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Expanding Sanctuary

Expand sanctuary convening in Philadelphia. ©2017 Steve Pavey
By Karina Muñiz-Pagán

The word sanctuary means a sacred place of refuge and protection where predators are controlled and hunting is illegal.1 What does sanctuary mean today when the Federal government’s renewed calls for “law and order” are euphemisms for predatory attacks on communities of color?

If you’re an undocumented immigrant, living in a sanctuary city or state, your chances of being deported may be decreased.

IF the police adhere to the policy and give you your right to due process; IF the sheriffs don’t assist federal immigration officials by holding you in custody beyond your release date; IF your record isn’t too tainted; or IF ICE doesn’t raid your home, a retail business you frequent, your place of employment or worship.

To the millions who watch Fox News and submit to the fear mongering spin, sanctuary is fertile ground for high crime rates. Fueled by racist notions and deceptive anomalies converted into blanket statements, age-old scapegoat tactics reign: control the narrative, fabricate, distort the truth, and infuse it with fear.

Hate-crimes against Arabs and Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and queer and trans folks are not crimes at all according to this racist frame. It presents the issue as good vs. bad immigrant, while actually providing a cover story for policies that strip away safety and protection for the majority of US residents.

In fact, research shows the opposite of the right wing narrative: crime is statistically lower in sanctuary counties compared to non-sanctuary counties.2 Research has also shown that counties who protect their residents by keeping federal immigration enforcement out see significant economic gains. When households remain intact and individuals can continue contributing, local economies become stronger.3

But facts and research are not pillars of the master narrative and single-story propaganda that deny the undeniable historical link between whiteness and citizenship.4 We know these tactics. They are not new and yet, as Ananya Roy argues in her article Divesting From Whiteness: The University in the Age of Trumpism, we must not normalize this. The Trump-GOP regime threatens to significantly expand state-sponsored violence against people of color and the poor, and implement a systemic doctrine of racial separation.5

Community Defense Zones

Chart from “Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties & Their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations,” by the Immigrant Legal Resource CenterWe are at a pivotal moment where the expansion of the sanctuary movement is necessary. Simply defending refugees and migrants from deportation is not enough. Organizations from Santa Ana, California, to NYC are creating a new inclusive vision of what a Sanctuary City can be. One of these groups, Mijente, a Latinx organizing platform founded in 2015, has been a leader in defining a more comprehensive vision of sanctuary for all.

In their recent report “Expanding Sanctuary, What Makes a City a Sanctuary Now?” Mijente argues that under a “law and order” administration, cities must confront criminalization of Black people, transgender women and other people of color as part of the minimum standard in defining a city as a “sanctuary” today.6

Mijente notes that the new sanctuary movement must reflect and reinforce efforts by Black-led groups to challenge state violence and racist policing. When you’re Black, immigrant or not, and the police approach you, a sanctuary policy will not stop your life being taken in seconds, with your children as witnesses, or while loosies scatter the ground as you take your last breath. In most major cities, more than half of municipal budgets are dedicated to policing and jails, and one in three people are arrested at least once by the time they are 23 years old.7

Police, whether or not they actively collaborate with federal deportation agents, are often the primary funnel into immigration removal proceedings.8 This was the case for Yazmin Elias when a grassroots campaign rose up to fight for her release. Supporters of the campaign believed that, prior convictions or not, Yazmin had the right to be with her family, her children and her community and not deemed “dangerous” or “undeserving” based on a DUI. (See Elias p. 34; Vasquez p.36)

Groups like East Bay Immigrant Youth Coalition, who supported Yazmin, are calling for an expansion of the sanctuary city to recognize that law enforcement and over-policing are already too embedded in our communities. For true safety and protection to be achieved, we must upend both policy and practice.

From “Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties & Their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations,” by the Immigrant Legal Resource CenterCommunity Defense Zones are community-based sanctuaries for people targeted by the Trump Administration, specifically immigrants and refugees, Muslims, LGBTQ and Black communities.9 Building a community-based sanctuary based on true protection for all must acknowledge the ongoing issues of mass incarceration and criminalization that have devastated communities across the country.

