Sanctuary and the City

Editor’s note: In anticipation of next’s month’s #OAH2019/#OAH19 in Philadelphia, the March Metro of the Month is the City of Brotherly love. To get more info about the conference click over to the organization’s website, where you can also download the OAH’s program for the event.

By Domenic Vitiello

In the age of President Donald Trump, most Americans know what a “sanctuary city” is. It goes something like this:

RESOLVED: That no agent or agency, including the Philadelphia Police Department and its members, shall request information about or otherwise investigate or assist in the investigation of the citizenship or residency status of any person unless such inquiry or investigation is required by statute, ordinance, federal regulation or court decision…[1]

 Since debates about illegal immigration blew up in 2006, as Congress has failed to pass immigration reform, and especially since Trump’s election in 2016, more and more cities have refused to cooperate in detention and deportation of people in the country illegally. But this is only one part of what it means to be a sanctuary city. And today is just the latest era in a long history of sanctuary cities in the United States, in which Philadelphia has featured prominently.

The sanctuary city declarations and policies of today read much like those of the 1980s, when the administration of President Ronald Reagan refused to grant asylum to Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing civil wars and murder by militaries trained and funded by the U.S. In response, activists around the country and in Mexico established the Sanctuary Movement to harbor people they called “refugees,” even as the federal government persisted in labelling them “illegal economic immigrants.” They helped people cross the border and sheltered select individuals and families in churches, synagogues, and meetinghouses from New England to the West Coast. They lobbied politicians in Washington to stop supporting wars, and the terror they wrought, in Central America, and to change asylum policy. In 1985 and ‘86, they gained national media attention as the federal government put some of the movement’s founders on trial for trafficking Central Americans across the border near Tucson, Arizona. They used this moment to push city and state governments to establish sanctuary policies.

The quote above comes from a draft resolution written for the City Council of Philadelphia in the winter of 1986 by activists in the West Philly-based Central America Organizing Project, as well as the local chapters of the national Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Democratic Socialists of America, and National Lawyers’ Guild. “In response to our national government’s policy of deporting Central American refugees and harassing their supporters,” they wrote to other sanctuary activists in Philadelphia, “a number of cities, including San Francisco, Berkeley, Cambridge, Mass., Chicago, Seattle, and Ithaca have declared themselves to be Cities of Refuge or Sanctuary Cities.”[2] So did other centers of the American Left, including New York City; Burlington, Vermont (mayor: Bernard Sanders); Ann Arbor, Michigan; Takoma Park, Maryland; and the states of New Mexico and Wisconsin.[3] Los Angeles, home to the largest number of Central Americans in the country, some 300,000 people, established this era’s first sanctuary city policy in 1979, even before the Sanctuary Movement arose.


In their resolution, the Philadelphia activists recognized a deeper history of sanctuary, casting it as an original purpose of the city and nation:

WHEREAS: Both the United States and the City of Philadelphia have for centuries served as a haven for refugees of religious and political persecution from all parts of the world, and much of the historical and moral tradition of our nation is rooted in the provision of sanctuary to persecuted peoples.[4]

Founded by Quakers, this was “the city to which religious dissidents of all kinds could come during the colonial era,” and “a major link in the Underground Railroad,” the activists stressed in another outreach letter. They equated sanctuary city protections with certain antebellum cities and states’ refusal to return escaped slaves to the South in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act.[5]

Cities have functioned as sanctuaries for people fleeing persecution since ancient times. Not just a Western tradition, state and religious authorities designated certain cities as sanctuaries in ancient South Asian Indian, Hawaiian, Hebrew, medieval European, and colonial-era Native American societies. In the Bible, Joshua (20:2) proclaims, “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge”; and in Numbers (35:15), Moses declares areas in the Promised Land “shall be a refuge, for the children of Israel, and for the stranger.” As Exodus (21:12-14) explains, ancient sanctuary cities typically sheltered people from retribution for involuntary manslaughter, to prevent blood feuds, or after defeat in battle. The Greeks, Romans, and early Christians shared this tradition, though their sanctuaries were generally temples and churches as opposed to entire cities. In the twentieth century, sanctuary towns in Europe, often organized by Catholic congregations, harbored Jewish refugees from the Spanish Civil War and the Nazis.[6]

As Sanctuary Movement activists explained in the 1980s, “At different times and places, under varied circumstances, the significance of sanctuary has been recovered and taken on new meanings.”[7] In the twenty-first century, “cities of sanctuary” in Britain promote a culture of welcoming for asylum seekers. The European “cities of refuge” project recruits city governments to protect artists and writers persecuted in other societies.

