Making Sanctuary: Claiming and Defending Our Human Rights

Image from poster commemorating a 1986 Sanctuary Celebration in Washington, DC. CUSLAR collection.

By Tim W. Shenk
Coordinator, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

“I love my country
By which I mean
I am indebted joyfully
To all the people throughout its history
Who have fought the government to make right”

      Ani DiFranco, from “Grand Canyon” (2004) 

DiFranco argues that making things right often means “fighting the government.” Many current struggles for rights – for healthcare, housing, land, dignified work, a quality education, even the right to family – are essentially a confrontation with the state. This issue of the CUSLAR Newsletter reports on a few of these struggles in Latin America, on the U.S.-Mexico border and at home in Central New York.

Creating sanctuary for the oppressed and persecuted is one of many ways of “fighting the government to make right,” and it’s necessary again today.

A sanctuary is a sacred place, a haven from harm. It’s a place where the highest Divine law of justice is to be upheld, at times in defiance of earthly laws.

What has become known as the Sanctuary Movement took hold in the 1980s. More than 440 cities and hundreds of houses of worship across the United States declared themselves sanctuaries, taking a stand to illegally harbor refugees fleeing U.S.-funded wars in El Salvador and Guatemala.

As of 2018, nearly half of U.S. residents live in a “sanctuary jurisdiction” that protects against questioning about immigration status or restricts local law enforcement from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Ithaca, New York has been an active proponent of sanctuary then and now. Most recently in February 2017, the city updated its 1985 sanctuary resolution. In a unanimous vote, the common council passed an ordinance directing city officials, including police officers, not to ask for a person’s immigration status unless the person is actively committing a crime related to their status. 

What is sanctuary?

Sanctuary is a practice grounded in the major world religions and ethical traditions. It follows the idea that communities should be obligated to protect people from punishment under unjust laws. It is a particular kind of nonviolent civil disobedience that cannot be undertaken alone. Sanctuary is an ongoing collective commitment with moral, material and educational components.

More than a symbolic act, sanctuary’s goal is to protect the safety of vulnerable members of the community through collective moral force.

In this sense, sanctuary only becomes real if a community makes it real. As with any human right, sanctuary cannot simply be decreed: it must be defended.

Undocumented activist Marco Saavedra said it this way in a November social media post:

“we make asylum/ make sanctuary/ build homes/ erasing strangeness./ governments follow suit.” Daniela Rivero reports on Saavedra’s activism and asylum case on page 18.

A broad understanding of sanctuary would include the right to a safe place to live. On page 20, Melanie Calderon explores how U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) housing policy has been discriminatory against the Latinx community. On page 22, Rebekah Jones discusses difficulties in implementing the Colombian Peace Accord, considering especially the complexity of developing a peace that considers justice of land tenure for the millions displaced by war.

Our history: Harboring fugitives in Central New York

In May 1985, the Ithaca Journal editorial staff called on the city to welcome “Esperanza.” The young woman was staying in hiding in Ithaca, with primary assistance from local Quakers, Baptists and Jews, after the military in El Salvador murdered her brother.

The Journal staff noted the historical precedent for their stance: “The sanctuary movement is a 20th century version of the ‘Underground Railroad,’ the individuals who helped slaves escape north to the free states and Canada before the Civil War. Now as then, the motive is humanitarian. Now as then, the action is illegal and runs the risk of prosecution.”

The Underground Railroad was active in Central New York and came into being in response to material conditions: more and more runaways were making their way north. 

When arriving fugitives were willing to tell their stories, it made it possible to show the Northern public the true horrors of slavery. According to historian W.E.B. Du Bois, even more than the lives saved, the multiplicative element of the Underground Railroad was its greatest significance. Du Bois writes: “Fugitive slaves, like Frederick Douglass and others … increased the number of abolitionists by thousands and spelled the doom of slavery.” The first-person accounts of life in bondage were a large part of turning the public against slavery.

Providing sanctuary was a dangerous prospect, and it got more dangerous with time. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act became law, requiring federal agents anywhere in the United States to assist in returning runaway slaves to their owners and making the harboring of a fugitive punishable by six months in jail and a hefty $1,000 fine — almost $33,000 in today’s dollars. At times like these, people’s secret commitments to sanctuary were forced out of the shadows and into open confrontation with the state and its agents.

Syracuse, NY: The 1851 ‘Jerry Rescue’

The “Jerry Rescue” in the abolitionist stronghold of Syracuse, New York became an influential rallying cry for resistors, according to Milton Sernett’s account in North Star Country.

