latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
This interview dicusses Ananya Roy's 2019 article 'The City in the Age of Trumpism: From Sanctuary to Abolition," published in Environment and Planning D.
Yet, as Anthony Fontes has argued, it is crucial to position such treatment of poor non-white migrants in a longer, bipartisan history of surveillance, imprisonment, and deportation, a history that stretches, in part, to key shifts in the role of US police power in the so-called “sanctuary city” from the 1990s onwards.
When images of Central American children caged at the border and wrapped in metallic blankets flooded social media in 2018 and 2019, commentators were quick to condemn Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents. Indeed, the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy of wrenching children from their caregivers was designed as a uniquely cruel mechanism to deter illegal border crossings. Devastating to families from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, in particular–countries where US meddling has long stoked the violence and instability that cause migrants to flee in the first place–this and other policies of the Trump era can be understood, as Ananya Roy has put it, as an ideological commitment to, and renewal of, “white power in statecraft”. Yet, as Anthony Fontes has argued, it is crucial to position such treatment of poor non-white migrants in a longer, bipartisan history of surveillance, imprisonment, and deportation, a history that stretches, in part, to key shifts in the role of US police power in the so-called “sanctuary city” from the 1990s onwards.
Roy’s article gives us such a cautious story. Rather than hailing the contemporary sanctuary city as a form of resistance to Trumpism, Roy sees the selective practices of protection and policing–of variously extending asylum to and deporting migrants–in today’s sanctuary cities as a logic of liberal inclusion. “Illegal” immigrants living in sanctuary cities may well be sheltered from federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers if local police choose not to cooperate with ICE. However, given heavy biometric-aided surveillance in many large sanctuary cities like New York, and the very real possibility of such data being funneled to federal ICE authorities, today’s sanctuary guarantees are tenuous at best. ICE detainers have also found ways to evade sanctuary boundaries, making conditions so threatening for undocumented immigrants that they are forced to self-deport, and reminding us of how K-Sue Park’s concept of the “self-deportation nation” operates. Ultimately, undocumented immigrants in sanctuary cities are beholden to local police: it is the local police, rather than ICE, that wields the threat of deportation to force immigrants into submission. And, as Naomi Paik has argued, in sanctuary cities undocumented immigrants blacklisted for crimes, often via only dubious proof, are not afforded even minimal protections.
In contrast to paradigms of liberal inclusion that rely on the surveillance state and rescaled state power to police the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, Roy looks at earlier and more radical visions of the city-as-sanctuary in the US and Europe. Some of these earlier visions explicitly took aim at US imperialism. Bringing these examples together with the Franco-Algerian philosopher Derrida’s notion of hospitality and Black radical commitments to humanism, Roy calls for an approach to sanctuary embedded in an ethics of abolition.
Below Roy dialogs with two other scholars who have explored similar themes of sanctuary, antiracist humanism, and abolition, Naomi Paik and Malini Ranganathan, to discuss the insights of her article and its broader resonances in critical scholarship.
Malini Ranganathan (MR): In the last three years since Trump was elected, activists and media outlets have been praising sanctuary cities for their humane approach to the migrant crisis and for being bastions of “resistance”. Can you tell us how and why you started to disrupt these prevailing perceptions? Specifically, you say in the article that sanctuary cities “cannot be easily reconciled with social movements, notably the Movement for Black Lives”. Why is it important that we don’t conflate the two?
