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Creating Sanctuary Through Collective Resistance

Sanctuary begins when we creatively and collectively refuse the terror taking place in our communities right now.

A renewed regime of brutal deportation raids has commenced. It looks like this: a patient dragged from her hospital bed; people detained on their way out of a church soup kitchen; a woman apprehended while reporting her experience of domestic violence; a father arrested while dropping his daughter at school.

The upheaval caused by four weeks of intensified raids radiates outwards. Terror forces migrants and their families to consider what to do if they are next. Anxiety about losing parents and others to deportation raids has been documented as a public health issue among children since 2013, though it certainly has a much longer history. People prepare for the worst: they sell off their cars and belongings, move into more temporary lodgings, keep their kids out of school. As yet, it is unclear how extensive the raids will be: whether the initial terror is meant to scare people into the shadows and “self-deportation” or if the deportations will continue to expand exponentially.

At the same time that they convey terror, it is important that these stories circulate, otherwise people disappear with absolutely no trace. One of the significant achievements of immigrant rights organizing in the past 80 years has been the ability to broadcast the effects of deportation in foreign-born communities.

As it upends communities and shreds the social fabric, this regime refuses social conventions. The inevitable and intentional consequence of government-sponsored terror against the people is to turn prior places of safety into sites of fear.

Sanctuary is a collective, political project that responds to this regime’s refusal of social convention by refusing the regime itself, creating alternative spaces and practices of safety against the ongoing terror. Surviving this nightmare requires a kind of shared lucid dreaming, through which we imagine and create an alternative landscape.

Currently, sanctuary describes multiple local responses that uphold popular morality against the terror mandated by the federal government and carried out by the US Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). It includes laws passed in municipalities and campuses preventing ICE raids within their boundaries and providing resources for those fearing persecution, as well as the creation of physical refuge for those fleeing deportation in congregational buildings.

Such actions have historical antecedents. The Hebrew Bible recounts the existence of “cities of refuge” where those accused of crimes could find sanctuary, sometimes even forgiveness. Medieval states in Western Europe accepted the right of consecrated churches to offer sanctuary protections. Before the US Civil War, the Underground Railroad provided shelter for those escaping from slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act, which made free African Americans subject to arrest and enslavement. During the 1980s, congregations across the nation joined in offering sanctuary to those fleeing the US-backed “Dirty Wars” in Central America.

Because they deploy popular morality against unjust regimes, such movements have always existed in some tension with federal law. Those who aided fugitive slaves risked federal prosecution, as did pastors who offered their congregational spaces to those fleeing terror in Central America. At present, shelter in religious buildings rests legally on a 2011 “Sensitive Locations” memo disseminated among ICE officials under the Obama administration. The current regime threatens reprisals for implementing sanctuary at the state, local or campus level; implementation of a Secure Communities-type program would essentially federalize local police to perform the work of immigration enforcement. It remains unclear whether a local police force can be constitutionally compelled to do the work of federal immigration enforcement.

Refusing the coercive logic and unbridled brutality of this regime means creating and practicing a different social order, extending existing sanctuary practices to provide physical as well as legal, cultural and spiritual shelter from the current storm. Immigrant rights advocate Marisa Franco writes about the urgency of sanctuary. She argues that “our defiance must not simply recreate what existed, but instead expand, reimagine and breathe life into its possibilities.”

In other words, creating a sanctuary movement requires us to imagine our collective security differently. Franco references a manifesto created last year by the organization NotOneMoreDeportation, which lays out a new vision of a sanctuary movement in which coalitions of vulnerable populations (migrants, people of color, LGBTQ folks, Muslims, Jews, and the potentially expansive category of dissidents against the current administration) lay claim to public spaces, insisting that these spaces are sanctuaries. Creating sanctuary thus becomes a political imperative for all movements that would resist the current regime and its brutality.

What kind of shelter can exist at a time of brutal immigration raids, a time of extremism and terror? The powerful implementation of sacred resistance against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock is one example of collective refusal. Water Protectors fought to defend their right to their land, their Indigenous sovereignty, which is besieged by federal and corporate practice. In doing so, they established encampments that became themselves spaces of protection and sanctuary.

The spectacular resistance at Oceti Sakowin is both inspiring and humbling. But it’s worth recalling that this global protest movement began with Native youth organizing, and with LaDonna Brave Bull Allard’s refusal to let the pipeline snake across the land of her ancestors.

A fully realized practice of sanctuary requires action at many levels. Washington became the first state to officially adopt a statewide sanctuary policy, as Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order blocking ICE from deporting undocumented residents there. This week, immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir planned to turn up for his deportation hearing accompanied by friends, family and supporters as witnesses and protectors. Both of these constitute forms of sanctuary, of sacred resistance to the brutality of the current regime.

Sanctuary begins when we creatively and collectively refuse the terror taking place in our communities right now.

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