Sanctuary – as a concept and as a practice – is once again being hotly debated as the United States prepares for Donald Trump to take office as the next US president. Trump has vowed to deport millions of undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. In response, a growing number of cities, schools and faith communities are pledging to resist his efforts and protect undocumented immigrants even if doing so means the loss of federal funding.
Although recorded a few weeks before the 2016 election, this timely episode of CMSOnAir features an interview with Linda Rabben, Associate Research Professor at the University of Maryland, on the refuge and protection of migrants and refugees – also known as ‘sanctuary.’ Professor Rabben traces sanctuary back to its faith traditions and examines its central role in past and present movements that sought to welcome, support, shelter and advocate for vulnerable populations. Her research has just been released in a second edition of her book, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History (University of Washington Press 2016).
Professor Rabben has studied, written about and worked on human rights, development and environmental issues in the United States, Brazil and other countries for more than 25 years. Since the mid-1990s, Professor Rabben has focused on international migration issues as an activist and a scholar. Her involvement in refugee and asylum issues led her to research and write Give Refuge to the Stranger: The Past, Present and Future of Sanctuary (Left Coast Press 2011).
During her conversation with CMS’s Director of Communications Rachel Reyes, Professor Rabben discusses her reasons for exploring the history of sanctuary, saying, “Giving refuge to strangers is part of our DNA as a species.” In her research, she discovered a 2,000-year history in the Catholic Church of giving sanctuary and that refuge and hospitality is deeply rooted in multiple faith traditions, including Islam.
Professor Rabben’s book, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History, is now available for purchase through the University of Washington Press at http://www.washington.edu/uwpress/search/books/RABSAN.html.
Rachel Reyes: Welcome to CMSOnAir – the podcast on migration, refugee and population issues brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York. This is Rachel Reyes, CMS’s Director of Communications. In this episode, I speak with Linda Rabben, Associate Research Professor of Anthropology at the University of Maryland. For more than twenty years, Linda has worked on international migration issues, as an activist and scholar. The second edition of her book, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History, has just been released. This interview with Linda was conducted a few weeks prior to the 2016 elections in the United States, and it speaks to the issue of sanctuary.
So, welcome Linda and thank you for joining me on our podcast CMSOnAir. Why don’t we first begin discussing the purpose behind your book?
Linda Rabben: Well, it started with my trying to be involved with asylum issues within the mid-90s, and I heard about a particular case that I tried to follow and figure out what I could do, and as a member of Amnesty International, I decided to try and help a young woman who was being detained. She was an asylum seeker, and I sent a letter to the editor of The New York Times and to my amazement, it was published. It was about the conditions of her detention, and the Times printed an editorial, right across from my letter that said that she should be released from detention and given asylum. Within a week, she was released from detention, and within six weeks, she had asylum. She had been in detention for more than sixteen months. So, I found that really electrifying, but then, I couldn’t really find a way to be involved, because I am not a lawyer, and especially in Washington, lawyers seem to have a lock on immigration issues. So, I did try to educate myself, and then after about ten years of trying to follow the issue, I decided the best contribution I could make would be to write a book about it. So, I did write a book. It was called Give Refuge to the Stranger, and it sank like a stone in 2011 when it was published, perhaps because I was ahead of the curve. Then a couple of years after the book came out, I decided to do what started out as a second edition, but it’s really a new book and it updates and expands upon what I talked about in Give Refuge to the Stranger, and it seems to have come out at the right moment . So people are paying attention to it and I’m going around speaking in a lot of places about it. Students are particularly interested in this issue. So this is a subject whose time has definitely come, and certainly the presidential campaign has brought it to a lot of people’s attention. But there’s still a lack of understanding of the magnitude and the significance of these issues. There are a lot of basic things that I wanted to convey through the book about what the different kinds of people are who seek refuge. I wanted to talk about the long, long tradition of sanctuary and asylum to inspire people who are working on this issue as activists that they are a part of something very much bigger than all of us. So those were some of my reasons for writing this particular book.
Rachel Reyes: Could you give a brief historical overview of sanctuary, and maybe, identify a few signature examples?
Linda Rabben: Just to talk in the broadest possible terms, I believe that giving refuge to strangers is something that’s part of our DNA as a species, and it has to do with the fact that as a species, we move around. We don’t stand in one place for many different reasons, and we are also not the only species that gives refuge to strangers. So, I wanted to trace this all the way back to the beginning, insofar as I could. So, I talk about sanctuary traditions in many different cultures and religious traditions because that’s where it really starts, as a religious institution. And I found that there’s a 2000-year history in the Catholic Church of giving sanctuary. So I wanted to talk about how that evolved and how after about a thousand years, sanctuary, as a legally-recognized institution, came to an end. But then it was replaced by a secular legal institution called asylum.