Ananya Roy (AR): In the aftermath of Trump’s election, many of us as educators had to consider our role on the frontlines of struggle. As Director of the Institute on Inequality and Democracy at the University of California, Los Angeles, a small research center established in 2016, I had the opportunity to connect radical pedagogies across universities in the United States as well as in other parts of the world in a day-long uprising staged during the week of Trump’s inauguration. We called it Teach.Organize.Resist. Malini, you participated in that endeavor and wrote a wonderful essay on anti-racist struggle where you note that we have to refuse the “normalization of bigotry in all its forms.” At UCLA, the efforts to refuse the normalization of Trumpism had several fronts. One was a student-led course and project on Abolitionist Planning where the theme of sanctuary was prominent. Another was organizing by faculty, students, and staff around the possibility of a sanctuary campus as well as around the specific conditions of vulnerability endured by undocumented students. And all around us in California, local jurisdictions, pushed hard by activists, were debating whether or not to declare sanctuary status. I became a student of sanctuary as a way of better understanding, and participating in, such terrains of struggle. Such study led me inevitably, as this essay demonstrates, to the long and complex history of sanctuary, to radical movements of sanctuary and fugitivity, and in full circle, to ever-present colonial relationalities. I was particularly struck by the limited scope of sanctuary jurisdictions and their reliance on the authority of the police. As Trump and his political henchmen were invoking “safety and security” in their attack on sanctuary, so local police chiefs were also invoking the same frame to justify the underenforcement of federal immigration law in their jurisdictions. Cities such as Chicago were leading the legal battles for sanctuary while continuing to expand structures of racialized policing (Naomi focuses on Chicago later in this conversation). I found this to be in direct conflict with the terrain of struggle laid out by the Movement for Black Lives, which foregrounds the full scope of state-organized violence against targeted bodies and communities. I should also note that as a scholar concerned with processes of dispossession, or what I have come to call racial banishment, I was keenly aware that liberal cities committed to sanctuary status, such as San Francisco, are also sites of brutal practices of displacement and expulsion of the (always racialized) poor. What then is sanctuary? If and when we fight for sanctuary as a form of resistance in the age of Trumpism, what is it we should be fighting for and how? As Naomi outlines later in this conversation, there is an important distinction to be drawn between sanctuary jurisdictions and sanctuary movements. My essay mainly focused on the former as a way of understanding the entanglement of sanctuary and police power.
Naomi, your scholarship has been vitally important in helping me think through these questions, histories, and struggles. When I first read your Abolitionist Futures essay, it was an “a-ha” moment for me. And I felt the same way, recently, in reading the much-needed collection on Radical Histories of Sanctuary that you, Jason Ruiz, and Rebecca Schreiber have convened and edited.
Naomi Paik (NP): Could you say more about how the law and legality inform your argument? You argue that ICE enforcement operates through “illegality” and the logic of an “exception” to the law and that sanctuary policies are better understood as complying with the Fourth Amendment. If ICE deploys detainers and other seemingly exceptional enforcement tactics regularly, how does the “exception” help us understand its methods and how to combat them? Many of ICE’s tactics also resemble the regular law enforcement tactics (like consent searches, suspicionless stops, and stop and frisk) that have been affirmed by the Supreme Court and withered the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, as folks working in prison and police abolition movements have noted. So, I’m wondering, how could the longer history of gutting these constitutional protections inform organizing for sanctuary movements?
AR: My interest in what I term the “illegalities of the state” are rooted in my research and scholarship on urban informality. In that work, I have tried to shift understandings of informality from those of subaltern urbanism, i.e. popular housing and self-help livelihoods crafted by the poor as forms of resilience and survival, to the potency of the state, i.e. discourses, practices, and policies that produce spatial illegalization. This resonates with what Nicholas De Genova in analyzing migrant deportability has pinpointed as the “legal production of illegality.” One can take this a step further and note the ways in which the plans and programs of the state often rest on various types of illegality, such as particular types of land use or land grabs. Thus in his book, Rule by Aesthetics, Asher Ghertner uncovers the various forms of encroachments by public projects in Delhi that are folded into the master plan while the informal settlements of the poor are criminalized and demolished.
