I have been somewhat conflicted about the establishment of “sanctuary cities” so designated because of certain communities’ commitment to immigrants and to protecting even undocumented immigrants from forced deportation and other draconian measures enacted by the federal government. Conflicted because I just couldn’t see how a local municipality could simply refuse to obey federal immigration law no matter how much we may disagree with it. “If you don’t like a law,” my usual logic says, “change it.” But you can’t just disregard it.
In this, I am afraid I have fallen for the definition of “the word ‘sanctuary’ as Mr. Trump deploys it – a place where immigrant criminals run amok, shielded from the long arm of federal law…” (New York Times article, December 18, 2016). But this understanding of sanctuary, according to this same article, “is grossly misleading, because cities with ‘sanctuary’ policies cannot obstruct federal enforcement and do not try to. Instead, they do what they can to welcome and support immigrants, including the unauthorized, and choose not to participate in deportation crackdowns they see as unjust, self-defeating and harmful to public safety.”
My own community of Iowa City (home to the University of Iowa) is debating whether or not to identify itself as such a sanctuary city. So far the City Council has decided to adopt and support many of the policies and stances toward immigrants of such cities without actually claiming the politically volatile handle “sanctuary city.” This seems to me a reasonable first step, but I would now prefer that we go the whole way and bear witness to our compassion by going on record as a sanctuary city.
People of faith have a long history of providing sanctuary for people – from the “cities of refuge” named in the Book of Leviticus to churches and monasteries historically being understood as places where accused people might flee and at least buy some time to be sure appropriate legal protections were enforced and that they were to be treated fairly under the law.
And, since it is our role to try and shape society to reflect, however imperfectly, the values we hope to find in the coming Kingdom of God, attempting to influence our local communities to welcome and protect immigrants would be a good way of “doing unto the least of these” as we have been commanded to do.