Soon after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, 13 Syracusans formed a biracial vigilance committee to protect fugitives. W.H. Burleigh wrote in a letter, “It would be almost certain death to a slave-catcher to appear, on his infernal mission, in our streets. No fugitive can be taken from our midst.”

On October 1, 1851, slave catchers did appear. They served a warrant to a local blacksmith, William Henry, known as “Jerry,” accusing him of theft. Once in custody, Jerry learned that the property he was accused of stealing was himself.

Church bells all over the city sounded the alarm that a fugitive was in custody. Hundreds of people, black and white, gathered outside the Commissioner’s office where a hasty trial was already underway. Jerry’s supporters made so much noise that proceedings had to be adjourned.

Abolitionist leaders then had the afternoon to plan their next move. Gerrit Smith argued that a “bold and forcible rescue” would show much more strength than a simple acquittal. Rev. Jermain Loguen, himself a fugitive escaped from Tennessee, said he and fellow colored men were prepared to “smite down” anyone who held Jerry, and either “rescue him or perish.”

Meanwhile, the local sheriff was overruled when calling to mobilize the national guard. With the military standing down, the abolitionists had a greater chance to implement their plan.

By evening, two to three thousand people had gathered, and a group wielding iron bars and axes rushed the police station where Jerry was being held. When his liberators forced open the doors, Jerry’s captor leapt out of a second-story window. Abolitionists grabbed Jerry, bruised and still shackled, and hid him for a few days before securing a route for him to Canada.

In this case, Syracuse won its designation as a sanctuary not by moral conviction or by legal argument, but by the collective physical force of a community. 

Sanctuary violated

Victories in the cause of freedom are possible, as in the cases of Jerry and Esperanza. Yet too often sanctuary is violated despite the best protections of morality and custom. Salvadoran Archbishop Saint Oscar Romero was in a sanctuary of the Catholic Church giving Mass when he was brutally assassinated by a military gunman on March 24, 1980.

Romero had become one of the most prominent defenders of the oppressed in El Salvador, railing against the military’s rampant abuses. He was a marked man for sermons like this one from July 1979:

“I am glad, brothers and sisters, that our church is persecuted precisely for its preferential option for the poor. And for saying to … the rich and powerful: If you do not concern yourselves with the poverty of our people as though they were your own family, you will not be able to save society.”

In a deeply Catholic country, he called on the rank and file of the Salvadoran army to “stop murdering your peasant brothers and sisters,” that their military orders were contrary to the law of God, which said, “Thou shall not kill.”

A day after this sermon, the sacred space of the church was desecrated. Saint Romero was gunned down at the altar.

Some may ask, then, what is the power of sanctuary, if it can’t ultimately protect even a bishop in church from the repressive power of the state?

Romero himself had an answer. Weeks before his murder, he preached: “As a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.”

This response may not be completely satisfying, but it shows a deep belief in the indignation and ultimate power of a united people. 

On the border: Sanctuary in a militarized zone

This issue of the CUSLAR Newsletter focuses heavily on the U.S.-Mexico border, with a particular spotlight on the El Paso, Texas-based Border Network for Human Rights (BNHR). With its “Hugs Not Walls” events, BNHR creates a sort of temporary sanctuary at the Rio Grande for three-minute reunions for separated families. Their community power makes it possible, in an increasingly militarized zone, to protect the right of families to be together without intervention or questioning by Border Patrol.

Fernando García, founder and executive director of BNHR, visited Cornell University and Ithaca College in October. His Cornell lecture from the CUSLAR-Latin American Studies Public Issues Forum has been included on page 4. Kevin Maldonado’s research on border history and operations provides an important complement to García’s talk.

CUSLAR students Gabriel Fernandes and Kimberly St. Fleur participated as support staff at the most recent “Hugs Not Walls” event on October 26. Their reflections appear on pages 10 and 12, respectively. 

Also as part of the border theme, Daniela Rivero interviewed Todd Miller, author of Empire of Borders, during his CUSLAR-sponsored visit in October. The transcript appears on page 14. On page 16, Joshua Lam shares the effects of the attempted erasure of indigenous rights and claims to border land. He focuses on the Tohono O’odham nation, whose territory spans both sides of the contemporary U.S.-Mexico border.

What’s next

The U.S. economy is driving toward its next major recession, which economists predict for 2020 or 2021. Without a significant shift of national priorities away from the war economy and the racialized criminalization of the poor, social protest is likely to erupt on a broad scale as it already has around the world.  We increasingly will be called, even obligated by our sense of right and wrong, to take on more radical positions with regard to the law.

Knowing the history of those who have stood against unjust laws may give us strength for the road ahead.


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