In the case of sanctuary jurisdictions, I became very interested in the relationship between the ICE detainer and the Fourth Amendment. As I note in the essay, while sanctuary jurisdictions seek to provide protection for illegalized subjects, and such protection is itself constantly under scrutiny and attack, ICE relies on constitutional violations to enforce immigration law. Needless to say, there is nothing unusual about this. In the essay, I briefly discuss the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 and how they engendered what abolitionists considered to be “legalized kidnapping.” In my current research on processes of racial banishment in Los Angeles, I am concerned with a host of municipal ordinances that target and criminalize houselessness and that are in blatant violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Naomi, I am especially interested in the last bit of your question: what does this mean for organizing? What are the implications of invoking constitutional protections and framing struggle in these terms? Can the law be used to challenge the legal production of illegality as well as the illegalities of the state? What frameworks of personhood, property, protection, and rights are thus upheld? I am posing these questions from amidst the space of housing justice praxis in Los Angeles. Here, housing justice movements have launched crucially important lawsuits against cruel municipal ordinances that are in violation of constitutional protections. But for these movements this is not the horizon of freedom. It is a measure undertaken in times of emergency in the long road to abolition democracy.
MR: In contrast to the surveillance and police-centered approach of today’s sanctuary cities, Ananya turns to more expansive visions of “refuge” and “hospitality” put forth by Derrida. In this vision, “the freedom of the city does not rest on police power”. I wonder, Naomi, if your arguments in the paper “Abolitionist futures and the sanctuary movement” in Race and Class and your forthcoming book, Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary, can help us better understand the more radical history of the sanctuary movement? What were its origins? Where is it now? What are the limits of the sanctuary movement?
NP: The roots of sanctuary movements reach back thousands of years to multiple religious traditions, as well as sanctuary practices in medieval Europe that offered refuge to anyone in need of protection from violent punishment or blood feuds. These deep roots are important to remember insofar as they remind us of sanctuary’s fundamental challenge to the state sovereignty and political liberalism, whose rise in the 16th century ultimately led to the decline of sanctuary practices that posed a threat to the sovereign power of the state. It is this antagonism between the sovereign power of the state and sanctuary that I think can be mobilized today for a radical critique and opposition to state power and violence.
Contemporary iterations trace their more direct origins to the sanctuary movement for Central American migrants fleeing the Dirty Wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Tapping into the millenia-long genealogy of sanctuary, faith-based groups led by refugee organizers launched the sanctuary movement in the U.S. Southwest. By providing refuge to migrants denied refugee or asylum status, these sanctuary organizers defied not only the unjust federal immigration laws that targeted migrants for exclusion and deportation, but also the U.S. imperial foreign policies that supported brutal capitalist dictatorships and forced people to flee home in the first place. This iteration of the sanctuary movement thus highlighted the connections between the violence of U.S. empire and the violence of U.S. immigration restrictions—a lesson we can forefront in today’s social justice movements.
The New Sanctuary Movement ignited in the early 21st century to protect removable immigrants increasingly criminalized by laws passed under the Clinton Administration as part of the Democratic Party’s concerted efforts to move right on immigration and crime, and by post-9/11 laws that increasingly tied immigration to terrorism. Faith-based congregations again provided sanctuary to immigrants under removal orders, and more cities passed sanctuary policies, which can range from refusing to offer manpower and detention space for ICE enforcement to decriminalizing common immigrant practices, like street vending. But, as I argue, these policies are fundamentally limited. By working through state structures, laws, and liberal democratic frameworks, many of these policies end up shoring up the divide between “good” immigrants deserving of sanctuary and “bad,” “criminal aliens,” who do not, even if their “criminal” status is a product of increasingly draconian laws that criminalize formerly non-criminal activities. On a deeper level, as Daniel Gonzalez emphasizes, as immigration enforcement becomes further entangled with data management and logistics systems, the fact that localities share information with federal law enforcement means that even the most progressive sanctuary policies, alone, are insufficient to defend immigrant communities.
Here, I think it is crucially important to distinguish between sanctuary city and state policies and sanctuary movements. They are not the same. One operates through structures of government, even if those structures work in opposition to federal immigration laws and policies. The other works in different relationships to the state. We can see this distinction clearly in Rahm Emmanuel, who has used Chicago’s sanctuary ordinance to improve his public relations profile, while in fact promoting extraordinary police violence that also targets immigrant communities. Indeed, he was an architect of the Democratic Party’s concerted right-wing shift on criminal justice and immigration enforcement under the Clinton Administration, leading to major, punitive laws that led to the escalations of border control, detentions, and deportations of immigrants, as well as feeding mass incarceration overall.
