Sanctuary: An Interfaith Movement

By Sarah Rosen

Beginning in the 1980s, Central Americans fled to U.S. borders in the thousands, escaping political repression and violence stemming from the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador as well as unrest in Nicaragua. As the immigrants fled, the Reagan administration was unwilling to grant these immigrants asylum, claiming them to be “economic migrants” who were leaving their country of origin for better opportunity instead of fleeing violence. This led to many Central American immigrants being detained and deported back to their dangerous countries. The Sanctuary Movement emerged in response to this injustice, originally through faith communities along the Mexican Border. The movement started with one individual – Jim Corbett, a rancher in Arizona. He worked with others, such as John Fife, to make the Sanctuary Movement a nationwide effort driven by religious and non-religious ethical precedent of protecting people fleeing persecution.

It all began one afternoon in the early 1980s when Jim Corbett picked up a hitchhiking refugee. What he learned from this individual changed his life forever. He learned that there were thousands of people fleeing violence. Refugees and immigrants were kept in detention centers in inhumane conditions until they were deported back to their violent countries. Twenty-one people had died in Arizona deserts attempting to find asylum. Corbett started with helping refugees apply for asylum, but soon immigration enforcement began making arrests. He collaborated with the local community to smuggle people across the Mexican border and bring them to the homes of neighbors willing to house the refugees. A couple of years and hundreds of trips across the border later, Corbett talked John Fife, a pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church, into opening its building as a refuge. Southside became the first of two hundred churches in the country to declare itself a sanctuary. The Sanctuary movement has spread to sectors outside of religious institutions such as “Sanctuary Cities” and “Sanctuary Schools,” each with their own missions to end injustices against immigrants and refugees.  The government has made many efforts to stop this movement, but driven by religious and non-religious convictions, the heart of this movement persists. The Sanctuary Movement has become a national interfaith movement. With religious and non-religious activists working together to “build community across faith, ethnicity, and class in our work to end injustices against immigrants regardless of immigration status, express radical welcome for all, and ensure that values of dignity, justice and hospitality are lived out in practice and upheld in policy,” as stated by the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia. One of many interfaith-based Sanctuary Movement organizations such as, the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, the Interfaith Immigration Coalition and more.

As an Agnostic who connects with my traditional Jewish values, I recognize the importance of interfaith cooperation and work. Being a Secular Jew is only one aspect of my multifaceted identity, but before anything else, I am human.  It is something that I must remind myself of a lot, because it is something that is so easily forgotten in a world of distractions and divisive labels. A world of Facebook, a billion apps, news and media that sometimes portrays this world as apocalyptic can make us distracted, make us scared, make us want to blame someone for these fears and feelings of confusion. There has always been someone that we want to blame, and in my opinion I think that humans will continue to look for groups to pick on as an outlet to this fear. At the end of the day, we are all human. So what makes me more worthy of the privileges that come with being a born citizen in the U.S. rather than another who wants to be here just as bad? The more I remember this idea that we are all human first, I realize the answer is nothing. I am not more special, more smart, more anything than anyone else, I simply was born into a more privileged situation than another. We must love our fellow human, and when we see our fellow human being oppressed or marginalized we must welcome them, not exile them.

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Sarah Rosen is a senior at University of North Florida. She is a International Studies and Spanish major with a minor in Political Science. She is interning this summer at Annunciation House, a sanctuary house on the US/Mexico border for refugees and homeless poor. For more information, go to


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