Sanctuary: Reflections on a Social Movement

From the Series: Im/migration in the Trump Era

Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, licensed under CC BY.

Sanctuary has been revitalized as a social movement seeking to protect undocumented immigrants. Recent historical roots of Sanctuary in the United States lie in the 1980s, when faith-based activists drew on Christian social-justice teachings to declare their congregations safe havens for refugees and migrants escaping wars and political violence, particularly in Central America (Heyer 2012). Numerous solidarity groups emerged during this time, advocating for rational immigration reform in the United States and sending delegations to Central American countries to see the destructive impacts of U.S. foreign policy firsthand (Weber 2006). As a graduate student, I became aware of Sanctuary’s history through fieldwork in Honduras and Nicaragua and through collaboration with Central American solidarity organizations such as Witness for Peace and CHIRLA. I worked with faith-based activists from the previous generation who were on the front lines of the 1980s Sanctuary movement.

It is through this historical lens that I am observing the resurgence of Sanctuary as a social movement. The New Sanctuary Movement has existed for years, responding to the Bush administration’s securitization of border policy after 9/11 and then to the Obama administration’s increased interior enforcement and deportations. Today, though, a revitalized Sanctuary movement is responding to rising ethnonationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections, along with many other anthropologists working with immigrants and refugees, one of my immediate reactions was reconsidering how my work would or should change in this era. On the Facebook group we created, “Protecting Undocumented Students,” I followed threads discussing sanctuary campus petitions that had begun to circulate at universities around the country.

With colleagues at the University of Oregon (UO), and drawing on petitions circulating elsewhere, I helped to draft a sanctuary campus resolution. The resolution passed the UO Faculty Senate unanimously just eight days after the election. While imperfect, the resolution provides a guiding framework and organizing tool for our work on campus protecting undocumented, Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA)-eligible, mixed-status, and other immigrant students. The UO administration responded, immediately, with a declaration of support from the President’s Office and with outreach to our UO Dreamers Working Group, asking about ways they could support our work. Over the past academic year, this work has resulted in: a new vice provost–level position charged with serving as a resource for undocumented, mixed-status, and immigrant students; provision of (much-coveted) meeting space for students; a series of forums, cohosted by the Office of International Affairs, focused on responding to the concerns of international and immigrant students; a series of informational sessions about the challenges facing these students; and a commitment to providing legal resources for these students.

In Eugene, a sanctuary city ordinance was approved, but only after months of City Council meetings and Human Rights Commission hearings. Giving public testimony in these venues was partly reassuring; as the months went by, I saw growing support for Sanctuary reflected in multiplying numbers at each successive Council meeting. The final Eugene city ordinance, passed in March 2017, was the result of tireless activism on the part of mainly white and U.S. citizen activists, who formed a group called Friends of Sanctuary City, as well as a newly forged Latinx Alliance, which included MECHistAs at UO who came out in vocal support of the ordinance. While the City Council declined to use the language of sanctuary, the ordinance includes a prohibition on use of public resources to collaborate with federal law enforcement. The organizing leading to the Eugene city ordinance expanded into efforts pushing the public school district to declare a sanctuary resolution and coordinating emergency preparedness trainings for undocumented parents of children in public schools.

Being public about this work has not been without its challenges, including reaction from members of the Oregon far-right, who have sent hate emails to UO faculty who are publicly supportive of immigrants’ rights. When such incidents have led me to feel personally fearful or anxious, these feelings have also pushed me into deeper reflection about my citizenship privilege compared to the fear and uncertainty facing my students and their families. A challenge against Sanctuary, which I’ve heard from university attorneys, is the argument that Sanctuary has no clear legal meaning and is therefore ineffective. Another critique is that Sanctuary provides a false sense of security for undocumented students and others. My response to these critiques has been forming as I encounter them, but my view is that Sanctuary is a social movement whose discursive power lies in the ability to unite people through actions of solidarity in defense and support of immigrant communities. Suggesting that a Sanctuary declaration gives a false sense of security to undocumented and out-of-status community members trivializes the very real threats, danger, harassment, and violence that people face. Listening to my students’ fears about their parents’ possible detention or deportation and their anxiety about DACA renewal leaves little doubt that the sense of insecurity facing undocumented and immigrant communities is real and penetrating. A declaration of sanctuary is not a shelter of safety under which we rest but rather a call for actions in solidarity with immigrants and undocumented communities.

In this way, the current Sanctuary movement revitalizes legacies of activists using the privilege of citizenship to offer welcome to immigrants and refugees. Organizing around sanctuary at UO and in our city is building a grassroots movement that stands for the kind of welcoming, multicultural, vibrant communities we want to work and live in. As an academic whose research and teaching engages with immigrants and refugees, my ongoing involvement with this movement seems less an option and more a necessary response to the privilege of my personal and professional positions in this historical moment.


Heyer, Kristin E. 2012. Kinship across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigration. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Weber, Clare. 2006. Visions of Solidarity: U.S. Peace Activists in Nicaragua from War to Women’s Activism and Globalization. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books.