Many immigrant justice and sanctuary movements see such distinctions. Many call on local governments to implement or bolster sanctuary policies, specifically to end the forms of policing and surveillance that target not only immigrant communities, but also working-class communities of color that endure overpolicing as a norm of everyday life. They’re also organizing against corporations like Palantir and Amazon that collude with government agencies to provide data and logistics management, as well as financial institutions that fund private prison corporations. Most important, many of these sanctuary and immigrant justice movements are working on the ground to provide community defense, legal assistance, and other forms of collective mutual aid, rooted in abolitionist modes of organizing that emphasize not just dismantling and defunding systems of state violence, but also demanding investments in community institutions that foster relationships and reduce harm. Many of these movements already collaborate with BLM and other social justice organizations rooted in Black liberation. For example, in Chicago, Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), Mijente, and Black Youth Project 100 (BYP100) have mobilized to bolster the sanctuary ordinance in the city by filling in loopholes against criminalized people. Specifically, these organizers have worked together and with researchers to expose the gang database that sweeps up removable immigrants, ultimately sending them on a path to deportation, in its dragnet approach to policing of impoverished communities of color, regardless of citizenship or immigration status. In other words, some sectors of immigrant justice movements, including those rooted in sanctuary practices, are mobilizing abolitionist principles and methods.
Because the criminalization of immigrants and working-class and poor people of color—as well as the structural roots of this criminalization in neoliberal economic and political policies that have led to the displacement and organized abandonment of people abroad and within the U.S.—it makes sense that immigrant justice organizers are working to define sanctuary as expansively as possible, as seen in Mijente’s 2017 report, “What Makes a City a Sanctuary Now.” And this intersectional organizing moves in multiple directions. For example, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration has focused its organizing on the intersections of immigrant and Black demands for justice since 2006, fighting against the anti-Black racism that leads to the high rates of arrests, detention, and deportations against Black immigrants and that can infect immigrant justice rhetoric and organizing (consider the “good” immigrant, who should not be detained, pitted against the “bad” criminal, who implicitly should). One of BLM’s cofounders, Opal Tometi led BAJI for eight years. Indeed, the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) explicitly centers “an end to the war on Black immigrants,” including the repeal of laws that drastically amped up the criminalization of noncitizens, like the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), as well as the manpower and information sharing initiatives between local and federal law enforcement agencies. Among its key proposals for addressing these anti-immigrant iterations of state violence are commitments to sanctuary policies at the state and local levels. The M4BL explicitly states that policy cannot address the collective needs of Black people. And yet, “while less transformational,” such policies like sanctuary jurisdictions “are necessary to address the current material conditions of our people and will better equip us to win the world we demand and deserve.” Sanctuary, like other social movements, does not rely on policymakers, but on mobilized communities, some of whom will push for non-reformist policy changes, while not mistaking such policy gains for liberation or justice.
AR: Paul Gilroy’s concept of reparative humanism helps us think through a radical commitment to humanism. Malini, while you don’t address sanctuary jurisdictions per se in your research, in a recent article in Antipode “From urban resilience to abolitionist climate justice”, you and your coauthor think through what it would mean to move from a framework of climate resilience to abolitionist climate justice. Can you tell us how abolitionism and reparative humanism offer counters to both the resilient city and the sanctuary city–at least as the latter ideas are expressed and practiced today?
MR: Your question drawing together “resilience” and “sanctuary” is making me think of the recent Hurricane Dorian disaster in the Bahamas. Bahamians were trying to flee a complete breakdown of their island caused by this climate disaster, a breakdown produced in no small part by the West’s carbon-intensive political and military economies. But in keeping with the erasure in official memory of the US’s complicity in causing such refugee crises in the first place, Trump wasted no time in denouncing and denigrating Bahamian refugees. Specifically, he suggested some Bahamians are “very bad people, very bad gang members, and very very bad drug dealers”, using this as a pretext to shoot down the extension of temporary protected status (TPS) to Bahamian refugees–a kind of sanctuary status, if you will.