So, this very, very long evolution and development of these two institutions is the framework of the book. Sometimes, sanctuary and asylum run along parallel paths; sometimes, their paths intersect; sometimes, they come into conflict; sometimes, they diverge completely because people continue to give sanctuary even when it’s considered to be illegal, and often at great risk. So some of the examples of that are the underground railroad, which was one of the most successful mass social movements in western history and also one of the most successful sanctuary movements. It was very decentralized. There were hundreds of roots leading from the south all the way to Canada and going from the south to the Caribbean and South America. And most of the people who were involved in it knew very little about the rest of the underground railroad. They knew about what was going on, maybe, within 20 miles of where they lived. So, people would be passed along from one house or person to another, and there were possibly thousands of people who were helping slaves escape. This took place over a sixty-year period, from around 1800 until 1860, and for the last ten years of it there was a Fugitive Slave Act which made things very, very difficult for slaves trying to escape, so they really had to go all the way to Canada to be safe. And it was illegal. During its entire existence it was illegal. It was often a federal crime to assist a slave to escape, but nonetheless, people felt morally bound to do it – often on the basis of very strong religious beliefs.
And another example is the Holocaust rescuers, and one rescuer that I like to point to is Pope John XXIII. He was a bishop in Bulgaria during the Second World War, and he tried to negotiate with the Bulgarian government, which was sort of neutral, sometimes leaning towards the Russians, sometimes leaning towards the Germans. So he persuaded them not to cooperate in deporting Jews that were in Bulgaria. He also did the same thing, I believe, he was in Greece. And I think that there is a direct line from his activities as a Holocaust rescuer to some of the provisions of Vatican II, especially about religious freedom. I think that they came out of his personal experience as a Holocaust rescuer. And I don’t know how aware people are of this history of his. I hope it’s mentioned in his canonization because it seems to me to provide a very powerful example. And he wasn’t the only Catholic religious. There were many nuns and priests who helped people escape. One favorite story of mine from the book is a French nun who bicycled 12-14 hours a day for about five days to spread a statement by the local bishop condemning what the Nazis were trying to do to Jews in France, in occupied France. So she took a very, very great risk. She was not caught, but other priests and nuns were arrested. Some of them ended up in concentration camps, and some were killed. They managed to rescue – perhaps a few thousand people – but nonetheless every little bit is significant, I believe. Just if you consider the magnitude of the killing that went on, that something like 1.5 million or 2 million of the victims of the Holocaust were children. And Catholic and other clergy were instrumental in trying to rescue children and hide them. So this was in many cases a classic sanctuary giving activity.
Rachel Reyes: Can you discuss the role of religion and faith-based groups in sanctuary, specifically the Catholic sanctuary tradition?
Linda Rabben: Well, I’m not a theologian. I’m not a Catholic, but as far as I can understand, it comes right out of both the Old and New Testaments that people are instructed to give refuge to the stranger, to welcome the stranger, because as the Bible says “you were once strangers in Egypt.” And that’s been a constant basis for a sanctuary activity in the Christian tradition. There’s also a Jewish sanctuary tradition. There’s a Buddhist sanctuary tradition. There are many religious traditions of hospitality. So in Islam, hospitality is a sacred duty, and that harkens back to Muhammad having to flee, and I might get this backwards, he either fled from Mecca to Medina or from Medina to Mecca but that was called the Hijrah. And because Muhammad had to flee with his companions, Muslims are required to give hospitality to strangers at every possible opportunity. So, I think the underlying aspect of this does have to do actually with our biology, our lives as a species – that it is actually adaptive for us to welcome strangers and to diversify our gene pool. And we hear a lot of talk about how human beings drive away strangers and reject the other, but there’s just as strong a tradition of people welcoming the stranger, and it usually is based in some kind of religious beliefs or in the culture of a particular society. So Christians have a particularly rich history because it’s documented. So you can go to many churches, monasteries, cathedrals in Britain, for example, and find written records of people who sought sanctuaries and what were the reasons. And these records are sometimes available for over 500 years. And there were rules about it in the absence of a strong rule of law, secular law, in British and other European societies. The Church often stepped in to protect the weak and vulnerable, so this is another aspect of the Church as a mercy-giving institution. And I believe it is related to the development of the idea in western law that you are innocent until you are proven guilty. Anybody could go to a church and ask for refuge and questions would not be asked. They would, perhaps, only be allowed to stay for a certain number of days, but they would not be turned away. The church was a sacred space, and the church was very keen to establish its premises as a sacred space, so that the state could not invade those sacred precincts. So, there are political and social aspects to this having to do with church and state sometimes being in conflict for dominance in various societies.
