As the lights went out on the administration’s anti-healthcare initiative, Jeff Sessions, like the ringmaster of a three-ring circus, made a sudden appearance out from the darkness to train the spotlight once more onto sanctuary cities and bark about their criminal inhabitants, otherwise known as immigrants. Sanctuary policies, he claimed, are “putting dangerous criminals back on the streets.” He threatened to “claw back” some federal funding to such jurisdictions in order to “make sure our state and local officials… are in sync with the federal government.”

The circus tents aren’t only pitched at the White House. A number of “anti-sanctuary” bills are making their way through Congress, as well as in state legislatures across the nation. These identify “sanctuary jurisdictions” and set out to punish them, as though sanctuary was a dirty word. Indeed, making it one is a big part of their goal. As the director of the New Sanctuary Coalition in NYC, Ravi Ragbir, told me, “they want to take that word away from us.”

Unfortunately, with their battery of intimidations, they are succeeding. A term that, just a few months ago, would have conjured soft-focus images of biblical figures taking refuge in a shed, or nature reserves protecting elephants, is now a political flashpoint. Some immigrant-friendly, liberal institutions like states, cities, and campuses are shying away from it. Miami-Dade county rescinded its sanctuary status in February, followed by Dayton, Ohio. Other sanctuary cities defend themselves a little more proudly, even if the scent of fear wafts through the municipal backrooms, while some like Boise and Atlanta have considered a soft lexical shift to “welcoming city.”

It goes further. While on the ground, the campus sanctuary movement is only growing bigger and stronger, weak-willed university administrators issue general statements while backing away from declaring themselves sanctuaries. At my institution, the New School, a number of sanctuary-like policies have been instituted by the board and there was almost unanimous support from students, staff, and faculty for a sanctuary declaration, yet the President has repeatedly told us that he does not feel it is helpful or necessary to actually declare the campus a sanctuary. Congregations of faith express their sympathy but don’t want to be in the public eye, so abstain, too. The ACLU is on the fence about the term, and though it will defend some of the associated principles, it conspicuously sidelined sanctuary in launching its recent People Power platform, in favor of the phrase “freedom cities.”

The public, the state attorney generals, and the many lawyers that have been good at challenging the so-called Muslim ban have made less noise about the immigration E.O., which, masquerading as a public safety document, empowers the Secretary of Department of Homeland Security to expand its racist actions with immense discretionary power. Executive Order No. 13,768, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” not only instructs the Secretary of Homeland Security to disappear a certain category of beings from the United States, it specifically calls the DHS “to empower State and local law enforcement agencies across the country to perform the functions of an immigration officer in the interior of the United States.” Under the heading “Sanctuary Jurisdictions,” it gives discretionary power to the Attorney General and the Secretary of DHS to designate what they think is a sanctuary jurisdiction and move to cut off its federal grant money. A similar and little-noticed bill regarding sanctuary campuses was introduced to Congress in January by a Republican representative from California.

Symbols and Handwringing

Why has this assault met with equivocation rather than protest? Two common problems: lack of spine and lack of understanding of the importance and implications of sanctuary, both veiled behind a number of rhetorical arguments that are widely circulated and accepted.

The first is that the word “sanctuary” is legally meaningless. While it is technically true that a “sanctuary city” is not defined by statute, the term is used in policies and legal briefs and bills, and it does refer very specifically to a set of policies that limit local involvement in federal immigration enforcement. That political specificity and legal possibility is worth preserving. It allows people to state: this is your law, not ours.

If part of the machinations of this administration, taking its cue from the Bush-Cheney era, is to expand executive reach as deep as possible, erase the distinction between federal and local law enforcement, and weaken the scope of an independent judiciary, it is clear why sanctuary is such a thorn in its side. Since immigration is one domain where federal and local sovereignty are kept apart and sanctuary has been one of the clearest expressions of this, sanctuary enables people to claim a small measure of local sovereignty. It should come as no surprise that conservatives, who have long realized the potential power that might be entailed in a vast network of micro-sovereignties, recognize the power of sanctuary cities more than liberals, and want to dismantle it.

That’s why it is so infuriating when, in another gesture of rhetorical handwringing, liberals who don’t want to adopt the term, argue that it’s merely symbolic by which they mean it has no real-world import. But what does it mean to say it’s “merely” symbolic, when the movement, along with its constituency, is under attack from the right? I can only think it means that it’s a “symbol” they themselves are afraid of.

To call sanctuary symbolic only is to minimize the lives and efforts of precisely those people — documented and undocumented — who have stood up under its banner, and had the courage and political vision to take real risks with on-the-ground activism that has had real effects for communities. The terms of the original movement — started in the eighties to shelter Latin American refugees, and broken up by the FBI — were redefined in 2007. The clear decision at the time of the emergence of the New Sanctuary Movement was to expand the notion of sanctuary beyond the physical refuge offered to those being hunted by immigration enforcement agents, taking on structural injustices and protecting larger numbers through policy, strategy, and activism, specifically by separating ICE’s mandate from local obligations, and by providing training to immigrant communities to defend and organize themselves. Sanctuary city policies and sanctuary campus movements arose out of these deep-rooted community efforts. Cities and counties did not invent sanctuary, they adopted it.

One of the greatest weapons wielded by the administration has been the spread of intense fear. In the aftermath of the election, all immigrant advocacy groups have reported that many children have stopped going to school, families have stopped attending public events, living in everyday dread of an encounter with law enforcement, federal and local. Sanctuary has been effective in countering this kind of psychological terrorism by providing assurances and structures for safe spaces, safe education, and safe healthcare. Sanctuary is not a symbol, it’s a commitment.

