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What is a Sanctuary?

25 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2008 Last revised: 24 Apr 2008

Rose Cuison Villazor

University of California, Davis


The word sanctuary has recently received significant attention in the political arena and is likely to receive further examination as calls for stricter enforcement of immigration law continue. But what precisely is a sanctuary, particularly in the context of today's immigration issues?

In this symposium Article, I initiate possible approaches to developing an answer. First, I argue that a starting point for defining the contemporary meaning of sanctuary requires an examination of its public and private dimensions. Laws, resolutions, and policies that have created what I refer to here as public sanctuaries must be differentiated from programs and services that are provided within private sanctuaries. Both types of sanctuaries have different goals and, importantly, they implicate distinct legal issues. Second, determining what constitutes a sanctuary requires an analysis of its discursive deployment, particularly the shift in its utilization from a primarily morally-based posturing in the 1980s to its more critical characterization today. Closer analysis of the defensive discourse of the word sanctuary would not only lead to a more robust understanding of sanctuary's meaning today but also raise normative legal and policy questions that attend to immigrants' rights. Specifically, given the social and political costs associated with the term sanctuary, it may well be time to reconsider its rhetorical utility in creating safe havens for immigrants.

Keywords: immigration law, sanctuary

Suggested Citation

Villazor, Rose Cuison, What is a Sanctuary?. Southern Methodist University Law Review, Vol. 61, No. 133, 2008; SMU Dedman School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 00-20. Available at SSRN:

Rose Cuison Villazor (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis ( email )

One Shields Avenue
Davis, CA 95616
United States

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