20 March 2015 - 01:14 PM
Sanctuary City Movement Builds Migrant Justice with Solidarity
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​Sanctuary City is a local response to unjust federal immigration policy aimed at carving out spaces of dignity, justice, and solidarity to provide “access without fear” for all on the basis of need, not immigration status.

A march in Toronto, Canada, against anti-immigrant policies.

Existing Sanctuary Cities and calls for new ones are part of a broader movement for migrant justice that has been active across the United States and Canada for decades, pushing back against exclusionary immigration laws and border policing.

It’s a movement that challenges these oppressive state structures by refusing to accept them and instead creating local alternatives. As Syed Hussan, member of No One Is Illegal Toronto, said in an interview with teleSUR, “What is citizenship but a promise for basic services?” The state denies citizenship, but migrant justice movements still demand the rights.

“Despite and because of the federal government taking away [immigration] status from people,” Hussan said, “we will act to create the conditions on the ground so that it will not be so.”

(Photo: The Marxist-Leninist Daily )

Alejandra Lopez Bravo, member of Sanctuary Health, an organization involved in mobilizing around Sanctuary City in Vancouver, Canada, echoed Hussan’s emphasis on grassroots, municipal organizing.

“Sanctuary City is a movement that tries to address the issues of inclusion and of immediate access to basic services at a local level,” Lopez explained. “Through advocating for this movement we're hoping we're changing the understanding and the discourse of migrants as criminals, and of ‘good’ migrants and ‘bad’ migrants.” She emphasized that all migrants should have access to essential services, such as education, health care, public housing, food banks, and other community services.

While these Sanctuary City movements are about first line response to urgent needs and organizing locally to support migrants, ultimately the root of these struggles is about tackling the systemic racism and discrimination of federal immigration policy.

Immigration Policy, the State, and Structural Oppression

Federal immigration policy in the United States and Canada fundamentally discriminates on the basis of race, class, gender, ability, health, and place of origin, creating a hierarchy of worth through the framework of “citizenship.”

This framework justifies discrimination by couching it in the rhetoric of legality and illegality. Migrant justice activists reject arbitrary categories of legality as a basis for determining who has access and who does not, instead advocating a model of justice, solidarity, and “access without fear” for all, regardless of official immigration status.

As Aviva Chomsky outlines in her book “Undocumented: How immigration became illegal,” in the United States, categories of legality and illegality were created in the 1960s essentially to institutionalize the exploitation of migrant laborers.

Over the course of more than two decades, the Bracero Program legally sponsored over 4 million seasonal, Mexican agricultural workers coming to the U.S., not through the immigration system but simply as exploitable laborers. The shift from the Bracero Program to the status of “illegality” for migrants created a legal, rather than racial basis on which to discriminate, exploit, and criminalize migrants – whose labor was still needed to help boost the U.S. economy.

“By creating a necessarily subordinate workforce without legal status, we maintain a system of legalized inequality,” Chomsky writes. “It’s a domestic production of a global system.”

Through a regime of citizenship, the state becomes the arbiter of legality and illegality, and in doing so, has the power to determine who is and who is not worthy of the services and securities provided through legal status. Institutional racism – and intersecting oppressions of gender, sexuality, ability, and class – underlie the barriers to access, but it is justified through citizenship and immigration.

Lopez, who was born and raised in Mexico and has lived in Vancouver for almost a decade, explained the discriminatory nature of Canadian immigration policy. “We think these policies are founded in systemic racism, ongoing colonization, in deciding that there are ‘better’ refugees, and ‘better’ types of people,” she said. “This is based on race, gender, and class, and immigration policies are profit driven.”

This capitalist nature is evident in recent changes to Canadian immigration policy that place much greater emphasis of temporary foreign worker programs than on categories of immigration with pathways to permanent residence or citizenship. In doing so, Canada opens its borders to exploit the labor of foreign workers, without offering full rights. Yet, new policies also offer expedited citizenship processes to millionaires.

“The system is designed to force people to work and live in dangerous conditions without adequate protections and live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty,” said Syed Hussan.

