Sanctuary Advocates Are Only Telling Part of the Story

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.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.


  1. avatar

    Ligaya Fabian of 1631 El Camino Real #8 Tustin Ca 92780 submitted fake documents and paid money to obtain a driver’s license but the dmv found out and revoked the license. She jumpshipped her flight from Germany to Canada at lax to get here. She now has a green card.

  2. avatar

    Why are these officials (mayors, city consul members, etc.) that pass laws giving sanctuary to illegals not
    prosecuted for such action? Aren’t they breaking federal law by harboring these illegals?

  3. avatar

    Why do these officials who defy trump & want to keep thei santuary cities not take these illegals & put them in their homes, feed them, clothe them, pay for their healthcare & education if they so chose? Why do taxpayers have to pay for them?

  4. avatar
    Barbara Ortega on

    ANYONE who is here ILLEGALLY is a criminal …may not be violent but IS a criminal.. ANYONE overstaying their visas are violating our laws… We need MUCH better way of tracking people who come in on a visa and overstays.. something in the computer needs to send up a flag that the visa date has expired and someone needs to check it out immediately…
    We need to STOP ALL free benefits the government gives these ILLEGAL ALIENS.. STOP ALL anchor babies.. E-Verify 100% across all states … NO incentive, NO reason to stay and NO reason to come… ILLEGAL ALIENS should get NOTHING but emergency medical if needed and then deported IMMEDIATELY… We should NOT be rewarding illegal aliens for breaking our laws…
    our government has devalued our citizenship… citizenship has NO meaning, NO value anymore.. when an ILLEGAL comes into the country and we hand them OUR benefits and OUR rights, WHY bother obeying the laws and working hard to become a citizen if they are handed everything without being a citizen… we are literally giving our country to the illegals.. INSANITY!!!

  5. avatar

    By harboring illegal immigrants states get addition funding for schools and other federal funds , where whole population is counted by census.
    This why is very important to cut such funds, if they would like to violate criminal and administrative law.
    On top of that such state get more electoral votes ( e.g. California gets not less than 3 electoral vote for that).
    Electoral votes number should be reduce for such states as well.

  6. avatar
    suzanne o'meara on

    is every illegal immigrant or undocumented immigrant in the sanctuary cities – a criminal ? are there any who are not criminals ?

    • avatar
      Sonna Berghaier on

      Any one who is here illegally is by definition, – criminal. They did not come through the legally defined system to enter our country. Allowing them sanctuary or to stay is an insult to those who have done so legally.

    • avatar

      Criminals are only the migrants, who cross the border without authorization . If migrant had any kind of visa , but validated it, and continues to stay in the country, by law it is administrative offense , not criminal ( no jail for this matter).
      This confusion takes place on both side of argument.
      If this would be straited out by our leader, would be obvious to prioritize inforcing law on criminal acts and close the border for such.

    • avatar

      What does the term illegal say? They have broken the law. They are all criminals. Trump is going after those who are criminal and these cities are not cooperating.

  7. avatar

    I thought there was supposed to be separation of church and state? That’s fine with me but how about some consistency.

    • avatar

      There is no such thing as separation of church and state. Its not in the constitution. The term was in a letter Tom Jefferson wrote.

      • avatar

        It says in the constitution that no religious test will ever be required to hold an elected office. That’s how it should be. The founders looked at Europe and their state religions and did not want that.