A local activist coalition, Tucson Families Free and Together, has launched a petition drive to change our city’s status from being an “immigrant-welcoming” city to a “sanctuary city.” The difference is material. The “immigrant-welcoming” designation is merely an expression of support for Tucson’s immigrant community, an effort to “facilitate a community-wide dialogue” including “public community conversations on the subject of racial profiling.” But as Tucson Families Free and Together notes, Tucson’s “immigrant welcoming” status does nothing to prevent our friends and our neighbors from being deported.
The ordinance that Tucson Families Free and Together proposes in its Initiative drive would, among other things, impose strict limits on how and when a Tucson Police Department (TPD) officer can acquire immigration status information. It would in essence prohibit TPD officers from asking people about immigration status in most instances. Tucson Families Free and Together maintains this would curtail many deportations and thus help keep families together.
It is fitting that Tucson Families Free and Together is working to make Tucson a sanctuary city in light of the fact that, as discussed below, Tucson is where the modern sanctuary movement was founded and the age-old principles of sanctuary were operationalized.
What does being a “sanctuary city” entail?
A “sanctuary city” is simply a local jurisdiction (city or county) that does not help enforce immigration law. For, to state the obvious, local police departments are not required to help the federal government enforce federal laws. And since immigration law is federal law, catching undocumented immigrants is not a local law enforcement matter. By the same reasoning, local police do not enforce federal tax laws either, nor are they expected to.
The proposed ordinance would prohibit Tucson police officers from asking people about immigration status in most instances.
Immigration activists are not alone in their thinking. Police chiefs throughout the country maintain that helping to enforce immigration laws can make immigrant communities afraid of police and therefore be less likely to report crimes or cooperate with police investigations of serious crimes. In 2015, a group of 63 police chiefs and sheriffs from around the country formed a Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force (LEITF) and issued a letter (to members of Congress) saying they do not want their officers acting as federal immigration officers.
The LEITF letter mirrors the position taken by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents more than 1,400 cities with populations over 30,000. The letter notes that federal courts have determined that federal immigration detainers are unconstitutional because they are not criminal warrants. The letter also points out that there is no set definition of “sanctuary jurisdiction” and the term is often defined too broadly.
“Sanctuary” is an ancient spiritual concept and practice…
How the concept of “sanctuary” is bandied about in the political arena these days, particularly by the right-wing folks, is a complete perversion of its true meaning. The term “sanctuary” derives from the Latin word sanctuarium, which denotes a sacred place set apart as a refuge from danger or hardship. Originally, this sacred place often referred to natural locales, such as groves or hills, where the divine or sacred was believed to be present. Over time, the concept came to include structures such as the ancient Hebrews’ tabernacle (tent) and, later, the Jerusalem Temple.
Due to this sacred aspect of “sanctuary” and the protection that it afforded, sanctuary evolved into a place of asylum for people who were being persecuted or sought for prosecution. Christian sanctuaries-churches and areas immediately surrounding them-were first recognized by Roman law toward the end of the 4th century. For the most part, sanctuary was limited to persons not guilty of serious crimes, and in the Germanic kingdoms, a fugitive was not surrendered to authorities unless an oath had been taken not to put him to death. [This is akin to the modern policy of many nations to not extradite people to the U.S. if the death penalty is in play.] In the late 1500s, Henry VIII of England consolidated sanctuaries into seven “cities of refuge,” the precursors to today’s “sanctuary cities.”
Yet, supposedly religious folks are militantly anti-sanctuary…
Over time, the concept of sanctuary came to include structures such as the ancient Jerusalem Temple.
“Sanctuary” is an ancient concept and practice whose roots are religious, yet today many allegedly religious people rail militantly against the notion of sanctuary. American evangelicals, for example. Polls show that 80% of American evangelicals support President Trump, including in his attacks on sanctuary cities. In an “Open Letter to Christian pastors, leaders and believers who assist the anti-Christian Progressive political movement in America,” the American Association of Evangelicals asks Christians to consider some of the consequences of ‘Progressive’ political activism. Item six in their litany of Progressive “sins” is “Open borders and lawless ‘sanctuary’ cities.” The disconnect between what the evangelicals claim to believe and what they do is mind-boggling.
Stirring up the overt and the latent racism in his cult following, President Trump and his surrogates excoriate sanctuary cities. Most of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ first year in office, for example, was devoted to finding ways to block sanctuary cities from getting federal grant money. In the imaginations of Trump and his anti-immigrant allies, “sanctuary” cities are lawless places controlled by Democrats and “open borders radicals” (in Sessions’ words). The American Association of Evangelicals parrots Trump’s lies that sanctuary cities have made worse the problems of drugs, disease, crime, gangs, and terrorism in the U.S.
“Sanctuary Movement” of the early 1980s based in Tucson…
Presbyterian Rev. John Fife , standing, was founder of the Sanctuary movement in Tucson.The author is reading from the scriptures.
Faith communities launched the modern incarnation of the concept of sanctuary in Tucson in 1982. Their efforts would become known as the “Sanctuary Movement.” Symbolically, this movement reflected and mimicked the ancient practice of churches providing shelter to people who were being persecuted or in danger of being prosecuted. Except that to the faith leaders involved in this movement, the immigrants to whom they provided sanctuary were not outlaws. They were refugees.
At the time, violence and civil war, and death squads forced waves of people to flee north from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Appalled that the U.S. government turned away those migrants once they reached the border rather than take them in and give them asylum, religious leaders, clergy and laypeople, decided to intervene.
John Fife, pastor of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, was one of the first to challenge federal laws in favor of what to him was a moral obligation to offer shelter to the vulnerable. Southside Presbyterian was the first church in the country to declare itself a sanctuary. Fife and other faith leaders-including Catholic Redemptorist priest Ricardo Elford and Quaker Jim Corbett-established an underground network to smuggle refugees across the border to safety. They took the concept of “taking sanctuary” quite literally. Refugees, including entire families, were given shelter in the physical sanctuary of the church. At night, they would sleep between the pews.
The tradition of sanctuary prevented the U.S. government from invading the church and arresting the refugees. So, the government infiltrated the movement with spies who “caught” Fife and the others “conspiring” to break the law by sheltering refugees. In 1985 Fife and 10 other church workers were indicted and tried, on a total of 71 counts, ranging from harboring “illegal aliens” to conspiracy. [Eight were convicted and received probation.] Others, like Father Elford, were “unindicted co-conspirators.” These charges were supposed to have a chilling effect on sanctuary efforts. But they did the exact opposite. Over 200 religious orders (Christian and non-Christian) and congregations nationwide, and more than 600 religious organizations, including the National Federation of Priests’ Councils (representing more than 33,000 Catholic priests), signed onto the movement.
Surely those pioneer sanctuary leaders must find it ironic that law enforcement is now, decades later, taking up their cause. Religious activists founded the movement as an act of conscience and “civil initiative” (which is how they described their actions), and now police chiefs and sheriffs are helping to argue the case for “sanctuary cities.”
If you live in the Tucson area, sign the Tucson Families Free and Together petition-or better yet, circulate one. Doing so is not a political act-it is an act of conscience, of civil initiative. You will be in righteous historical company. c/s
Copyright 2019 by Salomon Baldenegro . To contact Sal write: email@example.com<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org Photo of Southside Church by Salomon Baldenegro Jr. and photo of Rev. Fife taken by Cecilia Baldenegro, both used with their permission. All other photos in the public domain.