This editors’ introduction examines the genealogies of sanctuary as a space—and movement-based oppositional practice, one that contests the sovereign power of the nation-state and the structural roots of multiple, intersecting oppressions. Like each contribution to this special issue, the introduction challenges readers to reconsider the meanings and possibilities of sanctuary movements across time and place. It raises contexts and themes that are investigated in the issue’s contributions on the struggles of migrant communities in a context of increasingly militarized borders, Indigenous practices of radical hospitality, GLBTQ spaces of refuge, policing reform efforts, and practices of civil disobedience. This introduction looks to both the history and the radical future of sanctuary.
On the cover of this issue is a photograph from an installation and performance work by artist Caleb Duarte in collaboration with five Guatemalan refugee youths who were part of Fremont High School’s Newcomer Education Support and Transition (NEST) program in Oakland. This artwork, titled Walking the Beast, was displayed as part of Bay Area Now 8 held at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco in the summer of 2018. The installation included a 20′ × 10′ × 18′ structure resembling a partially built church or house, secured by a cement foundation filled with dirt. During the three-hour performance on September 7, 2018, these students dug into the dirt “stage” in order to bury themselves. One of the main themes of this work, which builds on Duarte’s previous collaborative artworks, draws from his questioning of the role of institutions that offer sanctuary or protection for immigrants and refugees.1 Similarly, Walking the Beast serves as an intervention into the space of YBCA, an arts center that is located in San Francisco, one of the first sanctuary cities in the United States.2
This installation at YBCA emerged out of Duarte’s “Urgente Arte” (“Urgent Art”) workshops with refugee youth involved with the NEST program and held at La Peña Cultural Center in Oakland between 2016 and 2018. As part of these workshops, students created a fictional “Embassy of the Central American Refugee,” imagining an autonomous form of sanctuary that can be distinguished from those created by or within state and religious institutions.3 The performances that they created, including Walking the Beast, emerged out of a context in which Central American refugees are “left with only their bodies to resist” to “draw attention to the true crises,” which include “U.S. intervention and nation-states’ long-term unwillingness to enforce human rights protections in the region,” as Leisy Abrego has argued.4 In their collaborations with Duarte, the Central American youth created performances in which they used their bodies to stage a response to the structural conditions that compelled them to move and that have shaped their everyday lives.
Like Duarte, this special issue responds to our contemporary moment and context. We began assembling this collection from the United States not long after the presidential election of Donald Trump. The forty-fifth president fueled his rise to power with anti-immigrant attacks, which he has enacted on a policy level ever since taking office. He authorized a so-called Muslim ban that has now been affirmed as fully constitutional by the Supreme Court; made any undocumented or otherwise deportable noncitizen a priority for deportation; signed off on a “zero tolerance” policy at the southern border, leading to the separations of migrant children from their families; and has constantly demanded a wall along the US–Mexico border that, at the time of this writing, has led to the longest government shutdown in US history. As immigration scholars know well, the past few decades of immigration legislation and policy have given the current administration a robust arsenal of policies, funding, and enforcement tools to deploy against noncitizens.
In response to these intensified attacks, social movements operating under the sign of sanctuary have become emboldened. The number of sanctuary churches and temples, as well as sanctuary jurisdictions in cities, counties, and states, has increased, while new types of sanctuary spaces have emerged in schools, campuses, restaurants, and homes. Immigrant empowerment organizations have mobilized self-defense committees, know-your-rights teach-ins, ICE- and cop-watching trainings, and other forms of community-based resistance.
These contemporary movements draw on and extend a rich history in the United States. The sanctuary movement for migrants and refugees arose in the 1980s in response to the US-backed political violence in Central America that forced tens of thousands to flee their homes for their lives, only to be denied asylum by the US government. Faith communities across the nation came together to house these asylum seekers in their churches and temples, using their positions of moral leadership to expose the violent ruptures of US foreign policy and immigration restrictions. The New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) emerged in the early 2000s to defend immigrants, particularly long-term residents, from the escalating deportation regimes instigated by the post-9/11 creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Churches and local communities once again stepped up to defend their neighbors from forced removal. Thus, while some have been galvanized into social justice work for the first time in response to the Trump regime, foundations for the energized sanctuary movements were built not only on the past few decades but also on longue durée histories of community self-defense and on already existing organizing by multiple affected communities.
