By risking legal penalties themselves, these congregations brought public attention and added credibility to the Central Americans’ testimonies. The sanctuary movement changed hearts and minds, contributing significantly to major policy changes in the asylum system (such as the awarding of temporary protected status to Central Americans in 1990) and in stopping the funding which sustained the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. While the sanctuary movement was infiltrated and the leaders faced a grand jury trial in 1986, only two leaders received prison sentences for illegal transportation and six others were convicted of alien smuggling with suspended sentences; none were convicted for the actual provision of shelter.
While a young seminary student in Berkeley during the Central American sanctuary movement, I belonged to University Lutheran Chapel, one of the first sanctuary churches. During this time, my husband and I also welcomed a refugee from Central America into our home, which was a formative experience, displaying the potential power of the church as a force for social justice.
Years later in 2006, I became one of the leaders of a new sanctuary movement. The Sensenbrenner Bill had passed the House of Representatives in December of 2005; if it had also passed the Senate, it would have made it a felony to be undocumented or to help or serve an undocumented person. Shock waves went through immigrant communities and congregations alike. For many years, the U.S. immigration system had already proven to be ineffective, illogical, and inhumane. For example, since 1995, the number of visas available for unskilled labor has been a flat limit of 5,000 per year; since the 1800s, the U.S. has imported 70 to 80 percent of our farm labor. The numbers do not match and therefore as a result, the majority of those whose labor feeds the country cannot enjoy the benefits of legal residency.
Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so.
This broken system has created a situation over the past thirty years in which undocumented immigrants are woven into the fabric of communities in many regions of our country. When they suddenly saw themselves as potential felons, the anguish, anger, and terror became overwhelming. Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so. There are ninety-two texts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures calling us to welcome the stranger. The Sensenbrenner Bill also put church leaders directly in danger; it was written so loosely that churches could have been liable for the provision of both humanitarian and religious services to the strangers in our midst. Faith leaders throughout the country struggled to figure out the best response to the crisis.
Then, in his Ash Wednesday sermon of 2006, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles at the time, Cardinal Roger Mahony called on Roman Catholics across the nation to continue to minister to everyone regardless of their immigration status… even if they were to go to prison for it. Religious leaders from different faith traditions in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles decided that it was time for a new sanctuary movement. We wanted to replicate the impact of the late twentieth century movement—to call attention to the brokenness of our immigration system and the need for reform rather than unjust punishment. We believed that the willingness of immigrants and non-immigrants to engage in a potentially sacrificial partnership could have the capacity to again change hearts and minds, and to ultimately affect legislation. However, we also realized that the situation was very different than the ’80s. We realized that we did not have the capacity to shelter millions of people indefinitely. Nor did most of the undocumented immigrant population want to live in churches; unlike the Central American refugees they were established in the U.S.—complete with jobs, homes, and children in school. The strategy we developed focused on inviting families whose stories would communicate the brokenness of our system to enter publicly into sanctuary, taking risks and making sacrifices for the sake of a greater goal. At its height in 2007, coalitions of congregations in thirty-seven cities were participating in some form. While Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago kicked off the movement, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California became the national lead agency for the new sanctuary movement, and the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition served as a national model. This was a movement that also went beyond Christian congregations—there were too many individual leaders and congregations to name: Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian, Jewish, and Muslim.
The new sanctuary movement received massive publicity, and an equivalent bill to Sensenbrenner’s did not pass the Senate. By June 2007, a comprehensive immigration bill with strong bipartisan support was polling at 75 percent in support. We thought that we would win and our families could go home. Unfortunately, the calls to legislators were 50 to 1 against the bill. The majority of Americans usually do not call their representative unless the proposed legislation directly affects them. Most of those whose answers to the surveys were positively in favor of the bipartisan immigration reform bill did not call their legislators and those who thought immigration negatively affected their lives called repeatedly. There was not enough political will to pass immigration reform.
The new sanctuary movement changed direction and worked on a temporary alternative to reform, seeking a regulatory safety net that could soften the impact of the jagged edges of the broken system while the immigrant rights movement continued to strive for legislation over the long haul. Immigration field office directors have prosecutorial discretion to delay deportation for specific cases; they can even grant work permits and temporary authorization to reside in the U.S. Over the next ten years, the sanctuary movement (in collaboration with other immigrant rights advocates) pushed for national criteria for the granting of deferred deportation and temporary permissions. In August 2010, the “Morton Memo,” named such after then-director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton, established a new policy that prioritized immigrants who represented threats to public safety for detention and deportation, and authorized deferred deportation for immigrants who met certain qualifications. This gave annual protection from deportation to tens of thousands of people who met the criteria, which amounted to having ties to residential U.S. citizens, making contributions to U.S. society, and/or having dangerous conditions in their countries of origin. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was the extension of this logic by President Obama’s 2012 Executive Order, prioritizing this for a group instead of requiring a case-by-case process. DACA, which gave 800,000 “Dreamers” temporary authorization to reside and work in the U.S., built on the foundation laid by the Morton Memo.
