For many Americans, sanctuary cities are the product of our fractured debates about 21st century immigration. But shrine cities have a much longer history than most realize. And there’s reason to believe they’ll persist in one form or another long into the future.
Sanctuary cities have been around almost as long as people have built cities. “Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge,” God told Moses in the Book of Joshua (20:2). Ancient and medieval societies from Hawaii to India to Africa used shrine cities to protect soldiers from defeated armies. They housed people who had committed manslaughter to prevent blood feuds.
In the 19th century, Liberty Cities in the United States offered similar protections and support to African Americans fleeing slavery and racial violence. Some northern towns refused to return runaway slaves, in violation of the Fugitive Slave Act. In the 20th century, cities in Europe were home to Jews during the Spanish Civil War and World War II.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, America’s sanctuary city policies focused primarily on welcoming immigrants who were denied humanitarian protection by the federal government. The first American city to offer this form of sanctuary was Los Angeles in 1979, for people fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States refused to grant them asylum because they supported the brutal regimes whose extrajudicial executions, disappearances and bombings of indigenous villages they fled. Although the federal government sought to deport these individuals, the Los Angeles Police Department issued Special Order 40, establishing that “undocumented alien status per se” was “not a matter of action. police” in the city.
In 1987, 24 cities declared themselves sanctuaries. They included major cities like New York and Chicago; college towns like Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Ithaca, NY; and the suburbs of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, and Takoma Park, Maryland. New Mexico and Wisconsin have also declared themselves sanctuary states.
Most copied their policies from San Francisco’s 1985 “City of Refuge” resolution, which barred police, jails and other city employees from collaborating with federal immigration authorities. These policies also guaranteed all city residents access to city services like schools and health clinics, regardless of 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 an end to the US-backed civil wars and genocide in Central America. . And in Los Angeles and other parts of the Southwest, the practical protections of sanctuary mattered to many thousands of residents of Guatemala and El Salvador.
The Central American civil wars ended in the 1990s. Due to advocacy and litigation, the United States allowed asylum seekers who had been wrongfully denied status to reapply. Legislation has authorized Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from certain countries who arrived before 1991.
But for people who came later, often fleeing ongoing violence, the United States offered few avenues for legal migration. As immigration from around the world increased in the 1990s and 2000s, more people crossed the border illegally, mostly from Mexico and Central America. More recently, people from further afield – from Venezuela to Ukraine to India – have arrived in greater numbers at the southern borders of the United States.
Sanctuary cities have become more important as immigration enforcement has intensified in the 21st century. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Accountability Act of 1996 has played an outsized role in shaping our contemporary landscape of anti-immigrant sanctuary cities and jurisdictions. Clause 287g of the act allows local police to be deputized as immigration officers and assist the federal government in detaining and deporting people. Some places have become sanctuary cities in response 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 exploded 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, on the other hand, have passed laws aimed at restricting the residence, employment and mobility of immigrants who were in the country without status, although immigration management is generally the responsibility of the federal government. At the urging of lawyers from the Anti-Immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform, Hazleton, Pennsylvania passed the first Illegal Immigration Assistance Act in 2006, aimed at punishing landlords and employers of undocumented immigrants. Many places have copied this law, including the states of Arizona and Alabama.
The Supreme Court ultimately struck down local anti-immigrant laws, but upheld key elements of the state versions. Under the United States Constitution, the federal government alone is responsible for regulating immigration. This is why local restrictions on immigration like the ones Hazleton attempted are unconstitutional and also why sanctuary cities can exist, because the Constitution is also clear that local governments are not obligated to do the work of the federal government.
As our immigration system has become more restrictive, with ever greater resources devoted to detention and deportation under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the need for asylum has become pressing. The 1996 law also made it possible to deport people who came to the United States as refugees, that is, people who were taken in with legal status. Cambodians resettled after the Vietnam War have been deported in large numbers since the early 2000s. Some of the people who were 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 United States is increasingly granting TPS, not permanent refuge or asylum, to people fleeing wars and persecution. People on TPS from Haiti, Central America, Africa and elsewhere live in uncertainty about how long they will stay.
The sanctuary therefore counts for a wide range of people with confusing 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 Afghans and Somalis, were displaced by wars or regimes in which the United States played a leading 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 politicians of the 1980s. Immigrant advocates pushed even harder, and in the 2020 election the Biden-Harris ticket promised to eliminate 287g. But, at last count, some 142 local police departments, particularly but not just in the South, had active 287g agreements.
Even though the Biden administration has delivered on more of its campaign promises on immigration, it’s 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 simply 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 shrine activists wrote in the 1980s, “At different times and places, in varying circumstances, the importance of the shrine has been rediscovered 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 United States accept only a fraction of those who seek freedoms and legal protection, the contested protections of sanctuary will continue to matter to too many of us.