Sanctuary Cities

A Brief History of Sanctuary Cities 

Sean Desmond, December 2018

In today’s political landscape immigration is a hot topic, with major varying opinions on both sides of the matter. The current president has a very negative view on immigration and often brings up the topic of sanctuary cities because the two are intertwined. There is a lot said about sanctuary cities and even more misinformation can be found about them. Interestingly though, there is no legal or legislative distinction that works as a sign saying “We are a Sanctuary City”. These cities, that are being labeled as Sanctuary Cites, though are more leaning towards places that just do not take action. As Tal Kopan explains “The term “sanctuary city” is a broad term applied to jurisdictions that have policies in place designed to limit cooperation with or involvement in federal immigration enforcement actions.”[1] Koplan says that many of the policies that the sanctuary cities have are focused on not cooperating with federal law enforcement on immigration policies. Many of the largest cities in the country have such policies in fact. But I do not want to focus on what sanctuary cities are, I am much more interested in how sanctuary cities started and how they came to be what they are today.

The idea of sanctuary cities started with the sanctuary movement back in 1985. To be precise this movement actually started in basement of churches. During this year groups of refugees made the journey to the U.S. to escape horrible conditions in both El Salvador and Guatemala. Extremely deadly civil wars were taking place in both countries with the military facing off against leftist insurgents. Death squads were roaming the countries killing any who were seen to be with or sympathetic of the government, along with rampant assassinations as well. Hundred of thousands of people had died, so groups of people chose to make the journey across the border to the United States. These groups of refugees ended up entering through the southern border of Texas and Arizona, specifically Tucson. One group of about 2 dozen people ended up getting lost in the desert on their way to safety. Half of this group ended up dying while the other half were taken to a hospital. The hospitals did what they could to help the people but they were not entirely sure what to do with them so they started making calls to see if people could help them. One of the places they called were churches. One of the churches they called, a Presbyterian one, agreed to take in the refugees. This was how John Fife found his role in the sanctuary movement.

John Fife is a Presbyterian minister who with other ministers did everything in their power to help the refugees in their care. In this way he is one of the founders of what came to be known as the sanctuary movement. The group of refugees were given a place to stay in John Fife’s church where they were fed and taken care of. Not only that but Fife and his group also helped the refugees start the long process to be given asylum in the U.S. Despite there being physical torture marks on the refugees all of the refugees applications were rejected and they were  deported back to Central America. Fife and his fellow ministers were not okay with this chain of events. So they ended up taking matters into their own hands. Groups of these refugees would end up back in churches in Mexico and members of Fife’s group would go down there to see if they were political refugees. From then these people would help the refugees get across the border. By either driving them over the border or by actually walking with them across the border. Back in 1985 the border was completely different than it is today, there was much less security and a lot of it was not under watch. One of the refugees that Fife’s group helped is quoted saying what was told to her before she crossed: “Once you have one foot on the other side we will help you have a new life.”[2] They kept this promise.

The refugees were kept at churches in the United States for months as the members of what came to be known as the  Sanctuary Movement did everything they could to start a new life for them. They would help the adults get jobs, make sure the children were put into schools and get lawyers to start the long process of making sure these people could legally stay in the United States.

