Sanctuary and the City

By: Lessa Leigh

It’s a familiar scene: someone outrunning the law gets to the church doors and pounds on them, demanding sanctuary as the sirens wail closer. At the last moment, the door opens, and the person is pulled to safety by a clergy member, foiling the efforts of the police.

The concept of sanctuary is an ancient one. At its most basic, sanctuary is meant as a holy place within the confines of a religious building, possibly even encompassing the entire space. For centuries, people fleeing the law have claimed sanctuary as a way to halt, at least temporarily, criminal prosecution. During the years of the Underground Railroad that carried slaves from the South to the North and into Canada to freedom, churches played a role in providing a safe haven for those fleeing slave catchers.

Today we see sanctuary offered by cities and campuses as a way to announce that immigrants are safe within the boundaries. In concept, it’s a lovely way to signal that all are welcome within city/school limits. Certainly the idea of being welcoming to immigrants is one at the heart of our national identity, and yet, one can’t help but wonder if “sanctuary” can truly be offered in the public sphere. It works with religious institutions because we still nominally practice a separation between church and state and we still give a minimum of respect to the sanctity of religious spaces. Can it really work in cities or campuses?

For example, if you’re in Los Angeles and are there “illegally”, what happens if you need to travel to Santa Monica? Or how do you get to the Hollywood Hills to Venice Beach without driving through Beverly Hills or Culver City? Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, and Culver City are all their own incorporated entities. Do you become bound to a small neighborhood? What if you’re riding in a car in Los Angeles and are involved in an accident? The ambulance could take you to a hospital in Pasadena or Santa Monica. The hospital will save your life, but now you’re outside the sanctuary zone.

Aside from the practical questions, there are plenty of legal ones. Who has jurisdiction? How does the state effectively protect someone from…the state?

I ask these questions because the idea of sanctuary is meaningless if it can’t be backed by action. Is someone safer within the state while hiding from the state? If history is any guide, the answer is no. Humans seeking sanctuary are generally more successful when they use private means to travel and to rest. The state cannot be trusted to obfuscate effectively enough to hide someone. Since that is the case, what do we, as private citizens, need to do to help those in need?

It’s been suggested that the easiest way to get help is to go directly to ICE. Turn yourself in, throw yourself at their mercy, and they will send you directly back to your “home” with no fuss and no muss. Apparently, the Trump Administration is no frills when it comes to pesky issues like due process under the law. Spending taxpayer money to provide human beings with a day in court to plead their case isn’t Trump’s style. This approach does have its merits; an immigrant here illegally could by-pass all the possible hazards involved with state and local law enforcement by simply approaching ICE and requesting a one-way ticket.

There are some moral issues that must be addressed, however. A person may be here illegally because their homeland is a war zone, and they have fled. Is it moral or ethical to return the person into a situation where they are likely to die? What if the “illegal” person is here with “legal” family? Is it moral or ethical to break up a family? Conservatives like to talk about the goodness of an intact “traditional” family, yet if someone’s father or mother is forced to leave, how is that good? We haven’t even begun to address the absurdity of imaginary lines on maps determining whether or not a human has the right to exist in one place or another.

Finally, the real questions are these: What will we do when we need to flee? Who will help us? If we don’t need to make a run for the border, will we reach out and provide sanctuary to others in need? Will we build an Underground Railroad helping people reach freedom and safety? And most importantly, if we are “The Land of the Free”, why are we asking any of these questions?

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