Negotiating place, space and borders: The New Sanctuary Movement


This article examines immigration and immigrant rights through the activities of the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM). The NSM, which is led by religious activists, responds to the contradiction between the basic principles of freedom that have theoretically grounded the American political system and the practices that have allowed for the current measures taken against immigrants. This article employs narratives from NSM supporters, stories from undocumented individuals in sanctuary, and scholarly work to illustrate how the NSM works as a channel for mobilization and articulation of demands of supportive religious and political activists who seek comprehensive immigration reform, as well as providing sanctuary places for undocumented immigrants faced with deportation. The NSM in Ventura County, Los Angeles County and San Francisco, California, are used as case studies to conclude that the NSM has been effective in creating and taking advantage of political opportunities to improve public policies and immigrants’ ability to negotiate local, state and national political structures.

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  1. 1.

    According to David Thurston, editor of Sanctuary: National Newsletter of the New Sanctuary Movement, actual size is difficult to determine because of the fluid and loose structure of the NSM to date. (D. Thurston, 2008, personal communication) In “The New Sanctuary Movement: Protecting and Welcoming” posted by there are 35 different networks in 10 states, 8 December 2008.

  2. 2.

    The United States Congress passed legislation in 1990 to allow the president to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to particular groups needing temporary safe haven, although El Salvadorans were specifically designated for TPS status in the immigration act. TPS granted legal temporary protection and work permits. The latest extension of TPS runs out in 2010. The US Department of Homeland Security extended TPS for eligible Honduran, Nicaraguan, and El Salvadoran nationals to continue living and working in the United States for an additional 18 months beginning in May 2007 (Ambassador Glazer confirms TPS Extension, 2007).

  3. 3.

    Most these objectives and interfaith participation can be found on the NSM website:

  4. 4.

    Interviews with pastors and Congregationalists were videotaped on 26 October 2007, at the United Church of Christ in Simi, California. These interviews were used extensively in this study.

  5. 5. It should be noted that if you publicize your activities it does not necessarily make you immune from prosecution. For example, in US v. Rubio-Gonzalez, the 5th Circuit found the definition of “harboring” can be “any conduct tending to substantially facilitate an alien's remaining in the US illegally” (US v. Rubio-Gonzalez, 674F.2d 1067, 1072 [5th Circuit 1982]).

  6. 6.

    All cases decided under 1324(a) involved defendants who kept silent about the aliens’ presence, rather than individuals who have reported the aliens’ presence to the ICE (formerly INS) but who have continued to shelter them. Therefore, a congregation giving sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant is unlikely to be prosecuted unless they are attempting to conceal the individual from ICE.

  7. 7.

    Out of a total population of 796,000 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Also, for statistics nationwide, see “Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the US” (Passel, 2006). According to this report, of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers, about 2.5 million live in California, more than in any other state.

  8. 8.

    The NSM Pledge can be found at

  9. 9.

    Liliana's sanctuary story began in the May of 2007 when four ICE agents with papers authorizing her deportation arrived one morning at her home. However, Liliana was granted a week to put in order her life, which included her husband and two sons, one seven years old and the other two months old, and a four-year-old daughter.


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Freeland, G. Negotiating place, space and borders: The New Sanctuary Movement. Lat Stud 8, 485–508 (2010).

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  • immigration
  • New Sanctuary Movement
  • political opportunity
  • Latino politics
  • social movements