Within two weeks of the 2016 Presidential Election, faculty and students at hundreds of colleges and universities around the United States had drafted petitions calling on their administrators to declare their campuses a “sanctuary.” In the face of uncertainty as to what a Trump presidency would mean, many members of higher education communities sought to do something, anything, to make a stand and assert shared principles in a tumultuous political and social climate. At the same time, many college and university presidents made statements asserting their commitment to values such as diversity, tolerance, and peaceful dialogue. However, only a small fraction of the university administrators responded in ways requested by the petitions or adopted the terminology of sanctuary in their public statements.

What are the drafters and signatories of the petitions asking for when they ask for sanctuary? Where does the concept and language of sanctuary come from? Is its meaning stable or does it vary depending on the context and framing of its use? In a time of political uncertainty, I believe we need a moment to take stock. In this essay, I briefly explore the historical antecedents of the idea of sanctuary, the Sanctuary and New Sanctuary movements, the idea of sanctuary cities, and then circle back to this most recent resurgence in the use of the term sanctuary in post-Trump America to explore how it is being framed today.

The word sanctuary has a rich and layered history that intertwines law and theology. The English word derives from the Latin, sanctuarium, meaning a safe place or refuge. It was first used in an English common law context; as early as the fourteenth century, it designated a refuge from law enforcement inside of a church for potential criminals. Churches had the right, and the moral obligation, to provide up to forty days of refuge to fugitives until James I prohibited the granting of sanctuary for felons in 1623. Sanctuary was given regardless of the perceived guilt or innocence of a fugitive and was meant to provide a time for negotiation and confession before punishment could occur.

These legal understanding of sanctuary, however, emerged from an older and metaphorical use of the term sanctuary in the Bible, in which the building of the church is a representation of Christ’s body as well as the home in which he dwells. In Christian theology, Jesus Christ’s body is a temple, the temple as a site of his presence, and the protection faith in him provided to the sinner. Thus, the building of the church is a representation of Christ’s body as well as the home in which he dwells. To take refuge within a church, then, has meant a means to achieve respite from persecution by the law, but also implies potential contradiction between civil and religious law. In modern states, sanctuary depends upon an understanding of the separation of church and state. A house of worship is a space inside which political rule is suspended. By declaring sanctuary, a fugitive asks for protection and forgiveness from the church, even as the church asserts its sovereignty over its own space.

In the 1980s, the term sanctuary was taken up by religious activists in Arizona who created a network of protection for those fleeing the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Quaker, Lutheran, Catholic, and other denominations became aware of the the refugee crisis by listening to first-person testimonios about the experiences of refugees. Religious leaders such as Quaker Jim Corbett argued that Christians should provide sanctuary to fleeing Central Americans, despite the fact that the US government largely classified these migrants as “economic migrants” fleeing poverty, not persecution, and thus categorically ineligible for asylum or refugee status. The members of the Sanctuary movement who dedicated themselves to transporting, housing, and feeding Central American migrants saw their defiance of federal immigration law regarding the harboring and abetting of illegal immigration as a necessary and sacred duty. The US government denied Central Americans eligibility as political asylees or war refugees even as it fueled and funded the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. Arguably, the Sanctuary movement occupied the moral high ground as it defied the law. Ultimately, in 1985, members of the Sanctuary movement were indicted on federal charges in Arizona and Texas, and eight of them were convicted for alien smuggling. They responded that they acted out of faith and religious conviction.


To take refuge within a church, then, has meant a means to achieve respite from persecution by the law, but also implies potential contradiction between civil and religious law. In modern states, sanctuary depends upon an understanding of the separation of church and state.


In the first decade of this century, a New Sanctuary Movement emerged. This time, it materialized from a period in which religious leaders in various parts of the United States asserted the role of religious institutions in protecting immigrants from the injustice of immigration law. After the failure of a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill in the US Congress in early 2007, activists for immigration rights wanted to address the separation of families caused by heightened deportations and a lack of a pathway toward regularization for the vast majority of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. In the push for immigration reform from 2002-2007, the Catholic Church took a advocacy role for immigration reform. A joint statement by the US and Mexican Catholic Bishops, Strangers No Longer: Together on a Journey of Hope argues that churches need to serve the “stranger in their midst”.