In the United States, the meanings of sanctuary and sanctuary cities transcend the contested forms of protection that local and state governments, their police and prisons, offer to immigrants whom national governments seek to deport. In almost every sanctuary city resolution of the 1980s and today, local governments affirm something to the effect: “That no agent or agency shall condition the provision of City of Philadelphia benefits, opportunities or services on matters related to citizenship or residency status.”[8] Municipal services like schools, health clinics, libraries, business licensing, and more enable immigrants, including people in the country without documentation, to incorporate, survive, and contribute to the life of cities. Indeed, some mayors and city officials, especially in the twenty-first century, justify their sanctuary policies principally in terms of immigrants’ crucial role in urban revitalization.[9]

Yet often government is not the most important provider of sanctuary. The Philadelphia activists alluded to this in their draft resolution:

RESOLVED: That the City Council supports and commends the citizens of Philadelphia who are providing humanitarian assistance to those seeking refuge in our City; and be it further

RESOLVED: That the people of Philadelphia be encouraged to work with the existing sanctuaries to provide the necessary housing, transportation, food, medical aid, legal assistance and friendship that will be needed…[10]

These forms of sanctuary, as humanitarian assistance, usually come from friends and family, neighbors, and civil society – during the Central American crisis of the 1980s, mainly sanctuary congregations and their allies, including groups like Central America Organizing Project. In this broader perspective, sanctuary cities are the places where immigrants, refugees, and their allies help one another rebuild lives and communities.

By 1987, some twenty-four city governments in the U.S. had declared sanctuary.[11] But Philadelphia did not. Activists abandoned their campaign after a few meetings—their draft resolution never arrived in City Hall. Ironically, City Council had already passed resolutions, and would pass more, celebrating the Sanctuary Movement and condemning Congress and the White House for supporting violence and oppression in Central America.[12] However, as Rev. David Funkhauser, founder of the Central America Organizing Project, wrote at the start of the short-lived campaign, “since Philadelphia has very few refugees, there is no need to rush the proposal.”[13] His colleague Anne Ewing explained, “We’ve decided to spend our energies on direct work with refugees” from Guatemala and El Salvador.[14] As in other “direct action” movements, this was more important than anything local government could do. Many sanctuary activists remained ambivalent about the limits of sanctuary city policies, which could not prevent federal detention and deportation, nor employers’ exploitation of Central American refugees.[15]

Philadelphia in the 1980s was a different sort of sanctuary city than Los Angeles with its large Central American population, or Tucson where activists helped people cross the border. Sanctuary activism in the City of Brotherly Love grew largely from a preexisting set of transnational solidarity movements supporting human rights movements in Chile, Panama, and other parts of Latin America. Some were based out of the locally-headquartered American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker institution. Their allies in Guatemala and El Salvador, mostly union and student organizers and indigenous communities, were the prime targets of disappearances, torture, and bombings during those nation’s civil wars. For Central American activists, sanctuary in the U.S. represented a protected space from which to continue working for peace and justice back home.

After the civil wars in El Salvador and then Guatemala ended in the 1990s, North and Central American sanctuary activists assisted people in returning home and rebuilding their towns, livelihoods, and institutions of government. They monitored elections, supported truth and reconciliation processes, and raised funds for community and small enterprise development. Much of this work continues through organizations like the AFSC, CISPES, SHARE Foundation, and Rights Action, and via sister city and church partnerships, including with Philadelphia congregations. In these ways, the work of sanctuary continues as a project of promoting and protecting human rights. One way to understand Philadelphia’s Sanctuary Movement is that it grew out of, and then morphed back into, a set of transnational solidarity movements.