Rachel Reyes: What is life like in sanctuary? Is there freedom of movement, or are there limitations? And besides shelter, what services do migrants and refugees receive?
Linda Rabben: It’s a great variety. So, you can look at, for example, Westminster Abbey. If you go to Westminster Abbey, the precincts of Westminster Abbey, you will see, it’s actually a brass line on the pavement, which is where the sanctuary starts, where the forces of law and order could not step over that line to go chasing after somebody. And if you look up on the wall, not of the main cathedral part of Westminster Abbey, not the Abbey itself, but next to it, you’ll see a street sign – it’s called “The Sanctuary.” So once somebody, let’s say in the 15th century, would go into Westminster Abbey, it was one of a few places where you could obtain permanent sanctuary. It wasn’t limited to a certain number of days. Aand you could stay there all day long, and some people went out at night. And this is one reason why sanctuary became discredited over time, because there were criminals, who sought sanctuary in Westminster Abbey precincts, and they would go out at night and commit crimes and then come back, and the law could not apprehend them. So, but that’s one example of a kind of sanctuary and there were people there who were making a living, providing services to other people who were living in sanctuary in the precincts.
Then if you, let’s fast-forward to Southside Presbyterian Church in 2014. It’s in Tucson, Arizona. They took two people in over the course of a couple of years. And both of these people were undocumented. They had lived in the United States for long periods of time. They had families. Some of the members of their family were either U.S citizens, or they were eligible for DACA because they had been brought in as tiny children, but they themselves were threatened to a deportation. They had outstanding deportation orders. So Southside decided to take them in. Southside had a tradition of giving sanctuary, going back to the 1980s when it gave sanctuary to Salvadorans who were fleeing from civil conflict in Central America. This time the two people who were there in sanctuary were both Mexicans. One was there for a few months and was able to make a deal with the government so his deportation order was waived – so that he continued to pursue his case in freedom. But the other one, a woman, named Rosa, was not able to get a waiver of deportation for some reason. Often these decisions are very arbitrary. When I went to visit she was living basically in one room; she had a bed and someplace to put some clothing, and there was a kitchen next door. Her family, who were in a better legal situation than she was, would come and visit her every single day. But she could not; she did not feel that she could safely leave the church. So in a way she was a kind of prisoner. It was very difficult for her to be there separated from her family in that way. And she was there for more than a year before the local office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agreed to waive her deportation, and as far as I know, she’s still living in Tucson and fighting to get her status regularized.
So these are two rather different examples. There are lots of activities that I call “sanctuary” that aren’t the classic kind of sanctuary where you literally take somebody into your home, or a church, or some other place. But there were ways that people have of helping, befriending asylum seekers, or refugees, or undocumented people who need all kinds of help that they can’t count on getting from anybody else. And I’m familiar with quite a number of churches in many different cities that are helping people; they may not be giving physical sanctuary, but they are giving other kinds of assistance, including helping people pay their rent, trying to find them jobs, helping them register their kids in school, helping them get medical treatment. If you are a refugee, you can get those things relatively easily, but if you are an asylum seeker, you are not eligible for government help with those things. So churches are stepping in to help.
Rachel Reyes: Can you discuss the political or governmental opposition or support to sanctuary movements? Are countries avoiding asylum commitments?
Linda Rabben: Well, at every opportunity they avoid asylum commitments. They make it as difficult as possible for people to apply for asylum. And it’s a very big and complex issue that I do discuss at length in the book about the different kinds of people who are trying to come in to the United States and other countries. And I would say as far as I know the number of undocumented people who actually commit serious crimes is very low. In fact, it’s lower than the crime rate among U.S citizens. So, these particular cases, extraordinary cases, are often used to stir up moral panic among the public, and they are especially used and manipulated by politicians who often distort what the real situation is by making claims like – we have open borders, anybody can come in here, we don’t know who these people are – this is absolute nonsense. We have very elaborate procedures and systems and regulations and an entire immigration court system and many forms of vetting people who come into this country and a thriving deportation apparatus. Just read today that ICE is estimating that more than 42,000 people are expected to be in immigration detention. This is about 10,000 more people a day than last year. So apparently it’s because new populations of people are trying to come into the United States by different routes. So, Haitians, for example, have been coming into the United States trying to cross the southern border, and they are being arrested and detained in great numbers. It’s a pattern. Certain countries who go through different kinds of crisis, whether it’s political or civil conflict or environmental disaster, and you get an uptick in the number of people who are trying to come in. And they may try and come in by using people smugglers or come in individually. They may ask for asylum. They may sneak in without authorization. There are many different ways. Some people come in on tourist visas and overstay. So there are many ways that people come in without authorization.