While stopping short of advocating conscientious objection to civil law, the bishops state: “The Church recognizes the right of a sovereign state to control its borders in furtherance of the common good. It also recognizes the right of human persons to migrate so that they can realize their God-given rights.” Further, in Clause 104, the bishops “call for legislatures of our two countries to effect a conscientious revision of the immigration laws and to establish a binational system that accepts migration flows, guaranteeing the dignity and human rights of the migrant.” Religious institutions furthered the cause of immigration reform by arguing for the need to change the law when law is out of step with ethical mandates, such as the innate dignity and rights of human beings. While the sovereignty of borders is affirmed, the violation of “God-given rights” by states is problematized.

When Congress declined to reform immigration law and the government stepped up enforcement, churches took on a different role in the emergence of the New Sanctuary movement. As in the older Sanctuary Movement, churches sought to provide refuge to migrants. This time, the injustice was not what the migrants would face upon returning to the place from which they fled, but the separation of families by deportation. Elvira Arellano, an immigrant from Mexico who had been snared in a review of social security data while working at Chicago O’Hare airport, was ordered deported in 2007. A single mother, her deportation would force her US-born son either to go with her, forfeiting the benefits and rights he had as a US citizen, or to stay with unrelated guardians in Chicago, far from his mother. Aladalberto Unido in Chicago, Illinois, a Methodist church, offered her sanctuary, and Arellano lived for ten months within its walls. Even though Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) agents were camped outside, Elvira was safe as long as she stayed inside the church. When she eventually emerged to participate in an immigrant rights march in Los Angeles, she was picked up and deported to Mexico.

While Arellano’s case was the most visible one, and was covered  extensively by the media and utilized by social movements both for and against immigration, many immigrants have sought and received refuge from deportation in the space of religious institutions in the last decade. Further, since the presidential election, a host of new religious institutions have come forward to offer sanctuary to those targeted for deportation, joining other calls for sanctuary in both the legal and social sense from Trump policies and persecution.

Today, many faculty and students at US higher education institutions are calling for “sanctuary” campuses. While few cite the examples I have just outlined, it is clear that for some of them, this newest sanctuary movement draws on past examples. Nevertheless, the idea of a sanctuary campus is very different from a sanctuary that is a religious institution. The laws that govern both types of institution are different, and there is no agreement about what “sanctuary” means. This vagueness has enabled some university administrators to declare their campuses “sanctuaries,” while skirting the legal ramifications that such a declaration might have. And they use a single, relatively innocuous definition of sanctuary, ignoring the more radical valences of the term.

There are three definitions of sanctuary commonly used by the petitions calling for sanctuary campuses. The first use asserts campuses as a sanctuary for ideas. This is the definition most commonly subscribed to by university administrators that have used the word “sanctuary” in their public statements following the presidential election. This use asserts that campuses are spaces in which all members of the community should feel safe expressing their views and ideas. Many administrators say that no one should feel unsafe because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, or beliefs and therefore that hate speech, bullying, threats and attacks will not be tolerated. While in theory this should always be true, public statements in this vein are framed as reassertions of core values in light of an uptick in incidents of bullying, hate, and bias crimes, especially toward Muslim and immigrant students. This use of sanctuary does not accomplish anything new in legal terms, it merely reasserts a widely held commitment to academic freedom and diversity.

The second major use of the term sanctuary is more comprehensive and more controversial. It is the use that has been asserted in most of the petitions drafted (largely by college professors, but in some cases by students—as at my own campus, Lehman College of the City University of New York). Within this use, petitioners call on university administrators to declare their campuses sanctuaries from immigration enforcement. They specify that by this they ask that university public safety officers not collaborate with ICE in locating or identifying undocumented or Muslim students (the categories understood as most at risk), and refrain from acting on ICE detainers or sharing student data with law enforcement. Some of these risks are already mitigated by existing policies, for example FERPA guidelines regulate some sharing of student records, but others are not.

