The New Sanctuary Movement

Protection by living in a house of worship - The Sanctuary Movement - A house where one can temporarily evade federally issued deportation orders for the act of illegal immigration?

Cities vs Churches

Sanctuary Cities are localities that limit their cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). If a city is deemed a “sanctuary city,” local law enforcement will protect the rights of undocumented immigrants who are charged with misdemeanors. In sanctuary cities, if an immigrant who is suspected of entering a country illegally  is arrested and then is cleared of charges, posts bail, or completes their jail time, police will release them. Alternatively, in a non-sanctuary city, law enforcement could comply with optional ICE detainer requests and hold that person until ICE agents pick them up for deportation. The constitutionality of these holdings has been widely questioned  under the Tenth Amendment, which states that  “localities are prevented from being mandated to use their resources to enforce federal regulatory programs, such as immigration.” (1)

Sanctuary Churches are houses of worship, associated with any denomination. Sanctuary Churches pledge to house those living in the country illegally that face deportation.  ICE is legally authorized to enter churches but has a policy to not enforce detainments in places of worship. In other words, these churches offer a form of asylum when legal asylum claims are denied.

Brief History

The Sanctuary Movement was founded in Tucson, Arizona in the 1980s by Reverend John Rife and Jim Corbett. The idea of having a “right to refuge” from persecution or violence is a medieval concept. This concept is one that is found in several religious and social teachings. This principle manifests in many political systems as asylum, a protection granted to political refugees. The Sanctuary Movement was  inspired by, and in many ways mimics, the Civil War Era Underground Railroad. These  sanctuaries  offer protection to those entering the country without legal permission,  particularly from the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras).


The Sanctuary Movement in recent years has grown. Since 2012, the rate of dislocation from individuals that have fled from the Northern Triangle has risen. (2) while the rate that asylum grants have been issued has decreased. (3) ICE has always had the ability to fine migrants up to $799 for each day they do not comply with deportation mandates. The agency did not begin using this capability until December 2018, as a way to stop  people from disobeying  these orders. Roughly a fourth of immigrants living in the U.S. are undocumented, (4) and the majority of that population migrated from Mexico and Central American countries. In a survey from the region, common explanations for migration included high homicide rates, gang activity among other means of violence, lack of economic opportunity, and an effort to join relatives already living in the U.S. (5)

By 2018, over 1100 faith communities had pledged to be sanctuary churches. The Church World Services organization connects migrants facing deportation with sanctuary churches. The organization  knew of 44 immigrants living in sanctuary in 2019. (6)

Meet Juana Luz Tobar Ortega

Juana Luz Tobar Ortega is a 51 year old woman, a devoted mother of four, and lives in a sanctuary. In  2017, Ortega chose the protection of a  public sanctuary  while facing deportation. Ortega migrated from Guatemala 25 years ago to escape violence  and was denied an official asylum claim when she filed. For decades, Ortega was without legal protection and lived in the U.S. under the precedent of routine ICE check ins. She could stay in the U.S. if she maintained employment.  In May 2017, without warning, Ortega was given an ankle monitor and instructed to leave the country. At this time,  Ortega was married to a U.S. citizen and two of her children were citizens, the other two being Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Ortega chose the option that would keep her closest to her family and took sanctuary. The St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina was her home for over two years. She sews pillowcases, sculpts cups and bowls, and cooks to keep up some income and to remain busy. Ortega receives visits from her family and her community continues to hope and plead for a stay of removal, which is a temporary deportation postponement.  If you’re interested in learning more about Juana Luz Tobar Ortega’s story, you can follow it in the documentary Sanctuario. (7)

How to get your church involved or seek sanctuary

  • The Sanctuary Movement website provides a resource toolkit for church congregations, ways to learn about the movement, and a pledge to join the coalition of sanctuary churches:
  • The Church World Services organization works to connect migrants with sanctuary churches:
  • The American Friends Service Committee also works to connect migrants with sanctuary churches. This is the organization that put Juana Luz Tobar Ortega in touch with the church that currently offers her sanctuary in North Carolina:

Works Cited

  1. "FAQ on Federal Grant Conditions and Cooperation with Immigration Enforcement". 2016. Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
  2. "Recent Trends In Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Immigration". 2020. Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.
  3. "Asylum Representation Rates Have Fallen Amid Rising Denial Rates". 2020. Trac.Syr.Edu.
  4. "Immigration From Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up". 2020. Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.
  5. "Immigration From Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador Up". 2020. Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project.
  6. "National Sanctuary Movement". 2020. National Sanctuary Movement.
  7. Timpane, Pilar, Christine Delp, Pilar Timpane, and Christine Delp. 2020. "Juana's Story: Seeking Sanctuary In A US Church". Aljazeera.Com.

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