In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sanctuary Cities

  • Introduction
  • Sanctuary: Normative Considerations and Religious Roots
  • Comparative Work on Sanctuary Localities
  • Public Opinion, Media Coverage, and State-Level Sanctuary and Anti-Sanctuary Policies in the United States
  • Sanctuary Legislation in US Cities and Counties
  • The Effects of Sanctuary Policies in the United States
  • Sanctuary Policies in Canada and Mexico
  • Sanctuary Policies in Europe and the United Kingdom

Urban Studies Sanctuary Cities
Benjamin Gonzalez O'Brien
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 March 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0077


With sanctuary, and sanctuary-adjacent, policies now in existence worldwide, scholarship on these policies has now expanded beyond the United States and North America. In the United States, these policies prohibit the collection of immigration-related information and limit cooperation of local law enforcement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with the purpose of allowing local undocumented populations to access resources and benefits without fear of deportation. While this is how sanctuary is understood in the United States, the meaning of sanctuary, and content of the policies, varies internationally based on national and regional contexts. In the United Kingdom, sanctuary is primarily meant to facilitate the incorporation of asylee and refugee populations, instead of undocumented, or irregular, immigrants. In Mexico, sanctuary is applied to returned populations who find themselves displaced and without resources to restart their lives after removal from the United States. What all these policies have in common is that they seek to allow displaced and marginalized populations some level of incorporation into the local community. Sanctuary as a municipal strategy has its roots in the United States, with the Los Angeles Police Department passing Special Order Number 40 in 1979, which was the first to forbid officers from inquiring into the immigration status of residents. The number of sanctuary localities rapidly expanded in the 1980s, as the faith-based Sanctuary Movement began to offer refuge in synagogues and churches to Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers, who feared they would face persecution or death if they were deported. As the movement captured national attention, cities across the United States began declaring themselves to be cites of refuge for Central Americans and sanctuary cities were born. Since then, sanctuary policies have spread internationally, while being adapted for different contexts and needs. When the Oxford Bibliographies in Latino Studies article on “Sanctuary Cities” was originally written in 2020, the work on these policies and movements outside of the United States was limited. Today, there is a growing body of research exploring sanctuary in the rest of North America, Europe, and Latin America, as well as the religious, comparative, and normative concerns researchers should consider when assessing sanctuary policies and movements.

Sanctuary: Normative Considerations and Religious Roots

The roots of contemporary sanctuary policies lie in ancient religious traditions, which Guardado 2021 explores in an analysis of the religious texts which serve as the basis for faith-based sanctuary. Mitchell and MacFarlane 2022 expands research on church-based sanctuary beyond the United States to places of faith in Germany. Often these policies are meant as a challenge to state power and restrictive policies, which Weiant 2021 examines by assessing the legal consequences faith-based institutions could potentially face for this activism in the United States. Ellstrand 2022 shifts the focus for the Sanctuary Movement from its birthplace in Tucson and the East Bay to Chicago, an important and understudied site for the movement. Beyond its grounding in religious tradition, Haro and Coles 2019 argues that there are clear linkages between contemporary sanctuary policies and the Underground Railroad in 19th century America. Some works, such as Buff 2019 and Blake and Hereth 2020, point out that sanctuary is also grounded in international law and norms, an argument regularly raised by those affiliated with the Sanctuary and New Sanctuary Movements. Wilcox 2019 compares three competing justifications for contemporary sanctuary policies, while Ayers 2021 contends these can often de-center the well-being of the immigrants themselves. Kuge 2020 notes that it is worth considering exactly how effective sanctuary can be as a form of resistance.

  • Ayers, Ava. “Missing Immigrants in the Rhetoric of Sanctuary.” Wisconsin Law Review 473 (2021): 473–536.

    Looks at the changing rhetoric of sanctuary, from something focused on the well-being of the immigrants themselves to policies that often point to the benefits of these policies for the broader community. Argues that this minimizes the well-being of undocumented immigrants, but also instrumentalizes these individuals as means to an end, whether that is a safer or more economically prosperous community.

