Immigration And Sanctuary: Do We Trust Our Legal System Or Not?

From time to time you will see the issue of “sanctuary” come up in immigration news reports or in dramatic TV shows.

Sanctuary means that a person who is fearful of being deported can find shelter and assistance somewhere – usually a place of religious worship – and stay there to avoid being kicked out of the country. The thinking is that as long as the person stays in that spot, they can remain in the country indefinitely. This current case from Canada highlights the issue:

A Roma family that’s been living in a Toronto church is seeking special permission to stay in Canada in order to testify at a legal hearing related to their former attorney, and so that their six-year-old daughter can attend kindergarten without fear of deportation.

Jozsef Pusuma and his wife Timea Darozci said they came to Canada five years ago after they were attacked for their work as human rights advocates in Hungary. They have sought sanctuary in a Toronto church for the past 32 months after they were ordered deported following a failed bid for refugee status.

The couple’s daughter Viktoria, who goes by Lulu, has lived inside the church for more than one-third of her life.

This isn’t the only high profile sanctuary case happening in Canada. Mikhail Lennikov, a former Soviet KGB agent, has been living in a Vancouver church since 2009, from where he publishes a blog and broadcasts YouTube videos.

On the U.S. side of the border, sanctuary is not unheard of. From 1980 to about 1990, nearly 1 million illegal immigrants came from Central America to the United States. When these immigrants could not find relief through normal asylum channels, they sought refuge in churches and other places of worship.

While the sanctuary movement was successful for a while, by 1986 the U.S. government commenced legal proceedings against its leaders. By the end of that decade the movement largely came to an end. Even so, as late as 2012, there were instances of Indonesian religious asylum seekers finding sanctuary in New Jersey.

For Canada’s part, sanctuary is also not recognized in Canadian law, but the enforcement arm of Canadian Citizenship and Immigration is wary enough to stay outside the church doors and await developments.

The sanctuary movement did leave a legacy. While the federal governments of both countries don’t recognize sanctuary, municipalities are another matter. San Francisco, among other towns in the U.S., considers itself a “sanctuary city,” as does Toronto, Canada. Such titles are symbolic in nature and more or less mean that city employees won’t help turn someone in to the federal government for not having proper papers.

The problem with the concept of sanctuary is that we either have faith in our legal system to sort out legal problems or we do not. If we do, the solution to questions of asylum and refugee status is to be found in hearing rooms and in the courts. This is where people can go to have the facts of their cases heard and where judgements can be rendered. That is the purpose of the legal system. Otherwise, why kid ourselves – just abolish the system, call the entire country a sanctuary, and have done with it.

When well-meaning – but what I consider to be misguided – church groups offer individuals sanctuary, it undermines the very legal system that is designed to help them and society.

Not every refugee claimant is a criminal, but neither are they all saints. Some are not worthy of our sympathy or protection. Once given a chance to be heard and the right to appeal, a claimant should be dealt with the same way others are dealt with, and they should heed a court’s judgement.

This is not a call for stricter measures and less humanitarian considerations. To the contrary, let us treat everyone fairly, including Lennikov and the family evading the court’s decision above. But the rules should apply to us all.

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