Taking a Lesson from History to Provide True Sanctuary for Our Immigrants

By Jhumpa Bhattacharya

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Sanctuary: a place of refuge and protection — Merriam-Webster dictionary.

I had to travel to Birmingham, Alabama for work last month. I’m a fairly seasoned traveler and normally have no qualms taking trips to places I have never been. But post- election, and particularly with the Travel Ban, for the first time in a long while I found myself feeling a bit apprehensive about traveling to the South. I expressed my concern about “traveling while Brown” to my partner and he responded, “Birmingham just passed a resolution to be a sanctuary city!” and to his credit, I did feel better about going. I took comfort in knowing that the city government had taken this stance.

Shortly after that conversation, news of massive ICE raids broke. Federal agents raided homes and workplaces in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, the Los Angeles area, North Carolina and South Carolina, tearing apart families and sparking terror in millions of people. I was terribly confused. How could raids be happening in cities that proclaimed themselves to be sanctuaries? What were city officials and city police doing to prevent these from happening? “What are you expecting?” my partner asked, “Law enforcement to fight law enforcement?”

Well, yes. Otherwise, what is the point?

I am not the only one who feels this way. Recently, Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant called for greater protections in Seattle — another sanctuary city. She stated “I’m urging Mayor Murray — if this is a sanctuary city — do not use Seattle police against peaceful protesters. Furthermore, deploy Seattle police to block ICE from seizing immigrants.” My own city’s mayor, Libby Schaff, said, “We’ll proudly stand as a sanctuary city — protecting our residents from what we deem unjust federal immigration laws — fight all forms of bigotry and advance our commitment to equity even more passionately,” shortly after the election. But what are we doing to really make that happen?

At this point, sanctuary city simply means a municipality has adopted a policy of protecting unauthorized immigrants by not prosecuting them for violating federal immigration laws and by ensuring that all residents have access to city services, regardless of immigration status. While certainly noble, it falls short of truly creating a place of refuge and protection for people. It does not stop ICE raids from happening; it just makes them a little harder.

In these troubling times, we need more than proclamations and rhetoric without real action. We need transformative policies and actions that will protect our people, allowing everyone, regardless of race, immigration status, gender or sexuality, to live with peace of mind and dignity. We have to push ourselves to think beyond our own self-made limits.

We can learn from Black history, our history, here. During the time of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, slave owners would hire bounty men to capture and return enslaved people who had escaped to a free state. Resistance popped up everywhere. When a person was captured, hoards of abolitionists would show up to act as a blockade, preventing people from being taken back to inhumane conditions. States passed laws to nullify the federal act, protests and revolts erupted, and the act eventually became effectively unenforceable in various Northern states.

This is what resistance really looks like — not just words, but actions. Communities came together and fought for what was right, surpassing laws and regulations. Replace bounty hunters with ICE and enslaved people with immigrants, and we are in the same place again. So now it’s up to us to decide, how will we respond? Will we honor Black history month in name only or will we heed the lessons of our past?

Jhumpa Bhattacharya is Director of Racial Equity and Strategy at the Oakland-Based Insight Center for Community Economic Development, www.insightcced.org

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