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Welcome the Stranger: A Defense of Sanctuary 

Wednesday, Jul 15 2015
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Following Kathryn Steinle's tragic killing on Pier 14, our political leaders and the media wasted no time in assigning blame — a fool's errand that has proved only that most of them are fools.

The toxic combination of a presidential election cycle, local political rivalries, and a media establishment for whom white lives will always matter more produced a perfect storm of recrimination that fixated on one aspect of the suspect: his immigration status. Although we don't know what led Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez to be on Pier 14 on July 1, pundits have been quick to blame San Francisco's Sanctuary City ordinance.

Everyone from stalwart Democrats including Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton, to openly racist and xenophobic right-wingers such as Donald Trump and Bill O'Reilly, has attacked San Francisco's defiance of ICE's (likely unconstitutional) immigration holds.

It's worth remembering the roots of San Francisco's Sanctuary City status. One media meme suggests that the term Sanctuary City has "no legal meaning." While that may be true, the idea of "sanctuary" is fraught with religious and historical meaning; a sanctuary is a holy place where the hunted and persecuted are guaranteed safety. At one time, places dedicated to worship were also expected to safeguard society's most unwanted people; that idea still lends resonance to Sanctuary Cities and how we should view them today.

The Sanctuary Movement in the United States began in the 1980s when refugees fleeing Central America's civil wars met erratic treatment from the U.S. government. Nicaraguans escaping the left-wing government of the Sandinistas, which the U.S. opposed, were granted asylum by immigration officials, while Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing the right-wing governments and death squads, which the U.S. supported, were not. In response to this injustice, and to the human rights violations occurring under the U.S.-backed dictatorships, religious congregations offered literal sanctuary to Central American refugees and provided them with material and legal support. The movement soon expanded to include city governments like San Francisco's, which passed ordinances refusing to comply with federal immigration policy.

"The origin of sanctuary was deeply rooted in religious belief and religious principles," says Oscar Chacon, who came to the United States from El Salvador in the late 1970s and was part of a network of exiles who helped organize the Sanctuary Movement.

"The Sanctuary Cities themselves — I don't believe that the actual declaration by the cities were necessarily religious, but I do believe that they were inspired by moral and ethical values. They were very strongly rooted in a political disagreement with the kind of foreign policy that the U.S. was conducting."

As law professor Bill Hing of the University of San Francisco explains, once the idea of Sanctuary moved from the realm of religious civil disobedience to municipal defiance, it was necessary to find a justification that would pass legal muster. "Generally, if you're doing something just because of a moral or ethical stance, that's not enough for legal purposes," Hing explains. Immigration is the domain of federal law, so local governments had to find another reason for sanctuary. They hit on public safety.

The near-universal reasoning for a Sanctuary City ordinance today is that local law enforcement needs the trust of the communities they police in order to ensure public safety. One common argument suggests that if immigrants fear that speaking to the police will result in deportation, they won't report crime or cooperate with investigations, thus leaving the entire community at greater risk.

Sanctuary status also protects immigrants from violations of laws not enforced by police departments. "It's about community policing, but it's also something more," says Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, a San Francisco organization founded by Salvadoran immigrants in 1986. "It has made a huge difference for our community's ability to be civically engaged and stand up for our rights in housing and our labor rights."

While the pivot from human rights and morality to public safety and expediency made tactical sense for the Sanctuary Movement, the backlash against Sanctuary policies following Steinle's death reveals the weakness of public safety rhetoric. Those arguments always will be won by people who want to police more, incarcerate more, and deport more, no matter the facts (studies have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crime than native-born Americans). Public safety arguments appeal to our society's deepest wells of racism and xenophobia.

Thirty years after the Sanctuary Movement began, there is still a deeply moral and ethical need for communities to resist the U.S. government's immigration policies, not just because of U.S. foreign policy in Central America, but also because of the appalling human rights violations enacted by our immigration enforcement system here at home. Our government supports the mass incarceration of immigrants — including children — in inhumane conditions, often for the profit of private corporations. Immigrants in detention centers experience inadequate medical care and abuse from guards, and detainees are often forced to work for just $1 per day, reportedly under threat of solitary confinement.

Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez served more than 15 years in federal prison on felony convictions for re-entering the country after deportation, a clear if imperfect example of how our laws turn immigrants into criminals for the crime of being immigrants.

This is deplorable, and it's unworthy of any country that values human rights. It is right and just that cities like San Francisco take a moral stand in opposing U.S. immigration policy, not just to protect our society, but to make our society worth protecting.

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About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Bio:
Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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