This essay considers the historical roots of contemporary sanctuary practices. It traces these roots in the protocols adopted by the 1951 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Convention, tracing the contradictory implementation of these protocols in US policy and practice. It argues that the UNHCR Convention created a distinction between refugees and migrants that met challenges from sanctuary activists responding to the depredations of the US-backed “dirty wars” in Central America during the 1980s. The sanctuary movement contested this distinction, as did the subsequent evolution of immigration and refugee policy. In the current period, the erosion of this distinction by ascendant xenophobia also creates space for the emergence of new definitions and practices of the right to sanctuary and freedom of movement.

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