There are what are called sanctuary cities. These are cities that many of them acquired this designation during the sanctuary movement of the 1980s when many people were opposing U.S policy in Central America, and they declared that they would take in Central Americans when it was virtually impossible for them to gain asylum. The U.S government simply refused to recognize that they could have valid asylum claims and described them as economic immigrants. So hundreds of churches and universities and community organizations came out and said “we are going to give these people refuge.” So, on a local level, cities like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, my town of Takoma Park, Maryland, declared themselves to be sanctuary cities. Takoma Park, where I live, I think maybe we’ve got a population of 10,000 people. It’s still a sanctuary city. So our city council recently passed a resolution saying we are not going to assist the federal government in picking up people and detaining and deporting them, because we don’t feel that’s a job for the police. That’s a federal responsibility. There’s a federal program, which Takoma Park and many other cities have refused to participate in, to the point where in 2014, President Obama actually ended this particular program, which was called Secure Communities. And then ICE simply reinvented the program under another name. But they are having much more difficulty in getting the cooperation of sanctuary cities, partly because the police don’t like having this job added to their many responsibilities. They don’t have the resources to do it, and the federal government is not giving them resources to do it. So you know you have got a conflict. Right now, as far as I know, there is a bill in Congress that would prohibit sanctuary cities from stopping cooperation with the federal government, but I don’t think that’s likely to get any traction. It’s been introduced repeatedly over the past 10 years. And each time it’s introduced, especially faith-based groups raise an outcry, and say you can’t do this; we will continue to give people sanctuary and to help people, and you are going to reap the whirlwind if you try to make this humanitarian activity of ours illegal.
Rachel Reyes: What is the current public opinion or reception to sanctuary here in the United States?
Linda Rabben: It’s difficult for me to say what the numbers are. I just know that every week I hear or read about towns and cities and churches all over the place that have decided that they are going to give sanctuary or they are going to help all kinds of people who are seeking refuge, whatever the reason. It used to be, when I first started working on this issue about 20 years ago, a lot of advocacy groups would restrict their activities to helping asylum seekers. It was like they were the worthy people who were seeking refuge, whereas people who were called economic immigrants somehow weren’t worthy, or people who entered undocumented or without authorization were somehow considered not to be worthy and were often criminalized. But over time, as the advocacy groups recognized that asylum seekers were being detained along with unauthorized people and were in the same bad conditions and all these people who were being detained were having their basic human rights violated, it became much more difficult to talk about worthy or unworthy people for sanctuary. So I believe that’s why what’s called “the new sanctuary movement” decided to focus on undocumented people who had lived in the United States for a long time and had families, and many of whom had no criminal record whatsoever. They were working; they were paying taxes; they were paying into social security, although they had no chance of ever benefitting from it. So it just seemed very arbitrary to focus only on asylum seekers, and not talk about the very poor conditions that many unauthorized people are being held in.
I should point out that, if you’re an asylum seeker, even if you come into the United States with no visa, with no passport, no permission of any kind, you are not illegal. Your status has to be determined through a complex, time-consuming, expensive procedure, through the immigration court system. But you are not illegal; you are in a kind of limbo. If you come over because you want to have a better life, you want to get a job, and you don’t ask for asylum, your entry into the United States, strictly speaking, is not a crime. It is a civil violation, like getting a speeding ticket. But if you are caught and deported and you keep coming back, as many people with families do, then that return, repeated return, does become a criminal offense. And that’s a relatively recent development. So we have created a whole new class of criminals who are incarcerated in federal prisons just because they kept coming back over the border to be with their families. And yes, there is a small minority of people who do this who are criminals. In every population, every human population, there are criminals and antisocial people who do bad things, but I don’t think you can make generalizations about a whole group, a whole nation, a whole religion on the basis of a small minority of people who do bad things.
Rachel Reyes: You mention the new sanctuary movement. Could you talk more about what this movement is? Who are the actors involved?