While US sanctuary movements in recent history have focused on noncitizens under duress, sectors of the current movement are necessarily expanding their purview to grapple with the collusions of the state and capital that target ever more people and places. Indeed, the current administration’s attacks are not isolated to racially outcast noncitizens, and the undercurrents that gave rise to Trump are not isolated to the United States, as seen in the concomitant ascendance of right-wing populist movements worldwide—in countries like Brazil, Hungary, Germany, the Philippines, Britain (Brexit), and others. These movements draw on the common strategy of scapegoating and targeting outcasts—whether noncitizens; racial, ethnic, or religious minorities; or queer, poor, disabled, or Indigenous people. This global phenomenon means that the foundations of these troubling political trends are structural, which also means strategies for contesting them must understand these deep roots.
This issue grapples with these structural roots to elucidate how the multiple subjugations they engender are connected to each other. We believe that sanctuary’s expansive conceptual range facilitates this analysis. While we do include multiple contributions that focus on migrants, this issue also considers forms of sanctuary developed by and for other targeted groups. It aims to highlight how multiply-constituted forms of subjugation link up struggles in conjunction—for example, for gay rights and policing reform; migrant rights in relation to housing and urban displacement; and migration in the context of settler colonialism and Indigenous sovereignty. Sanctuary, we argue, provides an expansive archive of social movements that we might not otherwise see as being connected.
Histories and Genealogies
Sanctuary offers a capacious concept with roots in religious and ethical genealogies that it carries with it, even in secular contexts. Defined as “a holy place,” “a place that offers refuge,” and even, since 2018, a “city of refuge,” sanctuary denotes a spatial notion, a place of protection or safe harbor. It also includes the practices “of protection beyond the law,” signaling its fraught relationship to the state. Its religious roots speak to a higher or ultimate authority beyond secular, civil government.5 In medieval ecclesiastical law, fugitives from justice found refuge in churches that provided a space of mediation between the accused person and the government institution they fled. These fugitives were not always sympathetic figures, such as debtors, but also included people who had committed serious offenses like murder. But these alternatives to government punishment were brought to an end with the rise of the modern, sovereign nation-state.6 Sanctuary, at its core, provided an alternative, and ultimate, source of authority, rooted in the divine; it thereby challenged the sovereignty essential to the very definition of a nation-state. Put differently, the existence of sanctuary practices and spaces stood as a reminder that the nation-state does not have exclusive sovereign control over what happens within its territory.
This antagonistic relationship between spaces and practices of sanctuary and the sovereign nation-state carries over from sanctuary’s religious foundations to secular contexts and contestations over justice and power. Subnational jurisdictions draw on localized sources of authority in city, county, and state governments to contest federal-level policies. Supranational formations like human rights regimes and international law also provide subjugated peoples an alternative venue to demand justice and recognition beyond the nation-state. We can see claims to such supranational formations in the We Charge Genocide campaigns that went to the United Nations in 1951, to charge the US government of committing genocide against its Black citizens, and in 2014, to protest the criminalization and lethal hyperpolicing of Chicago youth of color.7 However, the fact that international human rights institutions and laws exist, yet fail to rein in violations committed by nation-states like the United States, Israel, or Russia, for example, points to the limits of looking to institutional powers for protection or recognition.
Indeed, as Rachel Ida Buff notes in her article “Sanctuary Everywhere: Some Key Words, 1945–Present,” institutions, even when operating beyond the state, can form part of the problem. The human rights regime, Buff explains, codified distinctions between refugees deserving of protection by the international community and migrants deserving of far less. This original distinction, grounded in the tension between national sovereignty and internationalism, continues to plague how states and international institutions deal with issues of migration today. She and our other authors illumine the limits of looking to institutional forms of power to defend people made vulnerable by the violence of the state and capital.