To move away from sanctuary by dismissing it as “merely symbolic” is either “merely ignorant” or “merely cowardly,” showing a refusal to stand up, stand shoulder to shoulder, and maybe even stand in the way. From what I have seen, this commitment means something to those who are most vulnerable to the attacks of the administration, and they are looking at cultural, educational, and other institutions for signs of genuine dedication to their own supposedly enlightened ideals.

The risk of backlash from the Trump administration provides ammo for one more anti-sanctuary argument coming especially from counties and universities that fear losing federal money. But it is not clear how much of a risk this actually is. Four cities and counties in California and Massachusetts have filed suit so far against the Executive Order, arguing that it is unconstitutional because it exceeds the limits of executive authority (spending power belongs to the legislative branch), and violates federalism by commandeering local authority and forcing it to reallocate their resources. For the most part, legal scholars seem to agree that any withdrawal of federal funds based on sanctuary policies will be overturned in court, though we won’t know that for sure until such an action is actually challenged.

And as schoolyard bullies everywhere know, sitting back and hoping to not get noticed is a sure signal for them to come in and roll over you. Universities calling themselves sanctuaries will be pushed to stand up and protect their students, rather than reacting defensively to onslaught after numbing onslaught on the EPA, NEA, NEH, the education budget, etc.

What all these half-baked stances come down to is giving in to fear and pushing aside conscience. And that’s just what the administration wants: “The creation of conditions,” as Hannah Arendt described, in relation to the banality of evil, “under which conscience ceases to be adequate and to do good becomes utterly impossible, [until] the consciously organized complicity of all men in the crimes of totalitarian regimes is extended to the victims and thus made really total.”

Beyond the Mayors

All this talk of conscience and micro-sovereignty may make sanctuary activism sound namby pamby. In fact, on the left, it has sometimes been seen as a kind of cloud-cover that obscures the more violent and insidious infrastructures of power operating underneath. There’s a valid point here: a city won’t be a true sanctuary until the structural and infrastructural issues are addressed. That means dealing with broken windows policing, private prison profiteering, the militarization of law enforcement and of public spaces, labor and gender issues, racial and economic injustice.

There is no doubt, for example, that immigration enforcement, just like policing nationwide, is highly racialized. Just go into federal plaza or any detention center and you won’t come out unmarked. Really. Go there. You are allowed to. And sanctuary coalitions regularly organize accompaniment visits, prayer circles, and protests you can join. If you prefer data, here are the official numbers as per DHS’s own published information. In 2015, a total of 333,341 “aliens” were “removed by criminal status.” Of those, it seems that 327,367 were South American, Central American, or Caribbean. That’s 98 percent. This is not to argue that we need increased prosecution of white immigrants, we need decreased prosecution for poor brown and black people.

It should go without saying that this is part and parcel of the current racialized state of law enforcement around the country. That’s why some activists charge sanctuary cities with duplicity. On the one hand, sanctuary cities purport to protect, on the other they encourage police to arrest people on simple misdemeanours knowing full well that such arrests, which overwhelmingly target people of color, are the surest way to criminalize black and brown immigrants who, once charged, become subject to deportation. This is true even in sanctuary cities where immigration information is officially not meant to be shared with federal enforcement (at least on misdemeanors; 170 other crimes are exempt from sanctuary protections) but where, as everyone is aware, the information nevertheless finds its way into national databases. Even in sanctuary cities, the criminal justice system is a highway to detention and deportation.

According to the Immigrant Defense Project, investigations are “targeting” Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities with policies that justify “indiscriminate profiling and harassment of these communities with unspecified claims about counter-terrorism and national security.” In fact, unconstitutional racial and ethnic profiling has been a well documented and long-standing part of ICE strategies as well as of police departments around the country that have taken on ICE demands and policies. Even as it purportedly runs after so-called “criminals,” ICE itself constantly breaks the law by misrepresenting itself, using force to get what (or who) it wants, and circumventing due process to get people into detention and out of the country.

All this pays and will pay more, as Trump has appropriated more funds for DHS. According to the National Immigration Forum, DHS’s “Custody Operations” budget was $1.84 billion for 2014. That means $5 million per day spent on detention, 62% of which goes to for-profit prison corporations. Nine of the ten largest ICE detention centers are private, making a legal profit from disappearing millions of human beings. But this being a neoliberal state, counties otherwise defunded are receiving a good chunk of the money too, by contracting with ICE to provide detention beds in county jails — and it’s important to note, for those who want to do something about it, that most police-ICE cooperation takes place at a county level.

These are the blood-curdling realities of the current immigration landscape, but the sanctuary movement has hardly ignored them. It may be true that sanctuary city mayors have not rolled back broken-windows policing as they should, but the Sanctuary movement is not reducible to the few elected officials who have taken it on. In fact, sanctuary organizations have been vocal about racism, economic inequality, and broken windows, and for the most part they have seen the intersectional necessity and opportunity of building coalitions and expanding their work beyond immigration policy. A good example are the coalitions built in Chicago where groups like Mijente, OCADA, and Black Youth Project have joined in what they call expanded sanctuary in order to tackle not just immigration-related sanctuary policy but also policies related to issues like law enforcement, education, labor, gender, and economic justice. Instead of throwing out the label of sanctuary, this brings more people under its dome. Sanctuary can and should be an expansive platform for social justice in general.

Expanded sanctuary, where mutual protection is the key, strikes me as a wise and productive line of organizing towards a future movement that can be expansive and not only defensive, that can resist and build at the same time, with the youth setting the tone. This is, to quote Janae Bonsu, one of the Chicago organizers and national public policy director for BYP-100, “what sanctuary can look like as a long term policy.”

This was originally published by The Baffler Magazine on April 6, 2017.