  • Blake, Michael, and Blake Hereth. “Sanctuary Cities and Non-Refoulement.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 23 (2020): 457–474.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10677-020-10082-3

    A normative exploration of sanctuary policies in the context of international norm of non-refoulement, which holds that state cannot use coercive power to place a person in a position where their rights are at risk. Contends that this serves as a strong moral justification for sanctuary policies.

  • Buff, Rachel Ida. “Sanctuary Everywhere: Some Key Words, 1945–Present.” Radical History Review 135 (2019): 14–42.

    DOI: 10.1215/01636545-7607809

    A shorter piece on the history and development of the concept of sanctuary, beginning with World War II and the United Nation’s subsequent Convention and Protocol on the Status of Refugees in 1951. Concludes with a consideration of the potential implications of the expansion of concepts of sanctuary over the last few decades.

  • Ellstrand, Nathan. “Politicized Refuge: Chicago and the Transformation of the Sanctuary Movement.” Middle West Review 9.1 (2022): 25–48.

    DOI: 10.1353/mwr.2022.0022

    Most of the literature on the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s tends to focus on religious actors and places of worship in Arizona and California, but this focuses on the role played by an interfaith coalition, the Chicago Religious Task Force on El Salvador, in expanding the movement beyond these border states.

  • Guardado, Leo. “Sanctuary for Asylum Seekers: Revisiting the Religious Principle and Practice of Refuge in the Church.” Theological Studies 82.2 (2021): 285–309.

    DOI: 10.1177/00405639211010846

    Explores the religious history of church-based sanctuary, drawing on references dating back to the 4th century. Argues that the practice of sanctuary, which gave rise to contemporary sanctuary policies, should be restored as a principal of religious practice.

  • Haro, Lia, and Romand Coles. “Reimagining Fugitive Democracy and Transformative Sanctuary with Black Frontline Communities in the Underground Railroad.” Political Theory 47.5 (2019): 646–673.

    DOI: 10.1177/0090591719828725

    A normative paper that draws parallels between the Underground Railroad and contemporary sanctuary movements and how these have helped to challenge and resist antidemocratic tendencies in the United States.

  • Kuge, Janika. “Countering Illiberal Geographies through Local Policy? The Political Effects of Sanctuary Cities.” Territory, Politics, Governance 8.1 (2020): 43–59.

    DOI: 10.1080/21622671.2019.1604255

    A normative consideration of three tensions in sanctuary policies, which the author argues go beyond the usual liberal-illiberal dichotomy with which they are often assessed. Considers the pragmatic goals of these policies, which may not always be progressive, the failure to create actionable rights for migrants, as well as the inclusive potential sanctuary policies can have.

  • Mitchell, Katharyne, and Key MacFarlane. “Sanctuary Space, Racialized Violence, and Memories of Resistance.” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 112.8 (2022): 2360–2372.

    DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2022.2060792

    An exploration of church-based sanctuary in Germany, and the use of faith-based institutions as spaces of alternative justice and resistance. Considers not only contemporary faith-based sanctuary movements, but also the roots of sanctuary in ancient religious practices and text.

  • Weiant, Lydia. “Immigration v. Religious Freedom in Trump’s America: Offering Legal Sanctuary in Places of Worship.” American Criminal Law Review 58 (2021): 257–283.

    Details the history of the religious sanctuary through the lens of the Sanctuary Movement (1980s) and New Sanctuary Movement (2000s-current) before turning to a legal analysis of the potential consequences for providing sanctuary.

  • Wilcox, Shelley. “How Can Sanctuary Policies Be Justified?” Public Affairs Quarterly 33.2 (2019): 89–114.

    DOI: 10.2307/26910021

    Looks at three broad justifications for sanctuary policies, public safety, civil disobedience, and collective resistance. Explores each of these frames and how they fit with contemporary sanctuary policies, concluding that the public safety and collective resistance frames are the strongest moral justifications for sanctuary.

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