Sanctuary. The concept is steeped in the historical generosity of the world’s major religions, dating back to medieval calls to protect the vulnerable.
From a faith perspective, it’s infuriating that the term has been co-opted to drive sinful levels of disdain for the very people sanctuary is envisioned to shelter.
But God isn’t in charge of immigration in America. Donald Trump is.
And the president’s words about sanctuary are wrapped in his own need to drive a political narrative. To Trump, the Central American migrants converging at the southern border are useful political pawns, and increasingly so as we edge closer the 2020 elections.
Hence, Trump’s dismantling of the more reasonable voices within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. He’s seeking to appoint people more willing to usurp the rule of law and bend to his wishes.
A prime example is his idea to dump Central Americans seeking asylum into select American cities. He’s playing to simple interpretations that see asylum seekers presenting themselves to government authorities, as robbers, thieves breaking into a home.
Further, Trump often inaccurately describes sanctuary cities as municipalities where law enforcement will turn a blind eye to violent crime perpetuated by undocumented persons. That’s absurd, and an offensive characterization to police, even in the most liberal jurisdictions.
To understand just how warped our sensibilities about sanctuary have grown, understand that this isn’t the first time that Central American migrants have been deemed a threat at the southern border. And Trump isn’t the first U.S. president to inaccurately claim that the people primarily want to steal jobs from U.S. citizens, rather than seek shelter.
Former President Ronald Reagan beat him to that screed.
In the early 1980s, thousands of people from Guatemala and El Salvador began fleeing atrocities unimaginable to most U.S. citizens. At least 100,000 people were disappeared in Guatemala alone. Whole villages were slaughtered by government-backed guerrilla groups. Mayhem and bloodshed reigned. Understandably, the people fled northward.
A national network of U.S. churches developed in response. The movement was modeled after the Underground Railroad, which had helped escaped slaves. The Central Americans were aided in their journeys, taken in and cared for by congregations. Canada, which had more liberal asylum policies, was the final stop for some.
The Reagan administration clung to Cold War attitudes that deemed only those fleeing Communism worthy of asylum protection. The stance was in opposition to the newly passed Refugee Act of 1980, which acknowledged global needs to shield people from well-founded fears of persecution.
Government agents went undercover to infiltrate the sanctuary movement. Eventually, its leaders were criminally prosecuted, accused of conspiracy and other charges. In court, it was argued that the ministers were smuggling aliens, as if they were involved in human trafficking for illicit gains.
One, was Rev. John Fife, a Presbyterian who helped organize the sanctuary network from a Tucson church. Fife was convicted.
The sheer volume of the Central Americans already at the U.S. border is a real problem. And it’s complicated by the fact that our systems are more aligned to process individuals, not whole families.
But neither factor is insurmountable. It’s feasible to weave humanitarian concerns into public policy. To respect people’s rights, to answer their needs, to process their asylum claims without terrorizing the already traumatized. And to do with the nation’s security safeguarded.
God knows that these tasks are daunting. They try our limits of compassion, our government structures.
This was true even when a far less caustic individual was in the White House.
In a 2008 interview with Yale Divinity School, Fife put the challenge in biblical terms.
“As a rabbi friend once told me, God says only once in the Hebrew Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ because God figured we could understand that one.
But God says thirty-six times that you have to love the alien in your midst; remember that the Israelites were once aliens in Egypt. Love the alien as one of your own — God knew people would have trouble with that one.”