Why Sanctuary Cities Matter

The following the the testimony that was given at the 10 December 2015 Hearing

Attention: Joint Committee on Municipalities and Regional Government

Chairs: Senator Barbara L’Italien and Representative James O’Day

Re: Public Hearing Testimony,10 December 2015, for HB 1856, An Act Relative to Sanctuary Cities and Towns


To the Honorable Senator L’Italien and the Honorable Representative O’Day,

The term, “Sanctuary city’ is a statement about principles and not term with a legal definition. The term goes back to a movement in the 1980s led by the faith community in reaction to the violence in Central America that drove people out of their homes.  With nowhere to turn, they immigrated to the US.

Between 1980 and 1991, nearly 1 million Central Americans crossed the U.S. border seeking asylum. Most were fleeing political repression and violence caused by civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador.  Others were fleeing the 1979 Revolution in Nicaragua.  In El Salvador, the military killed over 10,000 people by 1980, including Archbishop Oscar Romero and four Catholic nuns. In Guatemala, government-backed paramilitary groups killed 50,000, disappeared 100,000 and perpetrated 626 village massacres.

During the Reagan administration Congress forbade foreign aid to countries committing human rights abuses. It is well documented that the U.S. provided funds, training and arms to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

If the US government admitted that human rights abuses were being perpetrated aid would be required to cease.  The response at the time was to deem the people fleeing from Central America “economic migrants” fleeing poverty and not governmental repression.  This prevented them from seeking asylum status and they stood little chance of gaining legal entry to the US.

Many Central Americans who found their way to the United States were placed in detention centers and sent home. Many of the migrants protested this move, claiming that they would face severe dangers upon their return. An American Civil Liberties Union study in 1985 reported that 130 deported Salvadorans were, in fact, found disappeared, tortured, or killed.

The Sanctuary Movement began with religious communities offering physical sanctuary to asylum seekers and soon, whole communities declared themselves to be Sanctuary Cities and pledged to honor human lives.  In Massachusetts, cities such as Cambridge and Somerville declared themselves Sanctuary Cities in the 1980s.

Some have compared the sanctuary movement to the Underground Railroad which also offered sanctuary to people whose lives were at stake but had no legal recourse to fight the human rights abuses.  Current human rights abuses suffered by those who seek survival in the US have prompted a renewed Sanctuary Movement.

The First Unitarian Society of Denver became the first Unitarian Universalist congregation to house an immigrant as part of the new Sanctuary Movement, which was revived in 2014 in response to the current national immigration justice crisis.

In that same year the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC) declared their support of the Sanctuary Movement and reaffirmed their commitment to immigrant families facing deportation.

Currently 17 UU congregations support sanctuary, as do 11 congregations and the Southwest Conference of the UCC.  Many UU and UCC congregations were active in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, offering support to Central American refugees who were denied asylum by the U.S. government.

It’s shameful that people continue to suffer needlessly in today’s world.  Instead of threatening the communities who have declared that they will honor human life we should be following their example and declare Sanctuary throughout our Commonwealth.


Laura Wagner LICSW
Executive Director

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