I bring this case up not simply for the naked racism at play. I also think it lays lie to the veneer of contemporary sanctuary discourse. As a political agenda, “sanctuary” is far from immune to the white supremacist state, as you rightly say in your article. While Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) ultimately extended “humanitarian status” to Bahamians regardless of whether they held a US visa, it is clear that the notion of “sanctuary” is fragile at best, and risks being put to regressive ends or otherwise co-opted at worst.
The idea of the “resilient” city is similar: efforts to make New Orleans more climate “resilient” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, for instance, entailed a renewed committment to policing and “purifying” non-white spaces and bodies, while also precipitating rapid gentrification in the city, as a chapter by Benjamin Ansfield in an edited volume by Katherine McKittrick (2015) argues. As we argue in that article, in Washington, DC resilience discourse also tends to be articulated with neoliberal, market-based fashions influencing planning, real estate, and architecture. While resilience-driven planning recognizes, at least on paper, income and racial inequality in the city, in actual practice it tends to reinforce exclusionary urban development trends.
We call instead for an approach to climate justice rooted in abolitionism, one that seeks to address racism and climate-induced harm together. Just as Du Bois’ notion of abolition democracy was attentive to the interconnected spheres that were–and are–necessary to achieve unfinished Black emancipation after the end of slavery, an abolitionist approach to climate justice demands attention to historical reparations and intersectional processes that are not solely associated with climate–things like housing, policing, and food security. An emphasis on reparative humanism, moreover, reminds us that environmental harm often proceeds via dehumanization. As such, an antiracist humanist approach to climate praxis embeds narratives of healing from historical trauma. It embraces intersectional thinking, making unlikely connections between spheres. And it also draws on radical histories of the Underground Railroad, as we found through our research in DC’s predominantly African American neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River, where an organizer traces his ancestors and activism to the nineteenth-century Underground Railroad.
AR: Malini and Naomi, your deep engagement with the histories and possibilities of anti-racist struggle serves as inspiration for a new endeavor at the University of California, Los Angeles on sanctuary. Titled Sanctuary Spaces: Reworlding Humanism, this is a Mellon Foundation Sawyer Seminar that I have the privilege to conceptualize and convene in collaboration with Leisy Abrego, Gaye Theresa Johnson, and Maite Zubiaurre. We see sanctuary as a way of undertaking comparative and historical inquiry into the terms of protection through which liberal democracies in the West recognize and include racial others. Put another way, we seek to understand, challenge, and reworld Western humanism, be it humanitarianism or cosmopolitanism. We seek to problematize not only the illegalization of racial others – the border-crosser, the asylum-seeker, the undocumented migrant – but also the constitution of the West as a space of welcome, integration, and hospitality. If the prominent philosophers of Western humanism have felt at home in the world, then we are concerned with forms of being and knowing that emanate from being cast out in the world. These, for us, are radical forms of humanism.
We are especially interested in holding in simultaneous view a series of colonial relationalities across Europe and the United States, from Indigenous dispossession to the Black Mediterranean. As Naomi shows in her work and in this conversation, this is precisely the grounds of struggle that sanctuary and abolitionist movements have already established, connecting policing and deportation, connecting anti-Blackness and migrant illegality, connecting the Muslim ban to the militarized border, connecting the death zones of the Mediterranean to the death zones of Arizona. What is at stake here is the long history of rebellion and refuge that Alma Villarreal foregrounds in the analysis of “Indigenous sanctuaryscapes” or that Adam Bledsoe highlights in the analysis of marronage as “a past and present geography in the United States” or the forms of African-American place-making that are central to Andrea Roberts’ Texas Freedom Colonies Project. If this historical conjuncture can be understood as the renewed institutionalization of white supremacy and the proliferation of right-wing nationalisms, then it must also be understood as the renewal of infrastructures of freedom. That ultimately, for me, is the purpose of seeking to understand the present history of sanctuary.