Philadelphia became a sanctuary city in terms of municipal protection in the spring of 2001, through policy memoranda issued by African American Mayor John Street (2000-2008) and his police commissioner John Timoney, an immigrant from Ireland. Immigration to the city, like the nation at large, took off in the 1990s, especially from Mexico but also from Haiti, Central America, and other regions whose peoples faced big obstacles to immigrating legally. Mayor Street and his next police commissioner, an African American Muslim, were sympathetic to issues of racial and religious profiling, especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Street and his allies also valued immigrants and their children as neighbors and political supporters.



The city’s next mayor, Michael Nutter (2008-2016), an enthusiastically neoliberal African American, supported the city’s sanctuary policies largely since they promised to protect a key driver of the city’s revitalization. The unauthorized immigrants whose labor undergirded Philadelphia’s burgeoning restaurant, construction, and other service industries were also chiefly responsible for ending the city’s 55-year population decline (1952-2007). I have calculated elsewhere that without illegal immigration, Philadelphia would not have started growing as it has in the twenty-first century.[16] Nutter’s commitment to sanctuary was thin. At the end of his second term, in an attempt to curry favor with the administration of Barack Obama, he canceled the policy. About two weeks later, on his first day in office, new Mayor James Kenney (2016-), of Irish and Italian American heritage, signed it back into force. A longtime champion of immigrant communities in City Council, his support for sanctuary derived in great part from his Catholic faith.

Since 2014, excepting the momentary lapse at the end of the Nutter administration, Philadelphia has had the strongest sanctuary policy in the nation. Unlike other sanctuary cities, it has refused to turn over even people convicted of serious felonies, based on the premise that they have served their time in prison and are part of families and communities in the city.

Philadelphia’s sanctuary policy is due at least as much to its activist community, which has continually pushed the city to expand and uphold it. In 2007, a group of activists, mostly too young to have participated in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, established the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia (NSM). Around the same time, similar groups formed in Chicago and New York. As they did during the 1980s, these groups operated autonomously, not as a single organization. NSM cultivated a network of member congregations and allied organizations, also much like the 1980s. Some of the congregations have hosted immigrant families on order of deportation, increasingly since the election of Donald Trump.

So what’s new about the New Sanctuary Movement? Unlike the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, it is not an anti-war movement, but a more general immigrant rights movement. Its engagement and leadership from new immigrant communities has been greater, which is logical given the growth of those communities. NSM has supported families from Indonesia, Pakistan, Mexico, Central America, Jamaica, and other places. Activists in the 1980s made a specific argument, repeating the mantra of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees: “if you knew the truth,” about what the U.S. was doing in Central America, “then surely you would help us.” NSM embraces a broader mantra, “no human is illegal,” and articulates a more enduring and global vision:

We believe Sanctuary is a vision continuously created through decades of struggle, through thousands of years of struggle. We are working, organizing, reaching and yearning towards that vision – a vision of collective and personal transformation.

We strive with fierce faith to build sanctuaries in ourselves as people and in our communities.  All our work, campaigns and community building are part of a larger vision to build Sanctuaries within ourselves, our cities, and our world.[17]

NSM also pursues a more concerted urban strategy. Sanctuary city protections are more widespread and more important today, as immigrants have settled in more parts of the country. NSM has launched campaigns supporting drivers licenses for undocumented people in the U.S., and against policies that require the towing of vehicles they drive. NSM’s Sanctuary in the Streets campaign has trained native- and foreign-born Philadelphia residents to resist and disrupt deportation raids, much like the Community Resistance Zones organized by its sometimes-partner, the community organizing group JUNTOS, whose members helped establish NSM. Like the meanings and practices of sanctuary, the geography of sanctuary is fluid, extending from sanctuary congregations to neighborhoods, cities, and communities in other countries.

The sanctuary movements of Philadelphia remind us of the larger field of geopolitics in which sanctuary and sanctuary cities operate. The leaders of the 1986 sanctuary city campaign wrote, “we also need to think about what it means that this country is so attractive: that we are an island of plenty in an impoverished world, and that our government is supporting oppressive governments… in many countries (Chile, the Philippines, South Africa, and many more).”[18] Ultimately, sanctuary and sanctuary cities help us reflect and act upon the injustices our nation perpetrates on peoples around the world, working to repair them in some small but profound ways. In this broader perspective, sanctuary cities are the places where immigrants, refugees, and their allies help one another rebuild lives and communities. Philadelphia remains an important center of that work.