The sanctuary movement also successfully advocated for the creation of sensitive zones where ICE would not enter without a judicial warrant, including congregations, schools, and hospitals. In 2014, Church World Service took on a coordination role and the new sanctuary movement experienced a resurgence of families living in churches publicly. Over the years, the new movement developed a high level of expertise in using the new regulations to enable these families to have their deportation orders suspended or removed.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 congregations have declared sanctuary across the country—double the size of any sanctuary movement to date. New coalitions continue to spring up weekly. However, the vast majority of these congregations do not have families taking shelter inside them. Any standard for prioritization of enforcement is gone; the new administration’s Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement Executive Order treats immigration offenses as crimes equal in importance to other serious criminal offenses. Living inside a church is, in effect, an indeterminate sentence of house arrest and a potential financial disaster for a family. Publicly living inside a church can invite bullying for the children and death threats for the adults. While a few immigrant families make this choice, the more common form of sanctuary is private. Individuals or families move into a church building or a private home to escape an address that ICE knows, ideally in a community where they can start over again and hide in the shadows. Their stay in sanctuary is temporary; as soon as possible they move into their own lodging and a new life in greater obscurity. These private cases, however, do not serve to change hearts and minds of legislative officials or those in the wider U.S. culture, nor do they offer any real solution to the broader problem. Member coalitions of the interfaith PICO organizing network have been particularly involved in developing private sanctuary options as well as engaging their congregations in other aspects of sanctuary work.
Beyond Sanctuary: Advocacy and Accompaniment
Although a movement had been renewed, or reborn, the failures to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the Dream Act (multiple attempts in 2001, 2005, and 2007) could be seen as evidence that the coalition supporting immigrant rights lacked the breadth and depth necessary to create the political will for reform. There are too few American citizens who feel that the lack of humane immigration law affects them personally. At this point, evangelical leaders in various places in the country, including Willow Creek leadership in Chicago and several megachurch leaders in Orange County began to ask, “What role might the church play today in broadening and deepening this coalition because of our mandate to care passionately about people who are not ‘us’?” This group reasoned that if the church does not care passionately about the well being of all people, including immigrants, then the church is not faithful to Jesus. We realized that the evangelical churches were uniquely positioned to make a difference in the stalemate. Evangelical churches are passionate in their discipleship; and evangelicals are known for being willing to make great sacrifices for obedience to God and for mission. The international Hispanic community is one of the fastest growing evangelical constituencies in the world. The 2014 study by the Pew Research Center “Religion in Latin America” states that the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are is now estimated to be over 50 percent evangelical. In the U.S., immigrants from Latin America and Asia are the fastest growing population within evangelical churches. Evangelical churches are also often associated with the Republican Party because of their stance on abortion. As a result, they are uniquely equipped to work on organizing conservatives to work with liberals to pass immigration reform.
In 2011, I was one of the co-founders of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), along with Jenny Yang from World Relief, with significant leadership provided by a diverse set of national evangelical organizations and denominations, including Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, Esperanza USA, and the Christian Community Development Association. (The National Immigration Forum served as a resource for the EIT.) The EIT became the broadest coalition of evangelical leaders for justice since the slavery abolition movement of the mid-nineteenth century. At its height, the coalition engaged immigrant and non-immigrant evangelicals in peer partnership; the signatories to its principles included famous megachurch pastors, denominational leaders, seminary presidents, and traditional evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. When the Table was formed, polls showed that 83 percent of white evangelicals were against immigration reform. Just three years later, however, polls in 2014 showed 72 percent of white evangelicals were for immigration reform. The EIT has also given birth to G92, a movement based in Christian colleges and universities, and Bibles, Business, and Badges, a coalition of law enforcement, business leaders, and church leaders supporting immigration reform. While there is still strong conservative support for immigration reform, the advent of the Trump movement has certainly weakened that movement—both through the stimulation of strong nativist impulses and the fear created in moderate Republicans.