Buff, however, also highlights other supra- or transnational solidarity movements that did not look to state sovereigns or other institutions of power for recognition or protection. Movements in the mid-twentieth century that brought together labor, immigrant, anti-imperial, and ethnic organizations struggling for universal rights not yet in existence, she argues, anticipate contemporary sanctuary movements that center intersectional approaches to social justice. Similarly, Jason Ezell’s analysis of the Short Mountain Sanctuary in “‘Returning Forest Darlings’” provides a concrete example of a community that “looked away from the state” and “relied on decentralized organization, obscurantist networking practices, and politically strategic affect to defy state surveillance.”
As Ezell shows, sanctuary often involves not just carving out spaces of refuge but also creating networks of community that extend beyond spatial boundaries. Put differently, as he and other contributors show, sanctuary is defined not solely by spatial arrangements but also by mobile practices. The contributors thus converse with histories of sanctuary that illustrate how movement away from a site of danger was sometimes required to provide refuge at all. US sanctuary activists in the 1980s transported refugees across national borders into and within the US territory; abolitionists led slaves from the southern states to freedom in defiance of the Fugitive Slave Acts and, we must remember, the US Constitution, which protected the rights of slave owners to claim their human “property,” who had no rights at all.
Contemporary sanctuary movements, then, draw on this rich genealogy of breaking what St. Augustine and Martin Luther King, Jr. described as immoral, “unjust law,” which, as King explained in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” is “no law at all.”8 Elliott Young grappled with this genealogy and the necessity to violate unjust law in a collaborative workshop he and his colleagues and students organized at Lewis & Clark College in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. In his Teaching Radical History essay “From Sanctuary to Civil Disobedience: History and Praxis,” Young describes how efforts to designate the school a sanctuary campus gave birth to this workshop, which focused on civil disobedience in response to the administration’s refusal of sanctuary and, more broadly, to the Trump administration. The open workshop fed into and worked alongside campus protests and direct actions by Portland activists; this, Young argues, indicates how sanctuary practices can create spaces for civil disobedience and movement-building.
Sanctuary as Oppositional Practice
This issue demonstrates how sanctuary at times requires defying the law, precisely because its practices seek to defend and empower those targeted by the state. Some sanctuary movement leaders, such as John Fife, who appears in Sunaina Maira’s roundtable, explicitly embraced their defiance of unjust law and were criminalized and convicted because of it. They understood that is not possible to both affirm the power of the state and work within its permissible boundaries while also standing for the people the state targets for exclusion, expulsion, and removal. Efforts to do both cannot succeed.
For example, sanctuary and immigrant rights activists have at times affirmed the “felons, not families” rhetoric of the Barack Obama administration. They ultimately agreed with the government they criticize—propping up good, law-abiding undocumented immigrants by explicitly casting out “bad,” law-breaking immigrants, who, they conceded, the state rightfully detains and deports. This strategy of accepting the demands of the nation-state and its sovereign right to decide who gets to be here and who does not has not only proven its consistent failure, but it has also led us to the dilemmas we face today. Many of us have become accustomed to the presence of militarized borders, forced removals, seemingly permanent refugee camps, metastasizing surveillance systems, and so on.
Further, by giving credence to the state, we have at times missed critical opportunities to see the connections among seemingly disparate struggles and work in solidarity. Treva Ellison, in “From Sanctuary to Safe Space,” shows such wasted opportunities in their analysis of gay and lesbian police reform efforts in Los Angeles, some of which worked with the police department to decriminalize gay social life, while failing to work with Black and Latinx communities to contest the police as an agent of violence and inequity. Ellison’s analysis elucidates how identity-based politics limited these efforts, while simultaneously inviting us to consider the more radical gay and lesbian organizations that refused to grant legitimacy to the LAPD, the city, or reformist nonprofit organizations. Ellison further invites us to consider what sort of nonreformist reform of policing—one that brought together issues of race, sexuality, class, gender, and urban space—might emerge from our understanding of this history.
