Sanctuary Movement Sees Post-Election Resurgence.

By Donna Schaper 12-05-2016, Sojourners 

During very hard times, people often shelter — provide sanctuary for each other.

I think of the amazing work of Raoul Wallenberg during the 1940s — who set up 31 safe houses to shelter Jews from the Nazis in and around Budapest — or the brave family in Amsterdam who hid Anne Frank during World War II.

I think of Jewish and German immigrants in old New York City, where I now live and work. They slept in three shifts. “Hurry up and eat, honey, we need the tablecloth for a sheet,” is a famous Yiddish expression. It would be hard to say who was providing sanctuary for whom — but surely they were mutually sheltering each other in a cost-effective way.

Or more recently, in the 1970s and ‘80s in this country, when political refugees poured across the border from Nicaragua and Guatemala during the U.S.-supported wars there, and churches and synagogues hid some of them to protect them from deportation, in the first so-named U.S. “Sanctuary Movement.”

Less dramatic situations develop now in many of our families, where a 26-year-old adult child can’t find work and comes home to live in the basement. We take each other in, especially if we have the space and others don’t.

“Sanctuary” in the 21st century has often been defined as larger than providing housing. In the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition, for the last 10 years of our existence, we have defined “sanctuary” as moral, spiritual, psychological, financial, legal — and sometimes physical — support for people who are about to be detained or deported. Why the broad definition? Because often the first five adjectives protect more people than the last one. Physical sanctuary often serves as a publicity attempt to raise the larger issues — but actually benefitting only the person sheltered.

The NYC New Sanctuary Coalition’s Accompaniment Project has trained hundreds of volunteers to accompany people facing deportation on their required periodic “check-ins” with the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office. ICE doesn’t like to have citizens paying attention to what they are doing. Showing ICE that immigrants have citizens watching and supporting them helps ICE to realize that these people are not the ones that they need to deport right now. Accompaniment is as good a supportive strategy as physical sanctuary, helps more immigrants, and can be a gateway to providing physical sanctuary if it becomes necessary.

We also broadened the definition of sanctuary as a strategy because we in the faith community thought it more spiritual and theological in its core, than the important human, constitutional, and civil rights cores espoused by our marvelous secular partners in immigration protection.

When Congress failed to pass immigration reform laws for all eight years of the last administration, we found ourselves playing much more defense than offense. We surely tried to change the unjust laws and we surely failed.