Community Groups Join Forces to Make New Haven, CT a Leading U.S. Sanctuary City

Posted Aug. 23, 2017

MP3 Interview with John Jairo Lugo, a founder of New Haven, CT’s grassroots immigrant rights group Unidad Latina en Accion, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


This summer, New Haven, Connecticut has welcomed undocumented immigrants from two different countries that have taken sanctuary in two city churches. New Haven, a city of 130,000 and home of Yale University, was the first municipality in the country to grant resident ID cards regardless of citizenship in 2007. Nury Chavarria, a Guatemalan refugee and mother of four who lived in Norwalk, Connecticut, sought sanctuary in New Haven on July 21 after Immigration and Customs Enforcement ordered her deportation. She took refuge in the city’s la Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal Church. After five days, ICE issued a stay of deportation allowing her attorney to appeal her case, and allowing Chavarria to return to her family and job.

On Aug. 8, Ecuadorean immigrant Marco Antonio Reyes, a father of three from Meriden, Connecticut, took refuge in First & Summerfield Methodist Church, also in New Haven. As of Aug. 22, he remains there. Chavarria has lived in the U.S. for 24 years; Reyes for 20.

Today, New Haven proudly and defiantly proclaims itself a "sanctuary city." But it was a combination of top-down and bottom-up strategies that resulted in the city declaring itself a sanctuary for at-risk immigrants. Mayors past and present, along with the faith community and the grassroots immigrant rights group, Unidad Latina en Accion all played important roles in making New Haven a safe haven for those hoping to avoid deportation. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with John Jairo Lugo, a founder of Unidad Latina en Accion in 2002. Here, he describes how various forces came together to declare New Haven one of the nation’s leading sanctuary cities.

JOHN LUGO: Maybe some people will disagree with me, but I feel strongly that all the good things happening in New Haven regarding the sanctuary city is because we started the conversation many years ago. I believe those conversations started back in 2002, when we as a community got together and brainstormed about how to make New Haven a model city to pass some kind of policy where the police don't call immigration on our people; the ID card; the translation of public documents in the city in Spanish. So we're the ones who brought all these conversation. We're the ones who convinced them that it was a good things for the city and it also was a good thing also for the communities. So I don’t want to say it was Unidad Latina only, you know, because in the past it has also been Junta, but also the support of community leaders and then the city officials.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, the fact that you got the city officials on your side, did that make it easier to get what you wanted?

JOHN LUGO: Yes, of course. When I say “city officials,” I call them the politicians. When you have the politicians on your side, because they’re the ones who have the power to change the local laws or to pass resolutions – so, yes.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, in the past month there have been two people who came from two different cities in New Haven to seek sanctuary, and they were both on the verge of flying back to their native countries, which was Guatemala and Ecuador, even though both had been here, one 20 years, one 24 years, and they had no criminal offenses. They came to New Haven to seek sanctuary; one is from Norwalk, one is from Meriden. Why do you think that is?

JOHN LUGO: That’s one of my frustrations. I love Nury and I love Marco, and when they came asking for help, the different organizations that helped them, we agreed to be on their side, because we’ve been talking since the beginning of the year how we can start creating, put together a list of churches that can be, like, sanctuary, because we thought that this kind of situation would happen eventually. But my frustration is more related to the lack of organizing in many other cities around the state. So in New Haven, yes, we have been doing the work for, like, 15 years, but I don’t see the same level of organizing in other cities. And everybody looks at New Haven as an example, which is pretty good for us, but at the same time, I hope these two cases will help to open up a bigger conversation on how each community in each city should be doing their own organizing because I think this is just the beginning of attacks on the community. I really believe it’s going to be worse. What’s going to happen when we have 50 people seeking sanctuary? We don’t have enough space in New Haven to house them, so I think this is the right time to start having the conversation and going back to local communities like Norwalk, Bridgeport, Meriden, Hartford, New London and start talking about real organizing.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Is there anything you want to say about sanctuary in the nitty gritty, when you actually interact with the person who’s hoping to not have to go back to their home country?

JOHN LUGO: Yeah, I see Marco every day. I spend most of my day at this church with him. But I have to say – and this is maybe a call to everyone who is listening – the secret of sanctuary is when you get support from the community; when you see the community writing letters to him; when you see the community stopping by the church and give him moral support. So I think he’s doing okay; this is just like his second week and I think it’s going to get harder, and I think his hope will increase or decrease depending on how much support he has from the community; how much support the people show, too. Because it’s not just like saying, Oh, that’s nice, what’s happening in New Haven. No, I think it’s important to come in to New Haven and see for yourself what’s happening in this church and how the community works directly with the faith community, and how these buildings became like a refuge for people who are in jeopardy to be deported.

For more information, visit Unidad Latina en Acción at and on Facebook at

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