When the new Executive Orders appeared in January, many of us who had been involved with the EIT knew that evangelicals who had voted for Trump might still be interested in standing with immigrants in the face of the unjust policies and practices which separate families and destroy dreams. The leadership of the Christian Community Development Association and Sojourners, along with the National Evangelical Latino Coalition, leading African-American organizations like the National African-American Clergy Network, the Progressive Baptists denomination, and the Christian-Muslim dialogue organization Shoulder2Shoulder came together around what we called the Matthew 25 Pledge. In Matthew chapter 25 of the Christian New Testament, Jesus says that our welcome, or lack of welcome, for strangers is the same as welcoming, or not welcoming, him. Signatories to the Matthew 25 Pledge agree to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus. Immigrants are not the only vulnerable people potentially covered under the pledge; the Matthew 25 website has resources for standing with immigrants, young people of color experiencing discrimination in the criminal justice system, and Muslims experiencing discrimination as immigrants, refugees, or citizens. Matthew 25 has a signal committee of leaders for the purpose of sounding a national call to action if needed.
In Southern California, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 has become a vital coalition of evangelical and moderate mainline Protestant congregations in which immigrant churches, Millennial Latino leaders, multicultural churches, and primarily Anglo congregations have engaged in a broad range of advocacy and accompaniment activities. Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal has actively educated congregations, trained leaders, and joined the broader movement in advocating for policies which protect and support immigrants, such as the Dream Act and public sanctuary legislation. It has also met with ICE leadership for dialogue, advocating for individual cases of egregious injustice, partnering immigrant and non-immigrant churches to provide legal resources and spiritual/psychological support to families facing deportation, and helping with family plans to care for citizen children whose parents are deported.
Our church partnerships with individual family cases are fueling the exchange of hope and passion in ways that grow participation in the movement. Two to three churches can handle the needs of a family, with one providing emotional and spiritual support and the others providing financial and professional support—allowing for many more families to be served than the typical model of getting everyone in a network to work on every case. The two to three congregations that accompany that family can then call on the resources of the broader network as needed.
Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal created a national campaign to support Pastor Noe Carias, a Guatemalan immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 13 after escaping kidnapping. After being deported multiple times before he turned 21 years old, he eventually married a U.S. citizen and had two children, managed a construction business and became an Assemblies of God pastor, founding a thriving church in Echo Park. In his attempt to have his deportation orders removed so that his qualifying cases could be considered, he was detained for two months in Adelanto—a detention center in the Mojave Desert known for its various inhumane conditions,. Brave New Films produced a documentary on Pastor Carias’s situation, which has gone out widely through social media. The Anglo General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (the fastest growing Pentecostal denomination in the world, with 3.5 adherents in the U.S.) went to the White House to advocate for Pastor Carias, who was released 22 September 2017, even while his case continues.
Matthew 25 and the interfaith sanctuary movement collaborate closely without adherence to the partisan lines that currently divide the country. In doing so, they stand on common ground in the defense of those who suffer unjustly.
In Southern California, leaders from the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. developed another accompaniment and advocacy mechanism, which is particularly focused on a group targeted by the current administration. The unaccompanied migrant children and youth who have arrived seeking asylum from Central America are a particular target of the Executive Orders. The situation in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is especially difficult currently, with the Marasalvatrucha functioning an international mafia that survives from the proceeds of gun, drug, and human trafficking, as well as the extortion of small businesses (over $600 million USD a year). They tell young men that they have three choices—join, run, or die. If they join, they have to show that they are serious by killing a family member (per the reports we have been recently hearing from specific youth). Girls are expected to become “girlfriends of the gang.” Younger children are targeted for kidnapping and selling to get small business owners to pay the daily “renta” (literally, rent payment). In the increasing geographic area targeted by the Mara, the police are corrupt, and controlled. One woman recently shared that she was raped repeatedly by a group of Mara and police when she complained to the police about the threats and extortion. Unaccompanied children and youth who pass a credible fear test at the border (about 60 percent) have historically been allowed to be investigated by a special asylum office which determines whether they meet the criteria for asylum (which is the same as the criteria for refugee status—valid fear of violent persecution in one’s home country as a result of race, gender, political opinion, religious belief, etc.).
