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The Sanctuary Movement and Women’s Rights: Sister Struggles

These two movements should be explicitly joined: The push for women’s rights must also be a push for sanctuary.

On May 1, International Workers Day, immigrants will join many from the labor movement by striking, marking a “day without immigrants.” While this is a strategy that has been used every May Day since 2006, this year, it is also part of a larger struggle for sanctuary, countering Trump’s explicitly racist and restrictive immigration policies.

On March 8, women borrowed this tactic to mark International Women’s Day. They called for “a day without women” to protest Trump’s sexist and homophobic policies.

The sharing of strategies is a first step in recognizing that in fact, these two movements — both reinvigorated by Trump’s election — should be explicitly joined: The push for women’s rights must also be a push for sanctuary.

As a recent Texas case poignantly shows, the struggles against gender-based violence and deportation are very much connected. On February 9, immigration officials arrested Irvin González, a transgender woman originally from Mexico, at a courthouse where she was seeking a protective order against an abusive boyfriend. She was charged with illegal re-entry to the US and is now facing up to a decade in federal prison on immigration charges. The backlash was swift. Women’s rights advocates rightly argue that her arrest sends a message to domestic violence survivors that they should not seek help if they do not want to be deported.

In fact, just as these advocates feared, on March 21, four women in Colorado dropped their cases of domestic abuse for fear of being detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who were spotted outside a Denver courthouse, waiting to make arrests.

These two political struggles — while not identical — are nevertheless inextricable. If we do not think about them together, we risk not adequately addressing important forms of discrimination and exclusion.

Viewing these issues together brings to light the gendered dynamics of the ways immigrant and citizenship statuses are lived, and indeed, to the way every relationship to the state is gendered. And González’s case provides a stark example of how citizenship and asylum processes are not only gendered, but also racialized: one must present oneself in the right “gendered” form to be considered a “worthy” immigrant, or a “legitimate refugee.” These misguided views are often based on hurtful, discriminatory stereotypes.

For instance, as much scholarship shows, non-Muslims in Europe and the United States often perceive Muslim women as oppressed, and in need of being saved from their patriarchal cultures. As such, Muslim women are more likely to be recognized and given papers if they present themselves to immigration or asylum officers as subjugated and demure. And law enforcement and immigration officials in the US tend to consider men of color more compelling and less suspicious if they are appropriately masculine so as to conform to basic gender norms without being so masculine as to be seen as “threatening.”

For LGBTQ folks, receiving asylum on the basis of homophobic discrimination requires very particular gendered performances. Again, for lesbians, research has demonstrated that appearing as a “butch” — whether or not one may identify as “high femme” — is most effective in persuading immigration officials of one’s need for asylum.

As a society, we must be attentive to the different risks and forms of gendered violence. Otherwise, we risk perpetuating a situation where women and trans people with precarious citizenship status will not leave abusive homes for fear of being denounced or deported. Even without the contemporary climate of regular immigration raids and the heightened fear of federal and local authorities, such ignorance can have deadly consequences.

Thinking about sanctuary and women’s rights together is necessary to protect many kinds of people from violence, but understanding them as part of a larger struggle also enables shared learning and strategizing. As such, it can lead us to new political concepts and openings.

For instance, LGBTQ communities of color have already pioneered projects to transform physical space, to make them safe, while being attentive to police brutality and racial profiling. As Jordan Dunn, a leader of the Sanctuary Working Group at the New School, stated, “The Audre Lorde Project’s Safe OUTside the System Collective focuses on community based strategies for preventing anti-LGBTQ violence without relying on police. This is something the sanctuary movement can learn from.”

Through initiatives by cities and communities committed to sanctuary, forms of local sovereignty are being experimented with, built from the ground up, with the goal of protecting the health, safety and welfare of all residents within their communities, regardless of immigration status. There are sanctuary cities (even states) and sanctuary campuses, and increasingly, a range of different spaces in between, from the original churches and faith-based institutions that have long provided shelter for undocumented immigrants, to restaurants and arts spaces.

Looking at these struggles together, we are prompted to ask if we could extend the concept of sanctuary to all kinds of difference — gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality and so on — not simply to immigrant status?

Indeed, while sanctuary — and the idea of shelters or protected, safe spaces — suggests that there is always a dangerous “outside” as a counterpoint to the safer “inside,” might we imagine otherwise? Could sanctuary be deployed to get rid of the “outsides,” opening up to everyone, and acknowledging that we all need forms of protection? As a society, could we create sanctuary cities for all forms of violence and exploitation?

The sanctuary movement offers us a flexible political concept. Indeed, the fact that sanctuary has no particular legal status actually allows us to deploy it politically in new and powerful ways. In its intersection with feminist and queer movements, we can push to imagine new forms it might take — we can stretch it.

Feminist notions of vulnerability can be helpful here, calling into question the body as discrete, singular, autonomous and self-sufficient, and understanding embodiment as relational, including our dependency on material infrastructural conditions. In this sense, we all need protection — we all need infrastructure to live. We are mutually vulnerable, mutually exposed. To be clear, emphasizing vulnerability in this sense does not assume we are all victims first and foremost. Rather, vulnerability is inherent to political action. We are politically active, and we mobilize precisely because we are vulnerable together, and require certain material and social conditions to live.

To be sure, even within these struggles, there are differences and layers. Take, for example, the issue of immigrant labor and the fact that migrant women are often employed — and sometimes exploited by — other women. There is an inherent tension there that makes clear that women are not a homogeneous group. Neither, of course, are immigrants.

Still, thinking about feminism and sanctuary together can allow us to re-imagine what protection means for everyone who is subject to threat, discrimination or violence. Working together, we could call on sanctuary to create an egalitarian, respectful order that is based on equal access to and the sharing of the commons for everyone.

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