One of the most moving episodes in literature is Quasimodo saving Esmeralda from hanging in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." As he rescues her and runs for Notre Dame, he calls, “Sanctuary!” The crowd takes up the cry and responds, “Sanctuary!” Esmeralda is safe, for a time, within the walls of Notre Dame because the law recognized churches as a place of asylum.
In 1980 in Arizona, a Quaker congregation and a Presbyterian church began providing legal and humanitarian assistance to Central American asylum-seekers who, for of a variety of political and foreign policy reasons, were not allowed to enter the U.S. as refugees despite the civil wars they were fleeing at home. They also were rarely granted asylum in the U.S.
Over time, more churches joined in, and the Sanctuary Movement was born. Over 150 religious congregations and secular groups publicly supported asylum-seekers from Central America by protecting them from immigration services and providing legal and financial aid. In 1986, several religious leaders, including ministers, priests and nuns, were convicted of “harboring aliens” as they participated in this work. But the movement continued its legal and humanitarian efforts, and by 1991, the courts ruled that political-asylum cases could not be influenced by foreign policy concerns.
Temporary protected status was granted to many asylum-seekers, allowing them to reapply for asylum, work legally and not be deported. Those churches, synagogues and secular organizations made a vital impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of asylees. This Sanctuary Movement is quite different from the recent rhetoric about sanctuary cities, and the two should not be conflated.
The word "sanctuary" comes from the same Latin root that "saint" does, meaning holy. A sanctuary is a place of refuge, a place where a person feels safe, where they can be with their families and loved ones. A space becomes holy when refuge is provided there, whether it’s a tent in Europe or a waiting area at the airport or in a cultural hall where refugees and asylees are invited for a meal. It can even be inside a Unitarian church in Salt Lake City. There has been a reappearance of the Sanctuary Movement in the last year as families try to stay together in safety.
Today, many Central American countries have seen a resurgence in violence committed by criminal gangs. In spite of the legal successes of the 1980s and 1990s, most Central Americans still are not granted asylum in the U.S. Countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala consistently have some of the highest rates of intentional deaths (excluding suicide) in the world. El Salvador’s homicide rate has even reached the same level as during its civil war between 1980 and 1992. People face violence in their own communities, and the government is not able to provide security.
In 2015 alone, 82 percent of female asylees, over 13,000 women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico who were assessed at the U.S. border, were found to have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture. Yet, in the period between 2011 and 2016, 80 to 90 percent of asylum applications were denied to people from these four countries. While there are processing backlogs, these denial rates mean that almost all of those women have been or will be denied asylum. It appears we are not following our own laws to protect people.
The Sanctuary Movement has accomplished change in the past. While we might not be able to house asylees ourselves, there are so many ways Utahns can provide sanctuary. Some volunteer legal assistance for people in the midst of the asylum process. Others donate food and money to asylum-seekers trying to find stability in Utah. A few are now providing physical sanctuary inside a church. All of us can advocate for changes in our laws and policies that have kept so many deserving people out of the U.S. No matter our politics, we can find room in our country and in our hearts to give sanctuary to people who have faced great peril at home.
Erica Eastley is a managing director for Mormon Women for Ethical Government_, a nonpartisan grass-roots organization of over 5,000 women dedicated to the ideals of decency, honor, accountability, transparency and justice in governing. MWEG is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints._