Sanctuary movement: perception or power?

Rev. Jim Wiltbank, pastor at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church, allowed Francisco Perez Cordova to live in sanctuary at his church from September to December 2014. Photo by: Elisabeth Morales/Arizona Sonora News

After 94 days in sanctuary, Francisco Perez Cordova left his Tucson office-turned-bedroom at St. Francis in the Foothills United Methodist Church. A year later in 2015, Rosa Robles left her sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson after 461 days.

Cordova had been detained when his brother-in-law reported a crime, while Robles had been taken in for a minor traffic infraction.

Both were undocumented, both had called the United States home for decades and both had children they were separated from while in sanctuary.

“This is his home and for some reason we don’t want to recognize that,” said Rev. Jim Wiltbank, pastor at St. Francis in the Foothills.

Sanctuary cases like these occur throughout the U.S. — and more could arise after President Trump’s executive order targeting undocumented residents. His executive order denies federal funding to sanctuary cities, or cities that choose not to work with federal level agents to deport undocumented immigrants.

With millions of dollars at stake, Trump’s order triggered opposition from business and political leaders in the country, and from cities with large immigrant populations that define themselves as sanctuary cities.

However, with no firm legal definition of the term “sanctuary city,” there is confusion as to which cities actually label themselves as a sanctuary — what they do and what power the government has over them.

More than 270 jurisdictions embrace these “sanctuary laws” and Barbara Armacost, a law professor at the University of Virginia and author of the study Sanctuary Laws’: The New Immigration Federalism, said officials at the federal level often believe that state and local sanctuary laws only serve to hide undocumented immigrants and disobey federal immigration enforcement. However, this is not the case.

“Law enforcement could come in, but we’re not trying to hide these folks from law enforcement,” Wiltbank said. “We are trying to say, ‘Here we are, but we’re giving them a safe space.’ ”

However, despite the terms “sanctuary” and “safe place,” the church holds very little legal power over the federal government. According to Wiltbank, the church’s power in this situation is more traditional rather than legal.

Southside Presbyterian Church, located in Tucson, Ariz., is the church Rosa Robles stayed in sanctuary at. Photo by: Elisabeth Morales/ Arizona Sonora News

“Back in the middle ages, the church building was always considered to be a place where someone could find a space of safety and refuge,” Wiltbank said.

Though there are no known cases where an undocumented immigrant has been deported from a church, it is possible for a federal official to do so.

“Unfortunately there is little Homeland Security cannot do,” said Sarah Launius, a sanctuary movement advocate from the Tucson sector. “The thing that has stopped this from happening in the past is public perception. Unfortunately, we see the current administration is not worried about public perception.”

What Wiltbank fears most are the people rejecting refugees and immigrants while under the guidance of Christianity.

“They are going completely against what Matthew 25 says to reach out to the least of people and they are completely doing the opposite, but they’re doing it under the guise of a spirituality and religion,” he said. “So I fear, most of all, that people are buying into that. That is what a Christian religion is about, and it’s being propagated by people high up in our political movement and I mourn that because we as a nation of faith are better than that.”

Many argue Trump’s executive order denying federal funds to sanctuary cities is unconstitutional.

Under the Tenth Amendment, which states that whatever powers not given to the U.S government belong to the states and the people, local governments reserve the right to refuse to enforce federal law.

According to Armacost, this resistance at the state and local level is the first wave of “immigration federalism” and should be taken seriously.

She argues state and local resistances cannot be simply written off, that they will persist and that federal immigration forces would have little success without the cooperation of these local and state forces.

“Officials familiar with local communities have identified serious problems resulting from immigration policing,” she said, “and have implemented laws and policies designed to address these problems and that is reason to invite them to be part of the conversation and the broader solution.”

Ultimately, states’ leaders hold the power to decide whether they will implement sanctuary laws. It is unclear how Trump will defund these sanctuary cities, but even then the Supreme Court has ruled in the past that federal grants to state and local governments are not enforceable unless “unambiguously” stated in the law.

“There is a whole lot of possibilities of what he can do,” Wiltbank said. “But the question is will we, the people, the voice around, allow that to happen, or will we stand up and say, ‘No, that’s not us.’ ”

Click here for high-resolution photos.

Elisabeth Morales is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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