What's the History of Sanctuary Spaces and Why Do They Matter?

In the wake of the election of Donald Trump as president, faculty, students and alumni across the country are pressuring their administrations to declare “sanctuary campuses” for undocumented students, workers and their families.

Trump has said he would repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Under the program, those who came into the U.S. without documentation can apply for deferred action on their immigration status if they were under the age of 31 on or before July 15, 2015. These individuals are then allowed to work legally for two years, subject to renewal.

More than 700,000 immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16 have obtained temporary relief from deportation. In 2015, 65 percent of DACA recipients were in college or graduate school.

These students risk deportation if Trump follows through on his threat to “immediately terminate President Obama’s two illegal executive amnesties.” “Sanctuary campuses” could provide limited protection for such students. This would mean, at a minimum, that universities could refrain from offering information to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

I am a literary scholar who writes about the literature and law of sanctuary in medieval England. Historically, sanctuary seeking demonstrates a moral duty — and even a legal obligation — to protect the vulnerable.

A Place of “Fearsome Mercy”

In medieval England, from at least the 12th to the 16th centuries, sanctuary was defined as a legal procedure within both canon law (the law of the church) and secular common law. It was a last resort for those accused of crimes, often under chase by the community.

However, once fugitives crossed the threshold into the churchyard, the community that had failed to capture them was legally required to keep them safe and even feed them for up to 40 days.

Sanctuary protection granted accused felons mercy from the king of England. When they “fled to the church,” fugitives avoided trial and either…

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