Leaders in immigration reform advocate for a move away from the term “sanctuary” because it creates an immediate divide when spoken.  The Santa Clara Law Review is hosting a “Sanctuary Jurisdiction Symposium” on Friday April 21st 2017.  The event will feature distinguished guests included elected representatives, law professors, practitioners, and community leaders.  I was advertising the event on my law school campus earlier this week and when a student approached the table I merely said the name of the event before a distinct change in his tone, manner and approach hit me – “No thanks,” he said “I do my own research.”  Without ever letting me get into what the event was at all, there was an immediate judgment made that the event was promoting a particular agenda.  It’s a shame that I wasn’t able to engage in further dialogue with that student.

In fact, one of the panels at the event will be discussing this very issue – the definitional issues with the term “sanctuary” and its history in America. Back in 2008 Professor Rose Cuison Villazor[1] suggested that “[o]verlooking the continued disparaging meaning of sanctuary would be a mistake.”  She suggests the use of the word sanctuary “unfairly conflated legitimate state and local policies that serve local interests” and effectively lumped all policies that provide assistance to immigrants into a “sanctuary” category.  It seems a decade later the term is still falling short.  Somehow the term is so divisive that to hear its utterance is enough to spark a political divide such that one refuses to engage in conversation.

The first time I herd the term sanctuary was in Walt Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”  My childhood memory is of the main character Quasimodo running through the doors of a church carrying Esmeralda in his arms crying “sanctuary” in the rain.  The concept seemed like one of mercy, like the person invoking sanctuary was doing so out of desperation.  The history of sanctuary is rooted in Christian religious traditions, churches would provide sanctuary to individuals accused of crimes, and the defined religious space was “holy ground” to protect the person from the police force of the state.[2]  Sanctuary found new ground in the United States during the 1980’s “Sanctuary Movement,” where churches “shielded politically persecuted Central American refugees who had entered the Unites States illegally.”[3]

An interview I recently heard with Jeanette Vizaguerra,[4] a mother claiming sanctuary inside of a Colorado church, changed my basic understanding of the term.  In the interview Vizaguerra explains that she is not a “poor victim” – instead she views the act of sanctuary as a form of empowerment.  Vizaguerra said “when we make the decision to seek sanctuary – its because we have the courage to face our situations, to fight our cases, to resist.”  In discussing the role of her allies, Vizaguerra elucidated her position: “I control my own life, my future, and you are my allies – you are part of my fight – but I make the decisions, because it is my life, and my future.”

If you’re spending the time to read this post, I invite you to be a part of the conversation at Santa Clara Law and join us to discuss these important legal issues.  Check out our list of dynamic panelists who will share their research and work in immigration and sanctuary.  The event is free and open to the public, and CLE credits are available for attorneys.  To register and find out more about the event, please visit the event website here:  law.scu.edu/sanctuarysymposium

Emily Tewes

[1] Rose Cuison Villazor, What is a “Sanctuary”? , 61 SMU L. Rev. 133 (2008).

[2] See, Wayne A. Logan, “Criminal Law Sanctuaries,” Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, Vol. 38. http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/orgs/crcl/vol38_2/logan.pdf

[3] Id at 331.

[4] NPR’s Code Switch.