Alongside Ellison, the following essays critique efforts at liberal reform that would pit differently oppressed groups against one another, foreclose solidarity, or shore up the authority of the state that lies at the root of shared struggles. They highlight not only the pitfalls of liberal approaches to sanctuary but also historical and contemporary examples of organizers and affected communities taking an abolitionist approach to sanctuary. As one of us (Paik) has argued, such an abolitionist sanctuary movement focuses both on tearing down the forms of state violence and capitalist dispossession that affect broad swaths of ordinary people, and on envisioning and building up the world we want in its place. An abolitionist sanctuary movement is by necessity intersectional in its analyses and strategies.9 It understands that the many branches of subjugation grow from shared roots in extractive and settler colonialism, capitalist exploitation, and a world divided by borders into nation-states. As feminist scholar Nadine Naber argues, these forces that target so many people based on race, gender, relations to capital, geography, sexuality, ability, health, and so on “make the connections for us.”10
Even while some of the movements and histories examined here focus on specific sites, these local struggles articulate with transnational movements and frames of analysis. The necessity to think transnationally emerges from the fact that migration and migrant rights, by definition, cannot be contained by any single nation-state. But more important, the structural conditions leading to rising autocratic, right-wing regimes across the globe both signal and emerge from the growing contradiction of a post-Westphalian world organized into nation-states in an increasingly globalized economy and society. Put another way, the increasing globalization of capital and the displacements and disruptions to social and economic life they induce pull against the lockdown of borders at national edges and the increased policing within them. These structural roots and connections in the predicaments we face today means that struggles by and for subjugated peoples are shared across borders.
These shared roots also mean that organizers can trade inspiration, strategies, and tactics with each other, as seen in the roundtable assembled by Sunaina Maira. In “Freedom to Move, Freedom to Stay, Freedom to Return,” Maira stages a transnational conversation among migrant solidarity activists in the United States, Europe, and Australia. While confronting particular national regimes that thwart the movement and freedom of migrants, these organizers share an intersectional, transnational framework of analysis, and exchange the strategies they deploy in solidarity with migrants. They ground the unruly connections they make among varied oppressed people in the histories of state and capitalist violence that make the struggles for migrants inseparable from those for prisoners, Indigenous people, workers, Arab and Muslim people, queer folks, and those displaced by gentrification and by settler states like Israel, Australia, and the United States.
Autonomous Sanctuary Spaces and Practices
While contemporary scholarly work tends to examine either religious or state forms of sanctuary, this issue emphasizes the ways that members of affected communities, both historically and in the present, have provided autonomous, noninstitutional sanctuary spaces for each other, while also engaging in ongoing practices of solidarity.
This issue contributes to contemporary scholarship by including sanctuary traditions that developed in relation to Indigenous sovereignties. In contexts where Indigenous peoples were at times refugees in their own homelands (such as in the Americas), this issue examines notions of sanctuary in relation to the self-determination of Indigenous nations. In her essay “Sanctuaryscapes in the North American Southwest,” Aimee Villarreal researches intertribal forms of sanctuary place-making and notions of radical hospitality that existed previous to the formation of the United States as a nation-state. Her essay provides a longer history of the ways in which Indigenous peoples had spatial autonomy and created autonomous, nonstate forms of sanctuary. Further, according to Villarreal, recovering the specific local histories of sanctuary enables us to imagine and “build alternative spaces of belonging” in the present. Situating sanctuary in relation to Indigenous sovereignties thus changes how we view sanctuary traditions in the past, which also has significance for the present, a period characterized by heightened forms of nationalism and restrictive immigration policies.
This issue also examines the intersections of sanctuary and Indigenous sovereignties in the work of contemporary activist groups, while illuminating the ways that activists’ strategies travel across national borders. Maira’s transnational roundtable examines migrant solidarity activism in various locations around the world, including the work of Rise: Refugees, Survivors and Ex-detainees, a refugee-led group in Australia that has a “Sovereignty and Sanctuary” campaign. Through their organizing efforts, groups such as Rise, and No One Is Illegal in Canada, aim to decenter nation-states’ assertion of sovereignty over and against Indigenous peoples as part of a larger struggle against border imperialism across the globe.11 Indigenous activists thus challenge the ability of nation-states to define citizenship and instead provide a means to imagine those who had been deemed “noncitizens” as members of communities.