“Our objective with sanctuary,” leaders within community defense zones argue, “is not to arrive at the status quo, but to expand its meaning and impact.” And to resist, town by town, city by city, county by county, connecting the shared fate of black and brown communities, acting from our most precious values, and sparking action to build power and make a meaningful difference in local communities.10

And in sanctuary cities where the ordinances are not upheld by the authorities we need to take action ensure that hard won sanctuary ordinances are not violated.

Take the case of Pedro Figueroa-Zarceno, who filed a lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department when they violated the sanctuary ordinance by unlawfully detaining him due to an ICE request. Figueroa-Zarceno visited the city’s police station to retrieve a police report about his stolen car. Instead of receiving support from the police in getting his car back, he was arrested as he exited the station, and sent to a detention center in Martinez, where he was illegally held for two months.11

Free SF is a local coalition of 21 organizations from the Immigrant Rights Defense Committee and the San Francisco Progressive Criminal Justice Network, who advocate for community safety, transformative justice, immigrant rights, and self-determination. They heard about Pedro’s case and decided to take action.12 Advancing Justice—Asian Law Caucus, a member group of Free SF, filed a lawsuit on his behalf and won. This too is part of the resistance and vigilance necessary to ensure policies are being upheld.

As Jon Rodney, member of FREE SF and Communications Director with the California Immigrant Policy Center, “Sanctuary is a process and a verb. It’s something that is always developing and not limited to one particular policy. It’s about how are we developing relationships in and among communities. How are we always expanding this concept and moving it in new directions to extend our values?”

State Level Resistance and Threats

From “Searching for Sanctuary: An Analysis of America’s Counties & Their Voluntary Assistance with Deportations,” by the Immigrant Legal Resource CenterThere is an urgent need not only to expand the objectives of sanctuary cities and towns, but to mount multi-faceted responses when places of resistance are targeted. We have already seen ICE’s retaliation against sanctuary cities with targeted raids,13 and the Trump regime’s threat to take away federal funding from cities and states.14 As California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León said in a statement, “It has become abundantly clear that Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy—not American values…Their constant and systematic targeting of diverse cities and states goes beyond constitutional norms and will be challenged at every level.”15

State challenges to federal pressure are important and must show up not only in words but in actions like state legislation such as the California Values Act (SB54) recently signed into law. The new law is aimed at preventing the use of state and local resources to fuel mass deportations, separate families, and ultimately hurt California’s economy.16

This type of pro-immigrant policy is in stark contrast to state policy in Texas SB4, a high stakes crackdown on sanctuary cities. This law attempts to eradicate sanctuary cities in the state by making local officials criminally liable if they refuse to accommodate the federal government’s requests to enforce immigration law; they could even be removed from office. SB 4 also blocks local agencies from adopting any policy that might stand in the way of the enforcement of federal immigration laws.17

History of the Sanctuary Movement

As the sanctuary movement evolves, it’s important to understand the history. Sanctuary cities came out of an urgency to respond to a transnational crisis. In the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, members of various faith groups in the United States decided to take solidarity action to welcome Salvadoran and Guatemalan war-refugees entering the US, to resettle their families in places of sanctuary.18 The congregants did this in direct defiance of US immigration authorities who were denying over 90 per cent of political asylum requests from Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing the violence of US-supported military regimes.19 Sanctuary activists throughout the country argued that the US federal government was breaking international and domestic refugee law by denying asylum claims and ignoring the massacres for political reasons. People throughout the country set up safe houses and highlighted refugee testimonies to a national audience. The sanctuary movement pressured the US State Department and Pentagon to end active involvement in the Central American civil wars, and worked to force the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to stop deporting Central American refugees fleeing the violence.20 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) was one such success that has protected hundreds of thousands of Central Americans for over two decades, but is now under attack by the Trump-GOP regime.

Sanctuary movement activists fought against the hypocrisy of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and took great risks in such anti-war defiance, risks that were often met with serious consequences or death. Yet, many felt the faith-based movement was too paternalistic, not centering the leadership and voices of those directly impacted enough and often ‘white savior’ in its framing. This critique existed alongside a solidarity movement where exiled political leaders from the FMLN, Sandinista and Guatemalan resistance (as well as US activists) advocated for strong international solidarity strategies that were anti-imperialist and anti-war.