In private meetings with faculty and students, administrators have spelled out some of the ways this has worked historically—with many administrators avoiding the sharing of student data as a general rule, making exceptions in the case of urgent law enforcement investigations. Again, with this use, most campuses appear to avoid claiming any novel interpretations of the regulations already protecting student data and constraining law enforcement actions on campus. While undocumented students have been requesting clarity and reassurance that their campuses are and will remain “ICE-free,” administrators’ insistence that they already protect student data and generally refrain from serving as arms of law enforcement provide faint consolation. Further, it appears that Trump’s threat to discontinue federal funding to sanctuary cities that refuse to enforce immigration law has had a chilling effect on universities, which rely on federal funding for their operations.


This last demand seeks for institutions of higher education the status historically and customarily accrued to houses of worship and evoked by the Sanctuary and New Sanctuary movements in the US in the last thirty-five years.


The third major use is the most extreme—and to date, few of the sanctuary petitions have called for this—the declaration of the campus as a sanctuary in which immigrants with deportation orders can indefinitely seek physical refuge without fear of forced removal by ICE or law enforcement agents. This last demand seeks for institutions of higher education the status historically and customarily accrued to houses of worship and evoked by the Sanctuary and New Sanctuary movements in the US in the last thirty-five years. This is the most radical interpretation of sanctuary. Most campuses are not seriously considering serving as a physical refuge for people with deportation orders. Nonetheless, by evoking the terminology of sanctuary, they beg the question of whether campuses can or should consider asserting this level of protection to their faculty, staff, students, or even members of the general public.

Legal counsel at various institutions have called their declarations of sanctuary  “symbolic”; insisting they do not assert any new powers of higher education institutions to offer protections they don’t already. Michael Olivas, an expert on immigration law, notes the term “sanctuary campus has no legal meaning, and the admonitions are vague and impossible to implement, which will only frustrate people more. I have urged all those who have called me to be very cautious in suggesting that a legal cocoon is possible or even needed for students, who are not lawbreakers. Of course, institutions should provide support and services, as they would for all their students, especially vulnerable ones, but exacting pledges that cannot be kept will do no one any good.”

However, the importance of symbolism should not be underestimated. While, for now, Trump policies and the ramifications they might have are still unknown, the rhetoric of a divisive campaign that included the candidate himself, and his followers, denigrating immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and others has generated anxiety and fear. The value of symbolism that asserts the values of diversity, tolerance, and protection for vulnerable groups cannot be over stated. Nonetheless, there is a certain degree of nearsightedness on the part of those who narrowly define the power of higher education institutions to protect their members based on interpretations of existing case law and the higher education regulatory framework. When the Sanctuary and New Sanctuary Movements sought to protect immigrants fleeing human rights abuses or to prevent separation of families, they did not do so within the narrow confines of legality. Instead, they applied a few general principles: the innate rights of human beings, the historic role of religious institutions to assert and protect those rights even when doing so violates civil codes, and finally, the moral duty to defy the law when necessary if it violates the general principles of human value.

In many cases, this stance led to them harboring lawbreakers, making clergy and lay leaders subject to prosecution for their assistance to “illegal aliens.” Many of them faced federal charges and trials as a result. Historically, institutions of higher education are not known for offering sanctuary in the way religious institutions have, even though defense of principles of academic freedom and the ways in which universities have offered refuge to scholars facing threats of persecution at home do constitute relevant antecedents. Further, universities have long insisted on having their own systems for internal investigation and adjudication of offenses committed on campus, sometimes to the exclusion of law enforcement. Additionally, there is significant overlap between the legal status afforded private higher education institutions, especially those with a religious affiliation, with the status of religious institutions in the US, in terms of immunity from taxes, semi-autonomous governance structures within the confines of campus, and more.

While the value of declarations of sanctuary, whether mild or more far-reaching, will not be known until a test comes in the form of an assertion of sanctuary and a legal challenge to it, it is important for institutions of higher education to consider some of the historical precedents in the conceptualization of sanctuary and to be imaginative in terms of assessing the possible actions that can be conscientiously taken both within and in violation of the law.

Alyshia Gálvez is Associate Professor at Lehman College of the City University of New York in Latin American, Latino, and Puerto Rican Studies. She researches Mexican migration to New York City, focusing on religiosity and the role of religious organizations in channeling migrant organization and activism, as well as public health topics including reproduction and chronic disease. 

Image from Flickr via Victoria Pickering


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