Linda Rabben: It started, as far as I can tell, about ten years ago, and there was actually a website that called itself “new sanctuary movement.” And it was very modest efforts that people in some churches around the county were making. By 2008, when I looked for that website, I couldn’t find it anymore. The domain name was being sold. And I think that reflected the fact that they couldn’t get enough traction to actually start a social movement. People didn’t know enough about the issue. It just wasn’t on the radar of most people. But this was also the time when attempts were made to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and these attempts failed. So this meant that many people, who might have had a chance of having their status legalized or regularized, no longer had that option. So when they came into the United States, they couldn’t go back and forth anymore. They had to just stay and take their chances. So this was a new population of unauthorized people who were here for the long term and, instead of being seasonal returnees who would go back to their own country and then come back again to pick our crops, or do domestic work, or work in factories.
So the new sanctuary movement seemed to start up again around about 2012 or so, and I’m not sure exactly what triggered it. Maybe it was because churches in many places were encountering people who were coming to church who were newcomers, and they didn’t know anything about them, and they wanted to help them. And they discovered that these were people who were living in the shadows. And they had a sense of moral obligation to help them. And they did start out the new sanctuary movement focusing on, as I mentioned, people who had been in the United States for some time, who had families, who were legal – some members of the family were U.S citizens or had permanent legal residence – and they decided that’s what who they would focus on, people who were in imminent danger being deported. In 2014, it’s when the so-called surge happened of kids and mothers and children and families, who were fleeing from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. And even though I think it was 2014, something like 60,000 of them came across the border, just overwhelming ICE and the border patrol. But even then this new sanctuary movement was still focusing on people who were longstanding members of their communities or their congregations.
More recently, I have been in touch with the new sanctuary movement of Philadelphia. They have decided that they are going to offer sanctuary to some of the Central American kids, or mothers and children. So they feel that this is a new development that they need to respond to now. So I think that the new sanctuary movement will keep transforming itself in response to whoever the new population of people is, people that are now fleeing for one reason or another. I should add that in 2014/2015 maybe there were 25 churches around the country that were actually taking people in, and there were another maybe 20-25 churches that were helping those congregations and supporting them without actually giving sanctuary themselves. So it’s a very small movement and there are other churches that don’t consider themselves to be part of it, but they are providing the same kinds of help. So it’s difficult to estimate how many churches there actually are.
Rachel Reyes: How do you think the election will affect this sanctuary movement? What are your thoughts on how the next administration will oppose or support sanctuary or advocacy and service assistance to migrants and refugees?
Linda Rabben: Well, I think it’s unlikely to expect that governments will support sanctuary. Sanctuary is usually a response to government policies that deny people refuge, and I think it will always be with us. Hillary Clinton has said that she will end family detention. Politicians make many promises; they may or may not have the wherewithal or the support to fulfill those promises. And obviously, Donald Trump has the opposing idea that he is simply going to deport 11 or 12 million people, which I think is simply not feasible. There actually has been a program in the Department of Homeland Security, which I talk about in the book, it was called Operation Endgame, and this was a policy that was published in 2002, and it aimed to deport all deportable aliens by 2013. Clearly, they didn’t do it, and they were trying their best. But I think it would be impossible. As Hillary Clinton pointed out it would cause such massive social and political and enforcement problems as to be unworkable, as well as going against some basic American values. So I think that whoever is elected president, there will be attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. We are way overdue for that. The law that’s now enforced is 20 years old. It responds to conditions that were current 20 years ago. It really badly needs to be reformed and recast to respond to what the conditions are now. And there are many different constituencies that will support different kinds of reform. So there are business people, for example, who wanted to be easier to employ foreigners. So they will lobby for a kind of immigration reform, probably what they would call “merit-based reform,” that would allow highly-skilled people to come into this country, and they might pass immigration reform that will make it more and more difficult for unskilled people to come in. So there’s likely to be a lot of bargaining and negotiation, and I expect it’s not going to be easy. That’s why it’s very important for people to ask their elected representatives at every level what their positions are and to lobby them on these issues.
Rachel Reyes: Is there anything else that you would like to tell our listeners?
Linda Rabben: Well, I haven’t been able to talk about the many different policies in many countries that are receiving thousands, or hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even millions of people fleeing persecution and civil conflict. I do talk about it in the book, and you can see similarities in asylum policies and the way that governments try to avoid giving refuge. But, at the same time, there are always social movements in all of these countries who are trying to welcome precisely the people that governments are trying to turn away. And that’s where my hope comes from. I believe right now asylum is under threat as a legal institution because governments try to get around it. But I think sanctuary will always be with us. It’s in our DNA, and that’s what gives me hope.
Rachel Reyes: Great. Thank you very much Linda.
Rachel Reyes: Linda Rabben’s book, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History, is now available through the University of Washington Press. CMSOnAir’s theme music is provided by Danny Duberstein and The Music Case. To get more information on CMS projects, publications and events, visit us at cmsny.org.