Recently, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago announced that, despite President-elect Trump’s plans to enforce the Immigration and Nationality Act, they will remain “sanctuary cities.” A sanctuary city is a municipality that, by law or policy, prohibits local officials from cooperating with immigration authorities. In other words, it’s a case of American cities blatantly violating federal statutes against harboring illegal aliens.
Proponents of these modern havens claim that they simply wish to mirror the Medieval, English practice of granting sanctuary in churches. But, as with most historical arguments in favor of questionable policies, this one omits a key part of the story.
Medieval sanctuary was much more limited than the policies currently pursued by American cities. It was never intended to provide permanent protection from the enforcement of duly enacted laws. Rather, it was a privilege accorded to the Church in order to maintain the separation between religious and civil law. Its primary aim was giving criminals the opportunity to confess their sins and repent.
Moreover, it was only available to felons, and was subject to a strict limit of 40 days. After that, the accused was obligated to confess and accept punishment, face trial, or be deported from the realm. Given that the penalty for the majority of medieval felonies was execution, most of those seeking sanctuary asked to be deported. In old English law, the process was known as “abjuring the realm.”
That’s right, all those arguing the “tradition” behind sanctuary cities are actually advocating a legal process which most often led to the deportation of those granted temporary refuge. Isn’t that ironic? It is unlikely these policies would be so popular if they were implemented in accordance with the old English rules.
Eventually, medieval sanctuary policies fell prey to British politics and began to interfere with the sovereign’s ability to maintain order. In 1624, Parliament banned the practice stating “no sanctuary or privilege of sanctuary to be hereafter admitted or allowed in any case.”
Congress should draw upon our English roots and pass a similar statute here in the United States, eliminating once and for all the dangerous sanctuary city policies that led to the deaths of Kate Steinle and so many others. Rather than sheltering criminal aliens from American law, our legislators should be protecting Americans from alien lawbreakers.