Iowa Sanctuary Movement


Responding to Our Call

Tradition of Sanctuary

Sanctuary is about providing safe refuge to those who are victims of unjust laws.

When refugees from the civil wars in Central America began to flee to the United States in the 1980s, the U.S. government did not recognize them as political refugees.  Many were deported and received threats by death squads upon their return. From this dire injustice, the Sanctuary Movement was born.  It peaked with over 500 congregations in the U.S. providing sanctuary.

In 2007, an initiative known as the New Sanctuary Movement took shape throughout our country.  As workplace and neighborhood immigration enforcement raids escalated, more congregations opened their doors to provide sanctuary to immigrant neighbors who were facing deportation. In 2008, St. Bridget Catholic Church in Postville, Iowa, became a place of refuge for families whose loved ones were arrested during an immigration enforcement raid at the local packing plant.

Sanctuary is one of the most ancient traditions that we have as a people of faith.  The ancient Hebrew people were instructed to declare certain cities as places of refuge for persons falsely accused of a crime, allowing those accused to escape swift and hard retribution until the matter could be resolved.  In the late Roman Empire, fugitives could find refuge in the precincts of Christian churches.  Later, during the medieval period, churches in England were recognized sanctuaries, offering temporary safe haven to accused wrong-doers.

In the United States, the first practical provision of anything like sanctuary occurred in the years before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad came into being to help slaves flee the South and find safety in many congregations throughout the country. Our Iowa Sanctuary logo borrows from this tradition. Oral folklore indicates that this "log cabin" style quilt block hanging on a clothesline signaled a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Drawing on this tradition, communities of faith are once again seeing the need to provide sanctuary for immigrants.  In the 1980s, congregations were compelled by the call to welcome the stranger and opened their doors to newly arriving refugees.  Now congregations are moved by the call to love our neighbors as ourselves, as those who are in need of sanctuary are most often long-term members of our communities - our neighbors.

Why Now?

The sanctuary movement is playing a critical role in responding to the current environment of heightened fear and uncertainty among our immigrant neighbors. Data from the federal government shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests are up 67% in 2017 in the region that includes Iowa and both small and large scale work site raids are devastating families and communities across our state. 

Legal & Administrative Background

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have issued various memos over the years that lay out guidance on limiting enforcement actions at  "Sensitive locations" (including places of worship, schools and universities) and prosecutorial discretion to determine on whom the Department should focus detention and deportation resources. 

Sacred Texts

You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:1-2

God calls people of faith to remember that they once were strangers in a strange land and they must welcome the stranger as an expression of covenant faithfulness. Leviticus 19:33-34

We must “learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”. Isaiah 1:17

We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Luke 10:27


The Iowa Sanctuary Movement has committed to opening and leading discussion about the possibility of sanctuary congregations in Iowa.  Our goal is for select congregations to declare themselves as sanctuary congregations for those in our communities in immediate danger of deportation and for other congregations to declare themselves as supporting congregations.  

Every congregation is encouraged to enter into a time of prayer and discernment and to make a decision on this opportunity soon so that if/when the need arises, we are ready to provide immediate relief to immigrants in our communities and keep families together on a case-by-case level.

We will also work to win administrative relief to provide temporary deferred action, put an end to deportations of non-priority neighbors, and update our immigration system so that it includes a path to citizenship.