In November of 2017, the State Department made an announcement ending the potential for that designation for Central American children and stopping the option of processing them through a refugee center in Costa Rica. The current administration has also targeted sponsors of undocumented children, often targeting extended family members who agree to care for children without compensation while the undocumented children are processed through the court procedures, which permits them to be free from incarceration. Beyond this, the administration has detained and deported children who turn 18 years old even if their court cases are in process; they have cut off all federal funding for legal assistance and have charged non-profit legal services providers with malpractice if they coach families on representing themselves; and they have charged family members in the U.S. with human trafficking if they helped with the cost of a smuggler to bring the child safely. (A young girl on the road heading north without any protection is very likely to be raped by Mexican police and criminals.) We recently had scheduled a youth to speak at an event; he was detained, deported and shot on arrival. His mother came to speak instead; she could not speak; she could only cry.
The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear.
In 2014, when the numbers of these children and youth began to climb, we started the Guardian Angels Project, engaging church volunteers in accompanying these children and their families in court. We wear brightly colored t-shirts with an image of a guardian angel and we refer these families to legal assistance and social services while monitoring the courts to ensure that their rights are respected. When we began, the courts were regularly practicing “rocket docket,” rushing the cases through whether or not legal representation was available. Our presence stopped that practice within months. We also protect families from the unscrupulous lawyers and notary publics who take their money without providing effective representation (on the principle that a deported person cannot take them to court for fraud). We urge the families instead to use reputable resources, even if they have to wait in line. The Guardian Angels Project began in Southern California but has since spread to Chicago and is in the process of development in Atlanta and Houston.
Other faith leaders and networks also minister to these children, youth, and their families. The United Methodist Church organizes “welcome centers” in some of their churches, and provides a summer camp experience specifically focused on them and their needs, whereas the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches provide the backbone of the Guardian Angels Project. The Episcopal Church supports and advocates for these families as well. All of us participate in the Southern California-based coalition UCARE (Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment), an association of faith leaders, community organizations, and legal services providers who are concerned about this situation, which is coordinated by CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.)
Where from here?
The faith-based movement for immigrant rights and immigration reform is the one of the best-kept secrets in the country. In spite of ongoing press, most Americans still do not know that a diverse and significant group of faith leaders in this country, regardless of their political party affiliation, care passionately about justice for immigrants targeted unfairly by the current administration. At times, belonging to this group can feel like Moses, so close to the promised land of immigration reform and fair policies, and yet regularly sent back into the desert. The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear. The recent abandonment of the DACA youth (children and youth who have had special regulatory status because they were brought here as children and have already demonstrated their actual and potential contribution to this society) is just one instance of this kind of senseless viciousness.
However, every aggressive step by this administration creates a stronger reaction. Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 organized a press conference to support the Dreamers at Fuller Theological Seminary, led by the Latino Pastors’ networks of Southern California and attended by sixty Latino Christian leaders and evangelical Dreamers. Many of these people had never come out publicly before to stand for a justice issue. The sleeping giant of the immigrant evangelical churches is waking up and awakening other evangelical churches in the process. When all fourteen of the Hispanic Superintendents of Assemblies of God districts went to Dr. Wood, General Superintendent, asking for help in advocating for Pastor Carias, they obtained a positive response, which has historic significance.
Those who have labored in the vineyard of faith-rooted social justice for many years are encouraged by the growing breadth and depth of the movement—even if it is still in its early stages. And so in our advocacy and labors for the undocumented among us, including undocumented Californians, we resonate with the eloquent words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians in the Christian New Testament: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
 Titled the “Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005” (H.R. 4437), https://www.congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-bill/04437.
 Teresa Watanabe, “Immigrants Gain the Pulpit,” Los Angeles Times, 1 March 2006, http://articles.latimes.com/2006/mar/01/local/me-mahony1.
 Southern California signatories included the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest evangelical seminary west of the Rockies, and megachurch pastors Kenton Beshore of the 18,000 member Mariners Church in Irvine, Dave Gibbons of the 11,000 member New Song Church, Jerry Dirmann of The Rock in Anaheim, Tim Celek of the Crossing in Costa Mesa, Jim Tolle of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, and Greg Waybright of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Community Church.
 Jessica Rice, “Pastor Detained During Immigration Appointment Released Nearly 2 Months Later,” NBC4, 22 September 2017, https://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Echo-Park-Pastor-Detained-Release-446835973.html.
Reverend Alexia Salvatierra is an ordained Lutheran Pastor, the co-author of Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, affiliate Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and adjunct for five other Christian academic institutions as well as an international trainer and consultant. She has been organizing churches to engage in social justice for thirty-five years, and has been a co-founder of multiple immigration initiatives.
Copyright: © 2018 Alexia Salvatierra. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.