The Sanctuary Movement and Sanctuary Cities in the United States, from Reagan to Trump


James Cohen, professeur au centre CREW– université Paris III Sorbonne Nouvelle

Date de publication: 
Novembre 2018

Before reappearing in public discourse in the guise of “sanctuary cities”, the term “sanctuary” already had a history that conferred on it another layer of meaning which still resonates today. In the 1980s. In the midst of a revolutionary movements in three countries of Central America, the Reagan administration applied Cold War logic to the region and intervened heavily with dollars, arms, training and covert action in to attempt to stop or sabotage the revolutionary process. The wars in El Salvador and Guatemala generated a flow of refugees and other migrants who found their way to the U.S.-Mexican border and sought asylum in the U.S. While displaying great understanding toward those fleeing the post-dictatorial regime in Nicaragua, depicted as “communist”, the Reagan administration was not inclined to admit other Central Americans fleeing from violence and systematically refused their asylum claims. Many were apprehended at the border and detained for months pending a decision in their case and possible deportation to the very place they had fled. A few who sought to escape such a fate turned to churches located near the border for aid and sanctuary. The Southside Presbyterian Church of Tucson, Arizona was the first to declare itself in resistance to federal policy in 1982. Southside Reverend John Fife wrote: “We believe our government is in violation of the 1980 Refugee Act and international law by continuing to arrest, detain and forcibly return refugees to the terror, persecution and murder in El Salvador and Guatemala.”1 Within three years, more than 200 churches joined the Central America Sanctuary Movement.

In recent years, the same Southside Church of Tucson has become active again in providing sanctuary under different circumstances, no longer related to civil war in the home countries but to increasingly strict immigration enforcement in the U.S. (and particularly so in the State of Arizona). On several occasions the church has provided protection to members of the local community who face deportation for reasons judged to be unjust or arbitrary. Persons taken into sanctuary are confined to the church for periods of weeks or months as they continue to fight their case through legal channels with the aid of a broad coalition of supportive organizations.

The current-day sanctuary movement, still inspired by that of the 1980s, is described by journalist Dwyer Gunn as “remarkable for the breadth of its support in a time of deep partisanship and division” in the U.S; it includes congregations “from the Catholic, Quaker, Unitarian, Mormon, Jewish, Episcopalian and Methodist faiths”2. For example, the Denver (Colorado) Sanctuary Coalition, founded in 2014, includes eight local Quaker, Unitarian and Catholic congregations. One of its coordinators, a Quaker interfaith organizer, describes it as “a faith-based response to a system that is inhumane and unjust and that harms people’s human and civil rights.”3

From “Sanctuary” to “Sanctuary Cities”

Among the constant targets of Trump’s speeches and tweets since the beginning of his campaign in 2015 has been a category of cities referred to as “sanctuary cities”. Although there is no exact legal definition of the term, it refers to a category of U.S. cities whose authorities refuse under certain circumstances to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in pursuing, arresting and deporting persons suspected of being undocumented

Among the policies such cities may adopt:

restricting the ability of police to make arrests for violations of federal immigration law;

not adopting or even prohibiting agreements allowing local law officers to be deputized to enforce federal immigration law;

refusing to make agreements with federal authorities to hold immigrants in detention;

prohibiting police officers or other city employees from asking persons about their immigration status;

not responding favorably to federal immigration “detainers”, that is requests to detain migrants beyond the stipulated legal limit so as to give federal authorities time to investigate initiate deportation proceedings;

refusing to let ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials into local jails without a warrant;

restricting immigration enforcement in hospitals and schools.4

Typically, such cities also offer a range of measures of outreach and inclusion, including advice to small businesses. The overall, pragmatic purpose of such policies is to make sure that immigrants, regardless of their legal status, feel safe enough to avail themselves of the city’s services, including that of the police department, which cannot function properly without the confidence of those whose cooperation it may seek in carrying out its investigative work.5

“Sanctuary cities” in the sense outlined here appears to date back to 1979, when the city of Los Angeles filed an order preventing police from inquiring about the immigration status of residents6. Over 300 cities and counties are considered by ICE to be sanctuary jurisdictions7. These include the cities of Los Angeles, New York, Phildelphia, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Detroit, and Miami. Some jurisdictions codify this status in law while others practice it de facto.

Contrary to what is often claimed by the Trump administration and other hostile parties, sanctuary jurisdictions do, under given conditions, share information with federal immigration authorities. However, there is no assumption in such cities that levels of criminality among migrants is higher because no serious study confirms this. The danger of “migrant crime” is a manufactured threat which exploits a few cases – tragic but exceptional – to support the stereotype. The murder of a young woman on a San Francisco wharf by an undocumented Mexican immigrant in 2015 recently released from detention gave rise to a campaign of this sort, which Trump has adopted as his own. Less than a week after taking office in January 2017, he signed an executive order seeking to punish sanctuary cities by depriving them of all categories of federal funding. Since then his administration has been embroiled in continual legal battles over the constitutionality of the measure. In August 2018, a federal Court of Appeals ruled that federal funding cannot be withheld from cities without congressional authorization8. This has not prevented ICE from purposely targeting sanctuary jurisdictions in conducting worksite investigations9. In the meantime certain state governments, most notably that of Texas, have taken their own measures aimed at preventing sanctuary jurisdictions from existing altogether, provoking much protest and resistance throughout the state10.

  • 1. Robert S. Kahn, Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade, Wesview Press, 1996, p. 19.
  • 2. Dwyer Gunn, “The sanctuary movement: how religious groups are sheltering the undocumented”, The Guardian, February 8, 2018
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. American Immigration Council, “‘Sanctuary’ Policies: An Overview”, February 23, 2017. [URL :]
  • 5. For greater detail see Hilary Sanders, « Les migrants irréguliers en ville : quelle rationalité aux politiques de sanctuaire », Revue française d’études américaines, n° 149, 2016, p. 67-83.
  • 6. Judith McDaniel, “‘The Sanctuary Movement’”, Then and Now”, Religion and Politics, February 21, 2017. [URL :]
  • 7. Robert Longley, “A Brief Overview of Sanctuary Cities”,, March 12, 2018. [URL :]
  • 8. Rebecca Morin, “9th Circuit rules White House can’t whithold money from ‘sanctuary cities’”, Politico, August 1, 2018.
  • 9. Walter Ewing, “ICE Targets ‘Sanctuary ‘Jurisdictions in Worksite Investigations”, Immigration Impact, American Immigration Council, July 25, 2018. [URL :]
  • 10. Jimmy Tobias, “Can these Cities Block Texas’s Vile Anti-Immigrant Agenda ?”, The Nation, August 17, 2017.