According to Margi Clarke, then a member of New El Salvador Today (now called Share Foundation), “We were trying to stop US weapons, shipped through places like Concord, CA, where activists blocked freight trains filled with arms. And we were actively supporting the liberation movements inside Central America based on a common struggle.” Clarke notes that today there is still an active El Salvador – U.S. solidarity movement, of labor unions, universities and grassroots Salvadoran American associations, and the original sanctuary churches, with some of the same leaders of the earlier movement at the helm. “Sanctuary and solidarity are still needed as the US supports the death-squad party ARENA’s strategy to paralyze the first FMLN presidency, and Ann Coulter calls for death squads to deal with immigrants.”

There is much to learn from the past on whose shoulders we stand. Joseph Nevins notes in an article titled Pursuing ‘A Radical Faith’ in the Trump Era, how the federal administration is masking cruelty under the guise of the supposed sanctity of the law.21 The US in fact remains a country that provides little to no meaningful legal channels for those fleeing the insecurity and violence of everyday life and is also a country, “whose government has violated all sorts of laws in carrying out its policies abroad, not least in El Salvador, that have made life miserable for many.”22


As we have seen before, the scapegoating of immigrants has dire consequences. For example, between 1929 and 1932 under President Hoover, a surge of unconstitutional and illegal raids and deportations forced 1.8 million people—US citizens and non-citizens of Mexican descent—to Mexico, uprooting their lives with devastating impacts. In percentage terms that would be the equivalent of 5 million deportations today. The perpetrators described this cruelty as an act of “repatriation.”23

The time to prevent another such crime is now.

Immigration and terrorism rank as the most important issues for an overwhelming majority of people who voted for Trump.24 Robin Kelley argues in After Trump “immigration and terrorism are both about race—Mexicans and Muslims.”

When we understand US dominance abroad, neoliberal economic trade policies that force people to migrate, and upheaval that result from violence, political corruption, and now climate change, it is clear that many millions fall into this category.

And while immigrants come from all over the world to the US, anti-immigrant movements target those who can be racially profiled and ignore the fact that white nationalist movements are responsible for the majority of violent terrorist attacks on US soil.25

Today those who control the single-story propaganda that fuels racist policies such as SB4 in Texas and the proposed federal “No Sanctuary for Criminals Act” prefer revisionist histories and narratives that obscure the root causes of migration or why certain laws exist to begin with. Because the law, as Nevin states, “often serves as a tool of the oppressor, as a convenient instrument to justify the unjust—in this case, the denial of the right to mobility in the face of oppression and deprivation.” The law maintains a US apparatus of exclusion, other wise known as border security, to keep the global poor in their place and preserve a world of gross socioeconomic inequities.26

The expansion of the sanctuary movement is imperative in today’s context and crisis if we want to see long-lasting transformation. We must organize across communities and build places of safety, protection and freedom for all, while learning from and understanding the past. n


Karina Muñiz-Pagán works at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Previously she was the political director at Mujeres Unidas y Activas where she also led bilingual writing workshops as the Community Engagement Fellow in Creative Writing at Mills College.


1     According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary
2     Center for American Progress, The Effects of Sanctuary Policies on Crime and the Economy.
3     ibid
4     Kelley, Robin G. “After Trump, Forum Response.”
5     Roy, Ananya. Divesting From Whiteness: The University in the Age of Trumpism.
6     Mijente, Expanding Sanctuary: What Makes a City a Sanctuary Now? January 2017
7     ibid
8     ibid
9     Community Defense Zone Starter Kit. Created by Puente, Gerorgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), Mijente and drawn from the work of Not One More Deportation campaign and Southerners on New Ground (SONG)
10     ibid
15     ibid
18     Mancina, Peter. In the Spirit of Sanctuary: Sanctuary-City Policy Advocacy and the Production of Sanctuary-Power in San Francisco, California. 2016. Vanderbilt U. PhD Dissertation
19     ibid
20     ibid
22     ibid
24     ibid
25     ibid


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