Sanctuary Movement Essay

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The sanctuary movement was a religious and political movement of approximately 500 churches of different Christian denominations in the United States, during the years of 1982-92, that assisted in the sheltering of hundreds of Central American refugees from Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) authorities. The movement originated along the U.S. border with Mexico in Arizona but was also strong in Chicago, Philadelphia, and California. It flourished among Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, although various denominations of Jews, Quakers, and Mennonites were also involved.

The national sanctuary movement was originally conceived in 1981 by the collaborations of Rev. John Fife of the Southside United Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, and Jim Corbett, a retired Quaker rancher. They were responding to an influx into the United States of Central American refugees who needed political asylum but were being deported by the INS. Corbett became involved with the Central American refugees in May 1981 after a friend picked up an El Salvadorian hitch-hiking refugee in the Nogales, Arizona, area. Fife became involved after a news story broke of a professional “coyote” (the Spanish name given to those commercial smugglers who help aliens cross the United States-Mexico border for a fee) abandoned a group of 26 El Salvadorians in the Sonora Desert of Arizona in summer 1980. Half of the refugees died of dehydration, and the other half were placed in detention by the U.S. Border Patrol and processed for deportation. For many people, this story was their first encounter with the INS’s treatment of undocumented aliens, and also with the violent political culture of Central America and the U.S. government’s support of repressive regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Fife’s church started a weekly prayer vigil for the refugees, and the prayer meetings soon transformed into a gathering for immigration lawyers and refugees. In the spring of 1981, the Tucson Ecumenical Council (TEC) created a Task Force on Central America and began to raise money to bail refugees out of detention and to fund paralegals to help with the asylum application process. Yet, after $750,000 in bonds and $100,000 in legal expenses were raised and spent, the TEC declared the efforts futile.

Corbett and Fife began to challenge others to do more than help after refugees were arrested and to be more proactive. Noting that they had worked with the INS in a cooperative manner and exhausted all existing avenues, they began to advocate that church members should take in refugees and protect them from arrest. At first, refugees were taken into members’ homes, but soon after church members were transporting refugees away from the border, from the border into the church, and even across the United States-Mexico border.

In the fall of 1981, a group of churches, including the University Lutheran Chapel from Berkeley, California (a sanctuary church for war resisters during the Vietnam War), the Sather Gate Churches, composed of Berkeley pastors, and others, gathered together to form the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. In November 1981, St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley secretly sheltered a refugee family, Southside United Presbyterian Church in Tucson publicly declared it would be a sanctuary, and University Lutheran Chapel publicly welcomed a refugee family into the church.

The sanctuary movement had its official beginning on March 24, 1982. By the end of 1983, there were nearly 70 public sanctuary sites, more than 600 supporting congregations, and 50 local organizing committees. At the height of the movement, more than 200 religious orders and more than 600 religious organizations (such as the National Federation of Priests’ Councils) across the nation publicly declared themselves in favor of sanctuary. Key supporters, like the Reverend William Sloane Coffin Jr. issued a challenge to broaden the focus of the movement to include the poor and minority groups; he drew parallels between foreign and domestic U.S. policies and called for an end to “unexamined sloganism” of anti-communism. Another supporter, Professor Robert McAfee Brown of the Pacific School of Religion, made a striking connection between the call to action of religious believers and the repressive actions of the state by expressing that uncritical allegiance to the government is “idolatry of the state.”

Refugees themselves did not directly criticize the movement, but they made it clear that they were opposed to any attempts to make them mere objects of interest for a political or religious mission. Many remarked that they were committed to telling their personal testimonies as public witnesses of suffering and human rights abuses, but they also maintained that they were physically and emotionally drained from these required retellings and often asked for clarification of the sanctuary movement mission. Many challenges arose, from churches being raided by the INS and refugees and members being arrested, a lack of sufficient communication and attention to the various churches for fear of arrest or prosecution, the screening of refugees as potential candidates that caused many divisions between Mexican and Central American aliens, to a tension in movement missions between the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America and the Tucson Ecumenical Council Task Force on Central America.

In January 1985, a federal grand jury handed down a 71-count indictment (including conspiracy, smuggling, harboring, and aiding “illegal aliens”) against 16 movement supporters, including two priests, three nuns, Fife, and Corbett. The following year, in 1986, eight of the sanctuary workers were convicted; Corbett was acquitted, and Fife was sentenced to 5 years of probation. Southside Presbyterian Church took the U.S. government to court and later won a lawsuit on the basis that the government possessed no right to spy on church activities.

Over the following years, the movement dwindled in support due to reduced media coverage, internal conflicts over intensity and direction, government repression, failure to recruit new supportive members, and the notion that the movement “won” after a December 19, 1990, decision to cease all deportations of El Salvadorians and Guatemalans. Despite these tensions and critiques, a theology of the ministry of sanctuary seemed to emphasize four key themes: (1) the provision of physical security and services for refugees, (2) a new ministry under a platform of social justice, (3) an emerging role for the church as a domestic political protest vehicle, and (4) the church as a vehicle for protest of U.S. foreign policy in Central America.


  1. Bau, Ignatius. 1985. This Ground Is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees. New York: Paulist Press.
  2. Coutin, Susan B. 1993. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  3. Cunningham, Hilary. 1995. God and Caesar at the Rio Grande: Sanctuary and the Politics of Religion. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Davidson, Miriam. 1989. Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement. Phoenix, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

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