A map of dangers as resources made by a young Mexican border crosser.

In the early months of the Biden administration, shortly after Democrats introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill in Congress, the number of Central American families and children traveling to Mexico en route to the United States increased dramatically. In March 2021 alone, some nineteen thousand unaccompanied children and teenagers arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border seeking safety, the highest level in fifteen years. As community organizations mobilized to support new arrivals, politicians and experts debated whether what appeared to be a “surge” in child migration should be described as a “crisis.” Republicans quickly adopted crisis language, laying the blame for increased migration levels squarely at the foot of the Biden administration, claiming that weakened border enforcement and the prospect of immigration relief had induced more families and children to make the risky journey from Central America to the United States. In contrast, some scholars pointed out that immigration numbers typically fluctuate seasonally, such that spring increases are normal and predictable, and that 2021 levels likely were a delayed effect of the ways that COVID-19 both made it more difficult to travel in 2020 and exacerbated conditions that fuel migration. Characterizing immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border as a “crisis” misses the ways that historically, U.S. foreign policy and crime control initiatives have transcended borders and displaced people from their countries of origin.

A more promising lens through which to view migration from Central America is provided by sanctuary activists who have challenged both U.S. intervention and the denial of refuge. During the 1980s, a network of congregations across the United States declared themselves sanctuaries for Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees (Coutin 1993), and in the 2000s, sanctuary policies have again been pursued by states, cities, businesses, and college campuses that have challenged federal immigration enforcement against illegalized residents, regardless of their country of origin (Lasch et al. 2018). Sanctuary, which invokes religious notions of sacred spaces that cannot be profaned by law enforcement, redirects attention to social justice, the circumstances that provoke movement, the testimonies of illegalized migrants, and the solidarity that can be enacted across divisions. While sanctuary practices have taken multiple forms over time, a core principle is accompaniment; that is, active engagement alongside those who have experienced violence, persecution, illness, or other forms of social deprivation.

Adopting a sanctuary lens suggests that Central American migrations have a long and complex history, one in which the United States is positioned not simply as a place of arrival, but also as contributing to displacement (Burrell and Moodie 2019). U.S. corporations, particularly the United Fruit Company, invested extensively in Central America, and then defended their U.S. interests by supporting repressive regimes (Striffler and Moberg 2003). The United States backed a coup in Guatemala against the democratically elected president in 1954, and supported both the Guatemalan and Salvadoran militaries during civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador, despite death squad activity, human rights violations, and a genocide against Indigenous people in Guatemala (Hamilton and Chinchilla 1991). In fact, the United States trained Central American armed forces in counterinsurgency tactics (McCoy 2005). Political instability, repressive gang policies throughout the region, and neoliberal economic policies—including the Central American Free Trade Agreement—have also displaced youth. Yet throughout this history, the United States has largely treated Central American asylum seekers as undeserving on the grounds that the violence that they experienced was not “political” in nature (Coutin 2011). The Trump administration’s tactics such as forcing Central American asylum seekers to remain in Mexico built on a long legacy of denying refuge.

During the 1980s, the U.S. sanctuary movement sought to challenge these policies by assisting Central American border crossers, transporting them to places of safety, offering them housing and social support, publicizing their testimonies of violence, and traveling to Central America to provide an international presence in communities threatened by violence. Sanctuary activists invoked religious notions of sanctuary (Bau 1985) and deployed the moral force of faith communities, while arguing that refugees, whose lives were in danger, could be distinguished from other immigrants. After the U.S. government launched an undercover investigation of the movement and convicted several key movement figures on conspiracy and alien-smuggling charges (Blum 1991), movement members sued the United States in civil court, arguing that asylum policies were being influenced by politics. Sanctuary activists along with other solidarity workers and Central Americans themselves laid the legal groundwork for the creation of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in 1990, and passage of the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act in 1997. TPS in turn became a model for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012. Sanctuary practices from the 1980s have therefore shaped forms of temporary relief beyond the cases of Central Americans in particular.

In the 2000s, as the impact of more restrictive policies adopted in the mid-1990s deepened, sanctuary reemerged as a form of resistance. These more restrictive policies included collaborations between local police and federal authorities in immigration enforcement, an expansion of the criminal convictions that bore immigration consequences, increased use of mandatory detention, restrictions on eligibility for regularization, and bars on reentry. As a result, deportations skyrocketed. To counter such practices, campuses, businesses, cities, and states adopted “sanctuary” policies to restrict police collaborations, protect residents’ information, and mitigate impacts of federal policies (Villazor and Gulasekaram 2018). In contrast to the 1980s, the new sanctuary movement was largely secular and encompassed all undocumented residents rather than only Central Americans and refugees. The Trump administration responded to renewed sanctuary efforts by threatening to withhold federal funding from participating states, a threat that was blocked by the courts.

The reemergence of sanctuary in the 2000s provides evidence that current debates over immigration policy could potentially be reframed in ways that address U.S. complicity in the forces that propel movement, leading both to accountability and to recognizing illegalized residents as full community members. In such a reframing, language of “crisis” could be replaced with notions of solidarity, with a redefinition of citizenship that focuses less on nationality and legal status than on membership and social inclusion.


Bau, Ignatius. 1985. This Ground Is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees. New York: Paulist Press.

Blum, Carolyn Patty. 1991. “The Settlement of American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh: Landmark Victory for Central American Asylum-Seekers.” International Journal of Refugee Law 3, no. 2: 347–56.

Burrell, Jennifer, and Ellen Moodie, eds. 2019. “Behind the Migrant Caravan: Ethnographic Updates from Central America.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, January 23.

Coutin, Susan Bibler. 1993. The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the U.S. Sanctuary Movement. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

———. 2011. “Falling Outside: Excavating the History of Central American Asylum Seekers.” Law and Social Inquiry 36, no. 3: 569–96.

Hamilton, Nora, and Norma Stoltz Chinchilla. 1991. “Central American Migration: A Framework for Analysis.” Latin American Research Review 26, no. 1: 75–110.

Lasch, Christopher N., R. Linus Chan, Ingrid V. Eagly, Dina Francesca Haynes, Annie Lai, Elizabeth M. McCormick, and Juliet P. Stumpf. 2018. “Understanding ‘Sanctuary Cities.’Boston College Law Review 59, no. 5: 1703.

McCoy, Katherine E. 2005. “Trained to Torture? The Human Rights Effects of Military Training at the School of the Americas.” Latin American Perspectives 32, no. 6: 47–64.

Striffler, Steve, and Mark Moberg, eds. 2003. Banana Wars: Power, Production, and History in the Americas. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Villazor, Rose Cuison, and Pratheepan Gulasekaram. 2018. “The New Sanctuary and Anti-sanctuary Movements.” UC Davis Law Review 52: 549.