Hussan similarly sees immigration policy as intersectional. “It's a system that specifically excludes low income, racialized, women, and people of color, who are not in great health,” Hussan said in an interview with teleSUR. “Low income racialized people are the vast majority of the planet, and they are the people who are being immediately and most impacted.” Most refugee claimants, temporary foreign low-wage workers, and seasonal agricultural workers fit this description, disproportionately being denied permanent residence and citizenship, and the rights afforded by those statuses.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of undocumented or precarious legal status migrants in Canada, and millions in the U.S., face a complete lack of access to essential services and what Hussan calls “basic social entitlements.”

“In general,” said Hussan, “the system is designed to force people to work and live in dangerous conditions without adequate protections and live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty.”

Local Movements Fight Back

The Sanctuary City movement has its roots in the 1980s in the United States, when U.S.-backed civil wars and political turmoil consumed Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Do to stringent immigration policy, hundreds of thousands of political refugees fleeing Central America faced difficulty seeking federal asylum in the United States. Denied refugee claimants faced deportation, back to uncertain violence and political persecution in their home countries.

In response, the Sanctuary Movement offered a “safe haven” to undocumented migrants. Led by hundreds of religious institutions across the country with a broader support network of some thousand faith-based organizations, the Sanctuary Movement provided shelter, material needs, legal support, and other basic services to migrants, in spite of the state’s denial of their right to remain in the U.S.

(Photo: AFP)

Although the grassroots Sanctuary Movement declined by the turn of the decade as the influx of refugees ebbed after peaking in the mid-1980s, a handful of cities enshrined the movement’s principles in municipal policy. Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago were among the first “Sanctuary Cities” to commit to providing services for migrants, regardless of status. Over the years, the number has grown to over 30 U.S. Sanctuary Cities.

More recently, the Sanctuary City movement has gained traction in Canada, with Toronto being declared Canada’s first Sanctuary City in 2013, Hamilton following in 2014, and Vancouver actively organizing to be the third.

The Sanctuary City movement has also seen renewed vigor in the United States, in response at least in part to Secure Communities, a federal deportation program that has ramped up integration of federal and local level law enforcement to expedite deportations of undocumented migrants.

Recent and major changes to federal immigration policy in Canada have similarly created more difficult circumstances for migrants living in situations of precarious status. Among the draconian changes, new policies make it more difficult for migrants to access legal status, and easier for the state to take away, underscoring the importance of the work migrant justice activists have been doing for more than a decade.


Importantly, however, is that even though President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper have both overseen record levels of migrant detention and deportation, the fundamental nature of racist and discriminatory immigration policy is nothing new. Rather, it is part of a broader system of exploitation founded on capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy, or what author and activist Harsha Walia calls “border imperialism.” 

While particular policies may have worsened certain conditions and pushed Sanctuary City movements to respond to certain ways to meet day-to-day needs, fundamentally, migrant justice movements struggle against the mechanisms of border imperialism. As Walia explains, these are capitalist and imperialist displacement, criminalization of migration, racialized hierarchy, and exploitation of migrant labor.

Recognizing the systemic mechanisms of immigration policy, it becomes clear that the immigration system isn’t “broken,” but in fact is functioning precisely how it is intended to. When institutional discrimination is a policy means to the end of entrenched hierarchy and labor exploitation, then unjust outcomes for migrants is just a matter of the cogs of the machine working as they’re supposed to.

Walia’s concept of border imperialism also helps to unravel the paradoxical logic of tightening border policing through intensified immigration policies, while simultaneously ignoring the role these states play in causing forced migration in the Global South through imperialist violence, the war on drugs, destructive free trade policies and labor exploitation, resource extraction and environmental destruction, which all result in forced displacement.

While there are strong continuities with the past, today's political climate creates new challenges.

As Hussan explained, "What we've also seen is that in this age of austerity is a fundamental rise in xenophobic and racist attitudes in the country, obviously fanned by the [federal] Conservatives and parts of the media, but also by 'progressive' organizations that continue to insist that foreign workers are stealing Canadian jobs. The rise in xenophobia and racism further isolates people, increases fear, and it gives more power to wild-west like immigration and border enforcement system."

