What is "Sanctuary" and how Does it Help Immigrants?

In a Nutshell

Immigrants in the United States have been increasingly vulnerable to raids, detentions, and deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration agents. As a result, many faith groups and some neighborhoods, campuses, and offices have tried to find ways to advocate for and protect the immigrants in their communities. The practice of sanctuary is one way that faith groups and other communities are trying to protect immigrants from deportation. In this article, we'll explain what sanctuary is, and how it can be helpful to immigrants who are living in a place that is a sanctuary.

Written by Jonathan Petts
Written May 30, 2022

What is "Sanctuary" in immigration?

The practice of “sanctuary” originates from stories of wrongfully accused, ancient Hebrew people who sought refuge in sanctuary temples and cities. Throughout history, churches became recognized safe havens for the accused. Today, faith groups extend sanctuary to victims of unjust laws and immigrant communities, in what has come to be known as the New Sanctuary Movement. 

In 2007, faith groups across major U.S. cities took part in the New Sanctuary Movement. Deportations by immigration detainers often separate families. As U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agency, carried out more raids, faith groups provided refuge to immigrants facing deportation to help keep immigrant families together.

ICE recognizes some “sensitive locations.” These are places ICE enforcement officers cannot easily target. Many congregations, schools, and hospitals are sensitive locations. Students have created safe spaces on some college campuses for undocumented immigrants. Participants of the New Sanctuary Movement have co-opted sensitive locations as sanctuary spaces.

The United States is also home to several sanctuary cities and counties. Sanctuary cities and counties limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities, like ICE. They do so so that low-threat undocumented immigrants can get protection from deportation.

How does "Sanctuary" help immigrants?

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can arrest immigrants for being undocumented. But, local law enforcement (police) can’t have an undocumented immigrant become a detainee without reason. Police officers must first suspect that an immigrant committed a crime. If local police officers arrest you, one of two things may happen depending on where the arrest happens.

In a non-sanctuary city, a police department will hold you until ICE arrives. They will make a detainer request to ICE to inform them that you are in custody. Be aware that police cannot hold an immigrant past the appointed time when they should be released. Also, it is unlawful for police to wait for ICE to arrive in time to detain people in police custody. In a sanctuary city, local officials will release you after you clear your charges, pay bail, or complete your jail time.

In either city, law enforcement agencies can keep you in jail if you’ve committed serious crimes. Regardless of sanctuary policies, federal immigration enforcement can intervene if you pose a threat to public safety.

Sanctuary laws are entirely legal. In January 2017, President Donald Trump tried issuing an executive order to defund sanctuary cities. President Trump’s executive order failed after a San Francisco judge blocked it. In April 2017, a Trump administration Attorney General also tried to get the Department of Justice (DOJ) to end their sanctuary jurisdictions.

Local police cannot interfere with sanctuary. But, ICE officers with warrants can arrest undocumented immigrants at any place, including congregations. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a piece of federal immigration law issued by Congress that prohibits harboring an undocumented immigrant. Those who break the Act may face years in prison.

So there is some risk in offering sanctuary, but no congregation has gotten prosecuted for giving shelter to undocumented people. Most sanctuary providers exist to help create safer communities. They seek to establish trust with immigrant communities to protect immigrants’ safety and smoothen relationships between federal officials and immigrants.

When you enter sanctuary, you’ll have a chance for relief from deportation. If you are not a high priority for deportation, ICE can grant you prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutorial discretion is how ICE makes decisions on whether to follow through with deportation orders based on ICE’s current priorities and caseloads.

There are sanctuary cities, counties, and states all over the country. Check out this map on the Center for Immigration Studies’ website to find a sanctuary city near you.

To protect yourself from deportation, you may want to explore options like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA immigration status grants renewable deportation protection for Dreamers. It is possible to get DACA even if you have a criminal record. You can learn more about applying for DACA with a criminal background in our article.