Building on a Powerful Tradition: The New Sanctuary Movement

Photo: Andy Mager

by Mike Hungerford

In the early 1980s, thousands of Central American refugees poured into the United States, fleeing life-threatening repression and extensive human rights violations by their governments.

At the time, federal immigration policy would have denied the majority political asylum simply because their governments were allies of the US. Many of these refugees had actively participated in the liberation theology movement and naturally sought protection from congregations.

New Sanctuary Movement Comes to Syracuse
Representatives and organizers from the New Sanctuary Movement will be in Syracuse on the weekend of February 23-24, providing information about this interfaith, nation-wide group. Since its establishment in January 2007, the New Sanctuary Movement has been working to protect immigrant workers and families from unjust deportation, change the public debate on immigration, awaken the moral imagination of the country, and make visible immigrant workers and families as children of God. Beginning in March 2006, leaders from across the religious and political spectrum have sought to lead the public to take more fully into account the human and moral realities facing immigrant families.

Many Catholic, Protestant and Jewish congregations and temples, as well as non-religious organizations and individuals, responded by offering these refugees social services and advocacy support as well as engaging actively in efforts to change federal immigration policy. One such effort was based right here in Central New York and included participants from the Peace Council, local religious organizations and many others. These congregations and groups, united under the banner of the Sanctuary Movement, also pledged that they would not reveal the identities of these refugees, even if they were arrested or jailed for doing so.

The Sanctuary Movement was ultimately successful both in changing national policy and in protecting tens of thousands of individuals and families, enabling them to start a new life in the US. Now, over 25 years later, religious leaders across a broad spectrum of denominations from ten states have come together to begin a New Sanctuary Movement to accompany and protect immigrant families who are facing the violation of their human rights in the form of hatred, racism, workplace discrimination and unjust deportation.

Since 2006, faith leaders and others around the country have continued to work in their local areas to respond to the needs of immigrant workers and their families and to support coalitions working on comprehensive immigration reform. Over the months, key leaders have also sought to define the particular contributions that clergy and congregational leaders could make to the larger struggle. The crisis of ongoing raids and deportations as well as the opportunity offered by the push for federal legislation increased the urgency of creating an effective and prophetic national strategy. In November of 2006, through conversations between faith leaders across the country, these visions coalesced into a new national initiative - the New Sanctuary Movement.

Changing the Terms of the Debate: Need and Opportunity
At this historic moment, federal legislators are continuing to debate various legislative proposals that could bring beginning steps toward badly needed immigration reform to our country. However, experts in the field have raised serious questions about whether the political will exists to pass legislation that is both effective and humane. The tide of anti-immigrant sentiment, evident in local punitive legislation efforts, the hysterical reaction to Gov. Spitzer’s proposal to provide driver’s licenses to immigrants, the stepped up raids by Immigrant and Customs Enforcement and even the campaign and debate statements of Presidential candidates of both major parties, is negatively impacting legislators’ commitment and capacity to achieve truly comprehensive and rational reform.

In order for this to change, leaders and sectors that recognize the valuable contributions of immigrants, the importance of respecting their human rights and the complex dynamics of immigration, need to communicate their insights effectively and broadly. The general public needs to see immigrant workers and their families with new eyes; we need to change the terms of the debate.

A group from the New York New Sanctuary Movement will be in Syracuse for a series of events to be held at Plymouth Congregational Church, U.C.C. on the last weekend in February. The group says that its members are “…united in opposing the current series of raids and ensuing deportations, and agree to call for an end to these practices, as they separate children from their families, until our broken immigration system is fixed.”  Plan to come and join with many other Central New Yorkers to learn more about this exciting new organization and what we can do locally to end the current unjust, inhumane and immoral immigration system.

Mike works with the Detainment Task Force and is a member of Plymouth United Church of Christ.