In focusing on affected communities’ production of sanctuary practices, this issue also emphasizes “everyday enactments of sanctuary” that go beyond what Maurice Stierl refers to as “humanitarian approaches and hierarchy of care.”12 These efforts include migrants’ creative organizing against anti-immigrant laws on the local, state, and federal levels, such as that discussed in “Sanctuary in a Small Southern City,” Kyle Lambelet’s interview with Anton Flores-Maisonet, who elaborates on his work with Casa Alterna, a community organization that offers sanctuary and accompaniment to immigrants living in LaGrange, Georgia. Many of these everyday acts of sanctuary occur on the local level, addressing the needs of immigrant and refugee communities, such as educating members of these communities to protect themselves rather than contacting the police. Ezell further examines how gay liberationists and back-to-the-land movements converged to create gay sanctuaries in the rural southeastern United States. Members of this sanctuary movement not only carved out spaces of liberation and refuge for themselves but also made their own media to connect people who remained spatially separated but linked to a wider community.
Carla Hung’s essay, “Sanctuary Squats,” describes how Eritrean migrants and refugees helped to provide autonomous housing for one another by squatting in abandoned buildings, only to be violently evicted by the state. Arriving to Rome in the contexts of “fortress Europe,” rising xenophobic nationalism in Italy and elsewhere on the continent, and the history of Italian colonialism in East Africa, these refugee communities created sanctuary and care in the practices of providing food, shelter, and self-defense against state violence with and for each other. Further, their predicament compelled them to advocate for housing rights in the context of gentrification and displacements of urban housing in Rome. Some of this organizing relates to challenging policies, including those around housing, that may not be specifically anti-immigrant but that were created to keep out migrants.
This work is key even in US cities where politicians and residents support sanctuary policies, like those where real estate developers’ interests lie in constructing high-end housing projects that displace low-income residents. In Embassy of the Refugee, Caleb Duarte and students from NEST imagine autonomous spaces not only for refugees and migrants but also for those who need a place to live in cities—such as Oakland—where there is a lack of affordable housing.13 In these and other contexts, everyday acts of sanctuary involve a more expansive view of what sanctuary means in places where low-income residents can’t afford to live. In Embassy of the Refugee, the artists thus draw connections between the “freedom of movement and the freedom to inhabit,” providing a vision of sanctuary practices that emphasize shared experiences and solidarity between refugees, immigrants, and members of other displaced populations, including those who are unhoused.14 The creation of this artwork parallels practices by community institutions that fight for the right to housing, health care, and education for all.
Along with our emphasis on self-made sanctuary practices and communities, we aim to put sanctuary—with all of its varied meanings and iterations—in conversation with queer studies and GLBTQ history. Most explicitly, Treva Ellison’s and Jason Ezell’s essays build on previous work in queer studies, especially queer history, that has asked how GLBT and other queer-identified people have formed communities of tolerance, protection, and care in hostile environments. In doing so, they speak to arguments established in Christina Hanhardt’s research on the politics of violence, safety, and space in US cities (some of which appeared in issue 100 of this journal), which in just a few years has already proven instrumental in challenging readers to see narratives of “safety” as menacingly more complex than they first appear.15 In considering how queer people created safe spaces for themselves in North American cities over the course of the twentieth century, Hanhardt argues that “the quest for safety that is collective rather than individualized requires an analysis of who or what constitutes a threat and why, and a recognition that those forces maintain their might by being in flux. And among the most transformative visions are those driven less by a fixed goal of safety than by the admittedly abstract concept of freedom.”16 As urban neighborhoods become construed and marketed as “safe,” Hanhardt asks us to consider the question, “Safe for whom?” Ellison and Ezell take up this question through particularly fascinating case studies, taking readers to urban Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s and queer communes and living experiments in the US Southeast in the late 1970s and beyond. These cases illuminate some important ways in which queer people have long been following the practices and principles of sanctuary, even if they rarely labeled it as such.
