The United States is an immigrant nation, a haven for those fleeing persecution. This image of a welcoming country, however, has dramatically changed since the Cold War. In the shadow of 9/11 and the recent economic recession, the immigration issue has become increasingly sensitive. Xenophobia, job competition, and the federal government’s limited resources have led to rigid and even harsh immigration policies and legislation. This change in public opinion and government policy has undermined the right of asylum.
In her new book Give Refuge to the Stranger: The Past, Present, and Future of Sanctuary, Linda Rabben — a writer, educator, and activist who has worked on refugee issues for 20 years — argues that it is necessary to educate the public about refugee and asylum issues by recalling the acceptance of Jews during World War II and Central Americans in the 1980s. Providing a detailed historical review of the transition from religious sanctuary in ancient times to the secular legal asylum system of today, Rabben tries to establish that sanctuary is a universal value rooted in human nature.
Rabben begins with scientific studies demonstrating that the phenomenon of sheltering strangers existed even in primatesocieties. Not only did the earliest human beings probably engage in such behavior, but such altruism may well have been the basis of morality in human development. From Greek and Roman civilizations to the “cities of refuge” in the Old Testament to the role that mosques have played in Islamic culture, ancient societies with different cultures and religions share the same tradition of providing asylum. In the medieval age, sanctuary represented the church’s privilege over the monarch and secular rule. By the 17th century, however, sanctuary had become less a religious tradition than a legal institution under the state’s sovereignty, and states used asylum as a tool for their own political purposes.
In the 20th century, the asylum issue became intertwined with immigration policy. There has been a growing cleavage between government and public attitudes about refugee and asylum seekers, even in the rescue of European Jews during the Holocaust. On one side, brave people in Nazi-occupied countries, such as in the French village of Le Chambon, sheltered Jews even at the risk of death, and different branches of Christianity cooperated in the Refugee Children’s Movement. On the other side, governments were reluctant from the very beginning to become directly involved in refugee transportation and resettlement. After they allowed Jews to reside in their countries, they did not have a long-term policy to integrate these foreigners into local society and prevent workplace discrimination.
For Americans, the issue of sanctuary became perhaps most salient in the 1980s with the rise of the sanctuary movement. In order to save Salvadorans, Chileans, and other Central Americans from political persecution and violence, many grassroots groups, individual Americans, and churches helped to shelter these refugees despite the risk of arrest and felony charges. The movement steadily spread from the Southwest to the whole country. As Rabben notes, the movement “operated in the public realm, and it used political strategies to gain political objectives” such as pressuring the government to review its asylum policies and legislations.
By narrating numerous stories from refugees and asylum seekers, Give Refuge to the Stranger reveals the terrible challenges they currently face in the United States and other countries: the inadequate care and inhumane detention conditions, the arbitrary and reckless deportation system, and the lengthy and unreasonable application hearing procedures. In reviewing the fluctuating public opinion in western countries about the swelling refugee population, Rabben concludes that altruism and a fear of competition with outsiders create a tension at the heart of asylum policy.
Nevertheless, the book ends on an optimistic note in its description of the new sanctuary movement in the United States and examples from other countries, such as Glasgow’s successful cooperation between government and local communities in refugee resettlement and integration. In general, Linda Rabben’s new book is an important look at an often-forgotten history and a much-needed movement. It highlights the policy dilemma that most governments face: to comply with universal morality and legal obligations to international society while balancing voter preferences.