U.S. Immigration Policy Propels an Invigorated Sanctuary Movement

By Alexandra Délano Alonso*

SANCTUARY_SYMBOL+SSS_BLACK

A new logo for the sanctuary movement. / Public Domain

The Trump administration’s expansion of an already enlarged deportation apparatus and its attempt to establish a ban against immigrants from targeted countries has intensified the Sanctuary Movement and driven it to explore new ways of protecting undocumented migrants and other groups that are under attack.  The new policies have generated a wave of protests and institutional responses from activists, lawyers, and immigrant-serving organizations as well as in higher education across the country.  Just days after the November election, hundreds of thousands of students, faculty, and staff at over 190 schools, colleges, and universities supported petitions calling on their respective administrations to declare their campuses sanctuaries.  The campaigns want schools to commit to withhold information from immigration enforcement authorities and disallow the presence of those authorities on campus without a court order or warrant, as well as establish institutional support to ensure that students with precarious migration status have access to the resources they need.  At the same time, there are almost three hundred sanctuary cities, counties, and states, which are at the center of Trump’s promises to cut federal funding to any local or state government that adopts this stance of defiance.  Republican Members of Congress in January introduced a bill (HR 483) to cut funding to universities that declare sanctuary.

  • The Sanctuary Movement has historical roots. In the 1980s, 400 religious congregations around the United States helped refugees from Central American wars enter the country.  In addition to challenging discriminatory U.S. immigration practices, the movement condemned U.S. support for the governments prosecuting those wars.  Years of effort led to legislation granting Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Central American refugees.
  • More recently, a New Sanctuary Movement emerged in 2007 in response to mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. It emphasized raising public awareness about the individual lives at stake and pressing for legislative reform.  Today’s resistance is an outgrowth of the George W.  Bush and Barack Obama Administrations’ raids, deporting almost 3 million individuals, and the massive immigrant detention system that they expanded.

Many cities, universities, and NGOs have backed away from the concept of sanctuary in response to Trump’s threats, arguing that the risk of losing federal funding or of putting themselves in the spotlight is too high, or that the sanctuary concept promises more than it can really offer.  As Lewis and Clark College Professor Elliot Young has written, “Sanctuary is an aspiration, a statement of values rather than a statement of fact.”  Indeed, one of the arguments against the proclamation of sanctuary by universities is the misunderstanding of the term:  The undocumented community and its defenders have varied interpretations of what it means in practice, whereas the legal limitations on what can be done in the face of a court order are very clear.  Yet, the ambiguity of the term leaves a space for creative interpretation and should be seen as an opportunity rather than a limitation.

  • Most universities, including my own, The New School, have issued a standard statement that they will not share information or cooperate with immigration authorities without a court order, but they have shied away from using the term sanctuary – even though the term is a significant form of resistance to unjust policies, a moral stance, and a message of solidarity to the larger university community.

Reviving the concept of sanctuary in this political context provides an opportunity to open a debate about the rights and protections that marginalized groups need, and how universities and other institutions that have joined the sanctuary movement in the last months (restaurants, art spaces, among others) can support and extend it.  The time we are living in requires us to reexamine existing frameworks and concepts and mobilize them in effective ways when the principles and values we stand for are under attack.  Declarations of sanctuary campus send a clear message of support to vulnerable individuals within the community.  They also nurture transnational networks of solidarity – not just through churches, shelters, and civil society groups – but also including universities in Mexico, Central America, and other countries, to help individuals returning to their origin countries (deported or voluntarily) live better lives, including overcoming significant barriers to continuing their education. Migrants’ need and right to protection and education does not end when they cross the border, and universities’ ability to help them begins by taking a stance and making our campuses accessible, safe and open; in other words, making them sanctuary.

April 18, 2017

* Alexandra Délano Alonso is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies at The New School.  She is the author of Mexico and Its Diaspora in the United States: Policies of Emigration since 1848 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and co-editor of Borders and the Politics of Mourning (Social Research, 2016) with Benjamin Nienass. She is also a participant in the Robert A. Pastor North America Research Initiative.

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