Domenic Vitiello is a professor of city planning and urban studies at the University of Pennsylvania. His research and teaching focus on urban and planning history, immigrant communities, and urban agriculture. His most recent book is an edited volume with Tom Sugrue, Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States. Domenic is currently writing a book titled The Sanctuary City that examines Central American, Southeast Asian, African, Arab, and Mexican immigration to Philadelphia since the 1970s. You can read his essays on immigration and community development in the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (, and find other recent work at Domenic has been a member of the Coalition of African Communities in Philadelphia (AFRICOM), served on the board of the African Cultural Alliance of North America (a Liberian organization), as board co-chair of JUNTOS/Casa de los Soles, and has worked with many other immigrant and refugee community organizations in Philadelphia and other cities. In his younger days, he played for Guatemala in the Hispanic Soccer League of Philadelphia, and more recently refereed the annual African and Caribbean Soccer Tournament.

Featured image (at top): “Liberty Forsaken” mural in North Philadelphia, photo by Domenic Vitiello, 2002. 

[1] “Resolution for City Council Action Declaring Philadelphia a City of Sanctuary,” n.d. (winter-spring 1986), Philadelphia Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) Records, Swarthmore Peace Collection.

[2] Outreach letter, April 1986, Central America Network files, Swarthmore Peace Collection.

[3] “New Mexico Is Declared Sanctuary for Refugees,” New York Times (March 30, 1986).

[4] “Resolution for City Council Action Declaring Philadelphia a City of Sanctuary.”

[5] “Why Philadelphia Should Become a Sanctuary City,” n.d. (winter-spring 1986), Central America Network files, Swarthmore Peace Collection.

[6] Linda Rabben, Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016), 34ff; Ann Deslandes, “Sanctuary Cities Are as Old as the Bible,” JStor Daily (March 22, 2017), accessed September 5, 2017 at:

[7] Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America and Tucson Ecumenical Council Central America Task Force, “Sanctuary” (September 1982), reprinted in Angela Berryman, Central American Refugees: A Survey of the Current Situation, revised edition (American Friends Service Committee, May 1983), 35.

[8] “Resolution for City Council Action Declaring Philadelphia a City of Sanctuary.”

[9] Domenic Vitiello and Thomas J. Sugrue, “Introduction: Immigration and the New American Metropolis,” in Immigration and Metropolitan Revitalization in the United States, Vitiello and Sugrue, eds. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 3-4.

[10] “Resolution for City Council Action Declaring Philadelphia a City of Sanctuary.”

[11] Christian Smith, Resisting Reagan: The U.S. Central America Peace Movement (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 185.

[12] Resolution No. 732, Journal of the City Council (Philadelphia, 1982), 331-332, 351; Resolution No. 1156, Journal of the City Council (Philadelphia, 1983), 737-738, 781; Philadelphia City Council, Resolution 707 (February 1, 1990); Philadelphia City Council Resolution (September 30, 1999), reprinted on School of the Americas Watch, visited December 11, 2015, at:

[13] David Funkhauser, “Some Thoughts on CAOP Direction, 1/13/86” (PAACA DG181 – box 9), Philadelphia Area Alliance for Central America Collection, Swarthmore Peace Collection.

[14] Ron Devlin, “Sanctuary for Refugees Spreads across U.S.,” The Morning Call (November 30, 1986).

[15] Jim Corbett, “Sanctuary, Basic Rights, and Humanity’s Fault Lines: A Personal Essay,” Weber vol. 5.1 (Spring/Summer 1988). Accessed December 11, 2015 at:

[16] Domenic Vitiello, “What does unauthorized immigration and sanctuary mean for Philly’s revival?” PlanPhilly (January 2017).

[17] New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, “2017 Statement on Sanctuary,” accessed January 31, 2019, at:

2017 Statement on Sanctuary

[18] “Why Philadelphia Should Become a Sanctuary City,” Central America Network files, Swarthmore Peace Collection.

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