By Domenic Vitiello / Special to The Washington Post
The governors of Texas and Arizona have put “sanctuary cities” back at the center of our immigration debate.
Since April, they have bused close to 12,000 people seeking asylum to D.C., New York and Chicago. On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis joined them, by sending two planeloads of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. These governors hope to send a message: sanctuary cities, those with traditions of welcoming immigrants, should shoulder the financial and political costs of doing so. By casting immigration as something overwhelming and chaotic, they hope to undermine public support for immigrants; even in places of sanctuary.
To many Americans, sanctuary cities are a product of our fractured immigration debates of the 21st century. But sanctuary cities have a much longer history than most realize. And there is reason to believe they will persist in some form long into the future.
Sanctuary cities have existed almost as long as people have built cities. “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge,” God instructed Moses in the Book of Joshua (20:2). Ancient and medieval societies from Hawaii to India to Africa used sanctuary cities to protect soldiers from defeated armies. They sheltered people who had committed involuntary manslaughter to prevent blood feuds.
In the 19th century, freedom towns in the United States offered similar protections and support for African Americans fleeing slavery and racial violence. Some cities in the north refused to return escaped enslaved people, in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. In the 20th century, towns in Europe harbored Jews during the Spanish Civil War and World War II.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, U.S. sanctuary city policies have been chiefly about welcoming immigrants whom the federal government has refused to grant humanitarian protection. The first U.S. city to offer this form of sanctuary was Los Angeles in 1979, aimed at people escaping civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States refused to grant them asylum because it supported the brutal regimes whose extrajudicial killings, disappearances and bombings of Indigenous villages they were fleeing. Although the federal government sought to deport such people, Los Angeles’s police department issued Special Order 40, establishing that “undocumented alien status in itself” was “not a matter for police action” in the city.
By 1987, 24 cities had declared themselves sanctuaries. They included big cities like New York and Chicago; college towns such as Ann Arbor, Mich., and Ithaca, N.Y.; and the suburbs of Swarthmore, Pa., and Takoma Park, Md. New Mexico and Wisconsin also declared themselves sanctuary states.
Most copied their policies from San Francisco’s 1985 “City of Refuge” resolution, which limited police, prisons and other city employees from collaborating with federal authorities in immigration enforcement. These policies also guaranteed all city residents access to municipal services like schools and health clinics, regardless of their immigration status. Most of these sanctuary declarations were largely symbolic because few Central Americans lived in these places. But they were a way to publicize the 1980s Sanctuary Movement and its advocacy for changes in asylum and foreign policy, especially the end of U.S.-backed civil wars and genocide in Central America. And in Los Angeles and other parts of the Southwest, the practical protections of sanctuary mattered for many thousands of residents from Guatemala and El Salvador.
The Central American civil wars ended in the 1990s. Because of advocacy and litigation, the U.S. allowed asylum seekers who had been unfairly denied status to bring new claims. Legislation allowed for temporary protected status (TPS) for people from some countries who had arrived before 1991.
But for people who came afterward, often fleeing continued violence, the U.S. offered few pathways to migrate legally. As immigration from around the world grew in the 1990s and 2000s, more people crossed the border illegally, most from Mexico and Central America. More recently, people from farther away — including Venezuela, Ukraine and India — have arrived at U.S. southern borders in greater numbers.
Sanctuary cities became more important as immigration enforcement ramped up in the 21st century. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 played an outsize role in producing our contemporary landscape of sanctuary cities and anti-immigrant jurisdictions. The Act’s 287g clause allows local police to be deputized as immigration agents and help the federal government detain and deport people. Some places became sanctuary cities in reaction to federal efforts to get local authorities to sign 287g agreements, including my own city of Philadelphia, which instituted a sanctuary policy in the spring of 2001.
As immigration debates blew up in 2006 and again after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, other cities, counties and states declared themselves sanctuaries, and activists launched a New Sanctuary Movement. Others, by contrast, passed laws seeking to restrict the residence, employment and mobility of immigrants who were in the country without status, although managing immigration is typically a federal matter. At the urging of lawyers with the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform, Hazleton, Pa., passed the first Illegal Immigration Relief Act in 2006, aiming to punish landlords and employers of undocumented immigrants. Many places copied this law, including the states of Arizona and Alabama.
The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the local anti-immigrant laws but upheld key parts of the state versions. Per the U.S. Constitution, it is the responsibility of the federal government alone to regulate immigration. This is why local immigration restrictions like those Hazleton attempted are unconstitutional and also why sanctuary cities can exist, because the Constitution is also clear that local governments are not compelled to do the federal government’s job.
As our immigration system has become more restrictive, with ever greater resources poured into detention and deportation under Republican and Democratic presidents, the need for sanctuary has become pressing. The 1996 act also made it possible to deport people who came to the U.S. as refugees; that is, people who were welcomed with legal status. Cambodians resettled after the Vietnam War have been deported in large numbers since the early 2000s. Some of the people who’ve been deported to Cambodia or Vietnam had never even set foot in those countries because they were born in refugee camps in Thailand or the Philippines.
The U.S. has increasingly granted TPS, not permanent refuge or asylum, to people fleeing wars and persecution. People on TPS from Haiti, Central America, Africa and elsewhere live with uncertainty about how long they can stay.
Sanctuary therefore matters for a range of people with a confusing mix of statuses. Their reasons for seeking protection include ongoing conflicts, persecution of women and ethnic and religious minorities, poverty, environmental crises and other forces that threaten their lives and livelihoods. Like Central Americans in the 1980s, many immigrants and refugees, from Iraqis and Syrians to Afghanis and Somalis, were displaced by wars or regimes in which the U.S. played a prominent role.
Today, more than 10 states and 180 cities and counties across the country have sanctuary policies. They use much the same language as the 1980s policies. Immigrant advocates have pushed for even more, and during the 2020 election, the Biden-Harris ticket promised to eliminate 287g. But, at last count, some 142 local police departments, especially but not only in the South, had active 287g agreements.
Even if the Biden administration fulfilled more of its immigration campaign promises, it is hard to imagine that sanctuary cities will cease to matter. Our immigration system is too restrictive, with too many people treated as undeserving of membership in our country or just temporary protection. Until we can see and treat all people as part of one humanity, sanctuary will remain necessary to protect and include those who are excluded from the rights and protections afforded by legal status in our country.
As sanctuary activists in the 1980s wrote, “at different times and places, under varied circumstances, the significance of sanctuary has been recovered and taken on new meanings.” Today, more people than ever are displaced from their homes around the world. As long as wealthy countries like the U.S. accept only a fraction of those seeking freedoms and legal protection, the contested protections of sanctuary will continue to matter for too many of us.
Domenic Vitiello is a professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book “The Sanctuary City: Immigrant, Refugee, and Receiving Communities in Postindustrial Philadelphia” (Cornell University Press, 2022).