A question that came up often in my research was the legality of this whole situation. Did John Fife, and the other people he was working with, know what they were doing was illegal? The answer I came upon was, yes of course they knew it was illegal. But they felt they had an obligation to do something because it was the right thing to do. John himself commented on this in an interview: “I could not claim to be Christian had I not helped the refugees.”[3] Many law enforcement members were asked about why no legal action was taken against these church members who were harboring illegal immigrants inside of their church buildings. The answer that came up above all others was that no one wanted to go inside of a church or a temple and arrest a priest, nun or even a rabbi. The whole process would just feel awkward, members of religious groups were held in respect and seen themselves as holy. Going into a place of worship with the intent to arrest the leader of that building would not sit well with anyone. This was a sort of barrier that was keeping the members of the sanctuary movement able to continue with their business. From then on though, what John Fife and the other clergy were doing started to pick up in popularity. A lot of news sources started to discuss what was taking place and what these clergymen was doing. At this point the federal government started an investigation into the their actions. They implemented a couple ways in conducting their investigation. Firstly they sent paid informants into the church who were wearing wires, along with recording the sermons said during mass. Both of these ways were to try and pick up information on when and how the group were going to assist in getting refugees across the border and how they were helping those who they were already housing. The government got the information they wanted and Fife and other members of his group were indicted. Eight of the people ended up being convicted but they did not get any prison time. One of the lawyers who worked on the case against the movement, Melvin McDonald, called the whole process a farce. As I said before many people felt weird bringing up charges against priests and other clergy, a good amount of them were not going to let them not do their jobs. But one of the officers said that just because they were “people of the cloth” they were not going to just let them break laws.

The timing of this whole situation played a major role in how the U.S. government acted. It was still the Cold War during this time and the U.S. was doing everything in their power to oppose the Soviet Union and its spread of communism. The government ended up viewing what these clergymen were doing as a political protest against the Reagan Administration and their hard line against the Soviets. The reason the asylum process was so hard for the refugees is because the government saw them as economic migrants and not refugees. If the government viewed these immigrants as refugees they would have to allow them to start the asylum process. This would involve a process where the government has to decide if the refugee has credible fear or reasonable fear. The important piece of this is that this would of course involve paperwork and these refugees would talk about what was happening back in El Salvador and Guatemala. If the U.S. government was seen having paperwork describing the atrocities taking place in these countries it would look real bad on them. This is because our government was in support of the military governments in El Salvador and Guatemala because we saw them as potential allies against the spread of communism in Central America. So if our government recognized the refugees as political refugees then our government would have to recognize the atrocities taking place in those countries and that was not an option. By the late 1980’s the situations in El Salvador and Guatemala improved so the movement died down. It was no longer needed so badly so it went to rest.

Looking at what is going on today things are a bit different. Yes, Sanctuary Cites are an outgrowth of what Fife and all the people he worked with were doing but views are a bit different. Many immigrants now are much more focused on not being sent away as opposed to just getting away from their home country. This can be seen as a sort of spiritual successor to what was going on in the sanctuary movement. The modern movement can be traced back to the ending of the second Bush’s administration and into the Obama administration. The government became much more aggressive and active in deporting illegal immigrants. But many cities and their police departments did not want to take part in this aggression and did everything in their power to separate themselves from these activities. The main concern for the police is that if they are seen helping with the deportation process then the local immigrant community will be less likely to help them or even talk to them at all. Moving into the Trump Administration, he has shown his hard stance as completely against Sanctuary cities. Trump was quoted on the campaign trail saying: “We have to get rid of these Sanctuary Cities, it’s disgraceful.”[4] Trump sees sanctuary cities as a kind of free zone for illegal immigrants who are criminals to get a free pass to stay in the country. Many cities have said that their policies do not allow hardcore criminals to stay and those that are there are deported immediately. We end up coming full circle back to churches letting undocumented immigrants sleep in their “Sanctuary Churches”. John Fife himself is now retired and living in Tucson but he was quoted saying if need be he will get back into the movement.


[1] Kopan, Tal, “What are sanctuary cities, and can they be defunded?”, CNN, March 26, 2018

[2] Michael Barbaro, “Tracing the Origin of the Sanctuary City”, The Daily by The New York Times, podcast audio, March 9, 2017,

[3] Barbaro, “Tracing the Origin of the Sanctuary City”

[4] Barbaro, “Tracing the Origin of the Sanctuary City”

Further Reading

“Asylum in the United States.” American Immigration Council. October 22, 2018. Accessed November 11, 2018.  

“Maps: Sanctuary Cities, Counties, and States.” Accessed November 12, 2018.

Ross, Janell. “6 Big Things to Know about Sanctuary Cities.” The Washington Post. July 08, 2015. Accessed November 11, 2018.

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