The concept of sanctuary cities is deeply embedded in Western tradition. In biblical times, shelter was offered even to those who might have qualified as “bad hombres” in the eyes of President Donald Trump. Killers, for example. If the crime lacked intent, they could flee to havens specifically designated in Deuteronomy and the Book of Joshua.
Skip ahead 3,500 years or so and societally sanctioned refuge is proving as powerful a concern for Americans today as it was for the ancients. Sanctuary cities — and counties and states — loom large as Trump seeks to vastly expand and speed the deportation of undocumented immigrants while threatening to withhold federal money from localities that refuse to cooperate with immigration officials.
To switch the biblical reference point to Ecclesiastes, there is no new thing under the sun, certainly not in regard to sanctuary. The so-called sanctuary movement of the 1980s put church and state in conflict with each other over the fate of Central Americans fleeing civil wars and pleading for asylum in the United States. Those refugees found President Ronald Reagan’s White House no more eager to open its arms than the Trump administration is now to embrace Syrians seeking shelter from carnage back home.
The Reagan administration supported military governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, viewing them as bulwarks against pro-Communist insurgencies. And so it played down widespread human rights outrages by those regimes and affiliated death squads. When Salvadorans and Guatemalans tried to enter the United States, claiming a fear of persecution in their homelands, they typically were labeled “economic migrants,” not political refugees.
Few were granted asylum — less than 3 percent in 1984. By comparison, Poles fleeing Communism were 10 times as likely that year to find asylum here. Anti-ayatollah Iranians were 20 times as likely.
With the front door to the United States effectively shut, Central Americans turned to a back entrance. This was the sanctuary movement. In the 1980s, it came to be embraced by hundreds of churches and synagogues, as well as by some college campuses and cities, in more than 30 states. Refugees denied political asylum were spirited across the southern border and sheltered in houses of worship like Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz.
“These were middle-class folks who were fleeing for their lives,” the Rev. John M. Fife, Southside’s pastor in the 1980s, said of one group of asylum seekers.
When it came to smuggling and hiding people, he said, “I assumed it was illegal, but I could not claim to be a Christian and not be involved in trying to protect refugees’ lives.”
An estimated 2,000 refuge seekers were aided in that latter-day version of the Underground Railroad. Unavoidably, the clergy made itself a foe of the government, which argued that no one was above the law and that the sanctuary movement was, at heart, inspired more by politics than by theological imperatives. Movement members were put on trial. In one celebrated 1980s case, eight of them, including Fife, were convicted of felony conspiracy and other charges. None ended up going to jail, however.
“Sometimes,” Fife said at the time, “you cannot love both God and the civil authority. Sometimes you have to make a choice.”
The issue today for people who share his beliefs is not so much how to bring unauthorized immigrants into the United States as it is how to keep millions already here from being tossed out.
Dozens of cities and many times that number of counties describe themselves as sanctuaries. In some places, the police are ordered not to inquire about immigration status when they take people into custody. Some cities openly refuse to cooperate with federal requests to hold immigrants considered to have entered the county illegally until they can be deported.
As far as Trump and many fellow Republicans are concerned, failing to deport unauthorized immigrants is to invite the “bad hombres” among them to commit crimes. In his address to Congress last week, the president singled out several murders ascribed to unauthorized immigrants. Often cited by him is the 2015 murder of Kathryn Steinle, 32, in San Francisco. The man charged with killing her was a Mexican laborer with a long criminal record who had been deported from the United States five times.
To sanctuary defenders, evocations of a case like the Steinle murder amount to setting policy by anecdote. Studies show that crime rates among unauthorized immigrants are lower than those among native-born Americans.
Moreover, some local officials say it is not their job to enforce federal law. Many of them argue that it is self-defeating for cities to make unauthorized but otherwise law-abiding immigrants feel vulnerable and afraid of the authorities. “We have to have people that cooperate with their local police if we’re going to have any effect at all on the crime rate,” Sheriff John Urquhart of King County in Washington state told a reporter for Retro Report, a nonprofit video news organization.
Early in the Obama presidency, the government took a hard line. Immigrants without proper papers faced deportation for all manner of infractions, criminal and noncriminal alike. Expulsions reached record highs, at one point surpassing 400,000 a year.
But many Obama supporters felt that the policy was unduly harsh, and the administration came to agree. In its final years, it focused principally on people who were deemed threats to national security, were convicted of serious crimes or were recent border crossers. Even with those tighter standards, plenty of people were sent packing: more than 240,000 in 2016, according to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans accounted for 94 percent of the total.
Trump has proposed returning to a more aggressive approach: rounding up and expelling potentially millions of people. But the president created some confusion about his intentions when he surprisingly suggested in a private meeting with television anchors last week that he was open to finding a way to let millions of the undocumented stay in the country legally. What he meant was hardly plain. Publicly, his hard line on illegal immigration remained intact.
A sign of what could happen nationally emerged last month in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott canceled $1.5 million in criminal justice grants to Travis County, whose seat is Austin, the state capital. This was after the county sheriff renounced cooperation with immigration officials seeking deportations.
How far Trump intends to take his threat is unclear.
In the meantime, the sanctuary movement could still pack a punch. That was suggested by Elizabeth M. McCormick, who teaches immigration and asylum law at the University of Tulsa College of Law. “We’re at a moment in history right now,” she told Retro Report, “that may be similar to the 1980s, when individuals felt that they needed to stand up for what’s right.”