Building a New Sanctuary Movement

“Sanctuary is not a building. It is not one man or one woman or 16 of them. It is a response rooted in faith and nurtured by prayer and conscience”

Statement from the Religious Leader’s Affirmation of Sanctuary Ministry (January 23, 1985)

Responding to Novalis’s claim that philosophy is homesickness, Agnes Heller, Hannah Arendt Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at the New School for Social Research, writes in A Radical Philosophy

As long as philosophy wants to give a norm to the world, it finds itself at home in morality and in comprehension. So long as it wants to give a world to the norm, then its homesickness means: “I want the world to be a home for humanity.” A world in which humanity is at home is the end of philosophy’s odyssey, for in such a world philosophy is at home. (134)

That such a world has not yet come into being must surely stand as one of the great indictments of neoliberal capitalist societies generally and of affluent countries like the United States particularly. That we are currently witnessing in the United States a reversion of the philosophical project Heller describes, the intensified creation not of a humanity at home in the world but of a humanity increasingly homeless, must stand as only the most recent of its many and appalling failures.

Such is the situation, however, being created by the recent spate of legislation aimed at deporting millions of migrant people in residence in the United States. This legislation-the subject of Juan Santos’s fine critique and rousing call to action in “The Border War Comes Home” (CounterPunch May 18, 2006)-aims to punish those who are in fact the unwilling victims of America’s murderously interventionist and rapaciously predatory military and economic policies towards Central and South America. The record of these crimes, as well as their magnitude, has been meticulously documented by various justice and human rights organizations as well as by noted intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky.

It is the danger and urgency of the present, however, rather than the crimes of the past that concern me most today. For what we are facing, should the present administration and its allies prevail in its designs, is nothing less than the emergence of a full-blown human catastrophe.

That is, unless we organize ourselves quickly.

Reading Mr. Santos’s stirring declaration of resistance, I was reminded of the defiant actions undertaken by Central American activists during a similar state of emergency in the 1980s. As a young college student and activist during those years, I recall the decision our church made to become a Sanctuary church for refugees fleeing the U.S. backed war in El Salvador, a war that eventually resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 people. I remember vividly the long conversations we had as a congregation about the possible legal ramifications of making this step-the government had just brought a 71 count criminal indictment against leaders of the Sanctuary Movement in the southwest and there were other indications that the U.S. was becoming increasingly serious in its efforts to destroy the larger Central American solidarity network.

“If the government were to indict our church for harboring ‘illegal aliens’ and conspiring to transport them to places throughout the United States,” we were asked, “would we be willing to accept the possible consequences of our decision?” After all, we were all embarking on this path of declaring ourselves a Sanctuary Church together, and all of us needed to be willing to share the fate that might befall any one of us. Soberly, hesitantly, and not without trepidation, we agreed that this was the path we were called to follow.

It was not long afterwards that our church became home to the first of several Salvadoran refugees. The decision to become a Sanctuary Church, undertaken with a certain understandable fear during those days when the Reagan administration was bent on both destroying a tiny country to the South and disabling a network of North American solidarity stretching across the continent, proved to be one of the most transformative of my life. Having once made the decision to place myself on the opposite side of the law from our government, I felt truly free.

But my freedom-and the experience of it-was not the point then nor is it the point today. The point now, as then, is the ability of other human beings simply to secure for themselves the means to sustain themselves and their loved ones. The point, in other words, is to ensure that our sisters and brothers are at home in the world, that the world might be transformed into “a home for humanity.”

This is precisely what the present administration and its allies threaten and precisely what we must in turn secure for those residing in the United States. To achieve this we must build a new Sanctuary Movement. Building such a movement will not be easy, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to move towards that redeemed image of the world Heller describes.

Like its predecessor, the New Sanctuary Movement will address itself primarily to the threat being posed to our Latin American brothers and sisters, but it ought to extend itself to all undocumented people in the United States targeted by this administration, human beings whose only “crime” is violating this country’s immigration laws because they are driven to do so by economic or political necessity. Likewise, the New Sanctuary Movement will need to build a network of support between its members in order to share strategies and information vital to its success.

But a New Sanctuary Movement will also need to address itself to the very different circumstances prevailing in the country at the present. This is undoubtedly one of its greatest challenges. Aside from the obvious threats posed by the presence of organized racist/nativist groups such as the Minutemen, the New Sanctuary Movement must take stock of both the vastly different social circumstances giving rise to the new migration and the different legal arguments needed to address it. Where the old Sanctuary Movement had an arguably clearer legal basis for its defiance of U.S. immigration laws-providing refuge to those fleeing war is recognized by UNHCR convention-the New Sanctuary Movement is in the more difficult position of having to argue that current economic and political conditions within the home countries of undocumented workers, conditions brought about largely as a result of American interests and policy interventions in the form of trade agreements, constitute such a danger to their well-being that migrants are forced to illegally enter the United States simply to ensure their own survival.

Convincing sympathetic Americans as well as international agencies such as the UNHCR that certain economic practices arguably constitute a low-level form of modern warfare and that those forced to flee their home countries as a result of such practices ought to be regarded as “refugees” will be difficult. Unfortunately, the 1951 convention of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees recognizes as a “refugee” only one who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.” The narrowness of this definition-its inability to contemplate the possibility that comparative poverty might constitute a recognizable social group deserving protection or that “persecution” might take the form of profound socio-economic transformations that imperil the securing of the means of one’s economic survival-displays the liberal bias that informs the convention. Nevertheless, it is precisely to these texts members of the New Sanctuary Movement must appeal and these texts that they must re-interpret if they wish to convince others of the rightness of their position.

While the challenges of building the New Sanctuary Movement are considerable, we can take strength from the continued presence of so many former members of the original Sanctuary Movement. It is to them that we should first turn, both for the wisdom they might offer regarding our prospects and strategies and for the more active role they might play in any new Sanctuary Movement.

To turn away from this looming crisis out of a mistaken belief that we lack the power is to forget our own history and to overestimate the power of those arrayed against us. We are many and they are few.

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido!

ERIC JOHNSON-DEBAUFRE is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston University. He currently lives in Madison, New Jersey and can be reached at