We do not mean to imply that queer sanctuary practices and those seeking to protect transnational migrants easily map onto one another. Ellison and Ezell examine identity categories that have inched closer to the dominant culture in the United States and other national contexts since the mid to late twentieth century. Although there are many places in the world where queer people, practices, and communities would benefit from sanctuary (Chechnya comes to mind at the time of this writing), we must also acknowledge that the politics of homonormativity mean that the politics of safety have changed since the decades that are the subject of Ellison’s and Ezell’s research.17
Neither do we mean to imply that “queer” and “migrant” are mutually exclusive categories of analysis or political praxis. A sizable body of scholarship, some of which is cited by authors in this issue, examines the queerness of migration and the migratory history of queer subjectivities.18 News images of same-sex weddings between members of the so-called migrant caravan in late 2018, as well as the presence of transgender asylum seekers in many national contexts, attest to the fact that queer people are bound to be a part of any given migrant stream, even when they are made invisible by how the public—or historians—see and understand that population. Homophobia within migrant communities is also a reminder that “queer” and “migrant” are not separate categories of analysis. We encourage the reader to look for the queer potentiality in all of the disparate histories provided throughout this issue.
When we, the editors, embarked upon making this issue, we could not have predicted that a significant portion of it would focus on the politics and practices of queer sanctuary, but we came to see that there is much to explore in the critical terrain where queer studies and sanctuary intersect. The works described above attest to that. Although we see the need for much further research in this arena, we have included essays that we hope will spark conversation and debate. We especially hope that scholars will continue to explore this terrain in non-US contexts.
As we write this introduction, these points of connection between the “freedom of movement and the freedom to inhabit” couldn’t be more relevant. While refugees and migrants, as well as people without housing, can create sanctuary spaces and alternative forms of community, they are still at risk of being displaced by state agents. In December 2018, police evicted members of the Housing and Dignity Village, a women-of-color-led encampment of unhoused women and children in Oakland (a sanctuary city). Meanwhile, during the first few days of the new year in January 2019, Mexican police armed with tear gas evicted a group of Central American refugees at Benito Juárez, the only self-organized Caravana Migrante camp in Tijuana. Prior to the eviction, Caleb Duarte went to Tijuana to visit El Barretal, a temporary refugee camp, and create art with those who were living there. One of the three collaborative projects that he organized involved the creation of a fabric ladder, which they tied to helium balloons that lifted it above the encampment. As part of a project in another shelter, refugees built small houses, and in a third they built sculptures. As Duarte noted on social media a few days later: “We created and lifted a ladder towards the sky to take us to another planet, another land or another home. We saw a miniature wall from above as we imagined alternative worlds. We created small dwellings and imagined the color of carpets and number of rooms. We talked and created sculptures.”19
In creating this artwork, Duarte and his collaborators imagined other ways of looking at the Mexico–US border, and one image, that of the fabric ladder, sticks with us as we offer this issue to readers (fig. 1). We were not fortunate to witness the sight of their ladder lifting off of the ground and floating skyward over a refugee encampment, but we are inspired by the symbolism of their work. By envisioning their movement and mobility, they orient us toward other possibilities.
A. Naomi Paik, Jason Ruiz, Rebecca M. Schreiber
Oxford English Dictionary Online, “Sanctuary, n. 1.” www.oed.com/view/Entry/170516 (accessed 15 January 2019).
For more on No One Is Illegal, see Walia, Undoing Border Imperialism. Other scholarly work that positions sanctuary in relation to Indigenous sovereignties includes Ellis, “The Border(s) Crossed Us Too,” and Martínez and Schreiber, “Sovereignty and Sanctuary.”
Darling and Squire, “Everyday Enactments of Sanctuary,” 191. See Maira, this issue, 149.
See Hanhardt, Safe Space.
At the time of this writing, in January 2019, news agencies and nongovernmental organizations are reporting a resurgence in homophobic purges in Chechnya, which first captured global attention the previous year and include the alleged detention, torture, and disappearance of GLBTQ people at the hands of governmental agents.
Caleb Duarte, Facebook post, January 13, 2019.