Fear is at the crux of migrant justice and Sanctuary City organizing, and these dynamics underscore the importance of the movement.

Access without Fear: Getting to Sanctuary City?

Even in cases when services are accessible to migrants, the fear of detention and deportation still looms large. Responding to these community needs, movements mobilize around the concept “access without fear.”

This approach focuses on providing immediate material needs for migrants, which also empowers people politically to take collective action. Hussan calls the process “regularization for the ground up,” meaning providing in practice the benefits that come with “regularized” immigration status without federal approval, and in fact very much in spite of the state.

"We created an opportunity at a totally different level to get people the basic services they needed,” said Hussan. "And we’re seeing communities of people be able to go around what many people thought was an undefeatable system."

While the policy framework of Sanctuary City is one part of this effort, it’s not everything. The grassroots relationship building, outreach, education, and solidarity is key to the success of the movement.

“The policy is just one piece of the movement,” explained Lopez, “because we believe that in order to have a meaningful implementation of that policy we need all the different sectors like the school board, and the health sector, and the housing sector, and other community organizations to already be providing and creating those spaces of access without fear.”

Indeed, this was largely the Toronto experience. Only after nearly a decade of grassroots organizing and shifting the political culture on the ground to provide access without fear in many sectors in practice did the movement transcend to a discussion of policy.

In doing so, Toronto joined discursively a much larger movement, sending a strong political message when Canada’s largest city made a commitment as the country’s first Sanctuary City.

And while there have been new opportunities to educate service providers, negotiate with the Toronto police force to implement non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities, and engage the wider public in the discussion, the driving force of the movement remains grassroots.

Now, recognizing the benefits and also the limitations of municipal policy, organizers in Toronto are connecting with other city movements to wage a province-wide campaign to push for provincial Sanctuary City policy.

On August 28, 2013, 20 immigrant youth and their mothers held a kids day of action against deportation in front of City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo: WNV/ Harvey Finkle)

In Vancouver, Lopez has a similar approach. Although her organization Sanctuary Health has lobbied and been in conversation with the municipal government, the focus is on building relationships across different sectors and getting service providers to commit to being champions of Sanctuary City principles, providing services without proof of status, and creating immigration authority-free zones.

Sanctuary City is a powerful concept, especially when it comes from below, not above. Access without fear empowers migrants, but also service providers by creating autonomous spaces for collective action and solidarity, which are at the heart of the Sanctuary City movement.

Transformation from the Ground Up

In municipal policy and grassroots practice, Sanctuary City and broader migrant justice movements are striking back against unjust, discriminatory federal immigration policies, with concrete and life affirming impacts for migrant communities.

As Hussan explained, Toronto stood up against the feds in a big way.

"What's most powerful is being able to – as a completely grassroots movement made of migrants without any funding, staff or offices – being able to force the largest city in the country, under a right-wing mayor, to take a stand to support undocumented people and to provide services, and in doing so, essentially inverse the federal immigration practice completely," he said.

By circumventing federal immigration policy in this way, local movements take a swing at institutional racism and concretely tackle the racist narratives that fuel discrimination.

"These federal policies and the discourse in the federal government is that some people are more deserving, some people are more human,” said Lopez. “And for me the most powerful thing about this Sanctuary City movement is to make sure that [service providers] understand that their responsibilities are not to be immigration officers ... to understand that immigrants have different journeys, and no matter the reasons they come here … whatever their basic needs, we need to learn to their stories and [be in solidarity]."

Shifting the discourse and narratives is key to enabling anti-racist action that speaks just as loudly.

As Hussan said, "[The movement] directly challenges racism because racism says that these people should not be here, and we're saying not only should they be here, they should be in our food banks, they should be in our schools, they should be in our communities."

Sanctuary City and migrant justice movements are complex and multi-layered, tackling huge, deeply entrenched systems on a macro level, but also providing the most urgent and essential day-to-day needs in local spaces. It’s an immense task, but with local organizing grounded in solidarity and justice, movements are transforming the system from the ground up.

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