Offering real sanctuary for our immigrants: Connecticut took a stand, is a ‘Sanctuary State’

Amidst the national shame of separating approximately 3,000 immigrant children from their parents as they entered the United States along the Mexican border, Connecticut has taken two important stands.  

After two of the immigrant children ended up in Groton, in the care of Noank Community Support Services, New Haven’s Judge Victor A. Bolden of the U.S. District of Connecticut Court called the forced separation unconstitutional and ordered the federal government to produce their parents in Connecticut. The boy, aged 9, had fled Honduras with his father after his grandparents were slain and the body of a friend of the family was left in his backyard; the girl, aged 14, had fled El Salvador with her mother after her stepfather was killed by a gang. According to testimony of medical experts during the court hearing, both children were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological ailments related to being separated from parents who had promised them safety.

In another principled decision, Connecticut has joined five other states suing to block the U.S. Justice Department from withholding federal policing funds to so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions” that block ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) from interviewing jail inmates, or that do not provide advance notice to the Department of Homeland Security regarding the scheduled release of immigrants in the jurisdiction’s custody. In Connecticut, these federal policing grants are used to combat the opioid epidemic. 

Connecticut provides an important protection to immigrants through the 2013 Trust Act, which allows state and local law enforcement agencies to ignore a federal request to hold an undocumented resident if the person hasn’t committed a serious felony. In Amenia, N.Y., the records of an undocumented father of three arrested for what at the worst was a minor vehicular violation were obviously shared with ICE, with the result that the young man was picked up by immigration agents in his own home, and after spending the past three months in a detention center may now be deported. Connecticut also encourages law enforcement officials to refrain from asking about the immigration status of people they talk to. 

The multi-state lawsuit alleges that the Justice Department’s conditions interfere with the right of states and localities to set their own law enforcement priorities, and harms the very important relationship between local police and immigrant communities.

“Sanctuary jurisdiction,” the Justice Department’s description of states and localities not complying with its assault on immigrant communities, is unfortunately a far cry from the noble American tradition of providing care for the stranger. Beginning with the Underground Railroad, in which a network of churches and families disobeyed the law to give temporary housing, food and clothing to enslaved African Americans making their way north to freedom, the sanctuary movement assisted “draft dodgers” and AWOL soldiers during the War in Vietnam, and gave safe havens to refugees fleeing American-funded civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala during the 1980s. At its peak, over 500 congregations declared themselves official sanctuaries, providing shelter, protection, material goods and often legal advice to the Central American refugees. 

President Trump’s cruel anti-immigrant policies have given many of us a new urgency to aid immigrant families, many of whom have lived and worked here for decades. Although deportations are often justified by the argument that “these people came to our country illegally,” the sanctuary movement takes the ethical position that no human being is illegal, and tearing families apart is morally wrong. In the powerful words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, providing sanctuary is based on the premise that, “God is either the God of every human being, or the God of no human being.”

While there is nothing illegal about witnessing an arrest or hearing, or providing assistance to a family stripped of a wage-earner, some people may keep their distance from immigrant families in distress for fear of breaking the law. In fact, while it is illegal to bring in and harbor persons not authorized to be in the U.S. (INA Sec.274), sanctuaries don’t bring people in. Whether they are harboring someone is open to interpretation: while some courts have interpreted harboring to mean concealing a person, or simply sheltering them, other courts have supported the sanctuary movement by arguing that sanctuaries bring people into the light of the community. 

The American Friends Service Committee has put out a call for “Sanctuaries Everywhere” — in schools and colleges, congregations, libraries and other public places, including on the street. The AFSC website offers training for each situation, www.afsc.org/sanctuaryeverywhere. Luckily, as Connecticut citizens, we can feel that our state has our backs. As we consider what risks we want to take, it may be inspiring to remember Reverend Martin Luther King’s letter from Birmingham jail: “There are just laws and there are unjust laws.” While he added that “an unjust law is no law at all,” he nevertheless cautioned that, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly.”


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.