A Call for Sanctuary

NYU students walk out to demand a sanctuary campus, November 16 (Erik McGregor)

We all know what Donald Trump promised he’d do on immigration, ever since he launched his campaign in 2015 with a declaration of war against Mexican immigrants, whom he shockingly branded as rapists and criminals. The famous promise to build a wall (“big and beautiful”) along the southern border, paid for by Mexico. A “deportation task force” to rid the country of 11 million undocumented immigrants, and possibly legal ones too, the criminals and “bad hombres.” Ban Muslims from entering the country, or people from countries with large Muslim populations, or make all Muslims in the United States register. Cancel on day one all of President Obama’s executive orders, including the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, in effect since 2012, that has given reprieve from deportation to some 750,000 young people who came to the United States as children. The specter of raids and round-ups in factories, fields and communities, of college students yanked out of their classes, of the Statue of Liberty replaced with a thirty-foot by 2000-mile wall as the nation’s message to immigrants—the horror of it is breathtaking.

Trump has a documented history of racism against African Americans that goes back to the 1970s, when his buildings refused to rent to black people. But he seems to have had much less of a history of xenophobia, notwithstanding his racial antipathy towards Latinos. Nativism exists in New York City but it is not prominent, despite the spike in hate crimes it has witnessed since the election. We are, after all, America’s quintessential city of immigrants. They are the entrepreneurs, professionals, workers, and artists, who drive and animate city life.

Trump’s embrace of nativism was not just another box to check for a conservative campaign. It was a cold calculus to put protectionism—“immigration” twinned with “unfair trade” (especially from Mexico and China)—at the center of a strategy to stoke the resentment of white working-class and lower-middle-class people left behind by globalization. Other aspects of Trump’s campaign strategy, notably the misogynistic demonization of Clinton, fed the central narrative of protectionism. Clinton was the face of Washington elitism and corruption, the establishment that had forsaken American jobs. It all worked, to stunning effect.

Will the new administration deliver on its immigration promises? At the time of this writing Trump has not yet appointed a secretary for Homeland Security, the federal agency responsible for immigration enforcement. His first appointments—Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, General Mike Flynn as national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA—are on the right-wing extreme of the Republican spectrum. We can expect a hardliner at Homeland Security, too. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for the administration to carry out Trump’s full immigration agenda. Congress will balk at funding the Wall (estimated cost $25 billion) and deporting 11 million people (upwards of $400 billion). Trump has already begun dialing back from Wall to fence and a pledge to prioritize the deportation of 2-3 million “criminal aliens.” Even if he does not implement these measures, we can surely expect more immigration raids of workplaces and farms and heightened surveillance of communities. A few spectacular raids will play to the nativist base. And even if most undocumented people are not actually deported, they will all live in fear, even more fear than they experience now. Some might decide to leave on their own (or “self-deport,” as Mitt Romney advocated in 2012).

It remains to be seen if Trump will revoke DACA, which would affect 750,000 undocumented young people who are now able to attend college, lawfully work, hold driver’s licenses, open bank accounts, and travel. Unlike some of Trump’s proposals, which require congressional approval and appropriation, DACA can be canceled with the stroke of a pen. But it is also politically risky. DACA holders are highly visible and appealing to the public on account of their youth, the innocence of their undocumented status, and their aspirations for education, jobs, and careers. They are the “dreamers” who, more than any other group, won public support for legalization and a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Their persistent organizing resulted in President Obama’s executive action that created DACA after the Republicans blocked immigration reform in the Congress, as well as a second executive order, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. But DAPA was never implemented, owing to court challenges and injunctions.

In the days after the election, DACA students were stunned and shaken by the prospect of losing their status. At my institution, Columbia University, the dangers they face had palpable effect. They cried in our classrooms and bravely spoke out in public of their vulnerability. Will they be able to continue their education? What will happen if they lose their work authorization? Can they go home for the holidays or return to campus if they lose the authorization to travel? Will they or their parents be deported? But at Columbia, as at so many other schools, they have also sprung into action. They have galvanized support from their fellow students and professors, spurring university and college presidents to issue statements that their institutions will protect them. In addition, on November 21, the presidents of 180 colleges and universities issued a statement in support of DACA. “To our country’s leaders, we say that DACA should be upheld, continued and expanded,” the statement reads. “This is both a moral imperative and a national necessity.”

Meanwhile, student/faculty petitions asking universities to declare themselves sanctuaries have garnered thousands of signatures. Already, some twenty universities have responded with either full declarations of sanctuary or other declarations that do not use the word sanctuary but pledge non-cooperation with immigration enforcement, specifically prohibiting immigration agents from entering campuses and refusing to share information about students’ status, unless forced by warrants or court order. These include the entire California State University system (where there are an estimated 10,000 undocumented students), Portland State University, Rutgers, Yale, Brown, Pomona, Reed, and my own institution, Columbia, among others.

The campus sanctuary movement builds on a history of solidarity dating back to the Underground Railroad and northern refusal to comply with fugitive slave laws. In more recent years, local governments have established explicit and de-facto immigration sanctuaries. These entail a range of non-cooperation policies: Local law enforcement, for example, can refuse to cooperate with immigration raids and ICE’s “detainer” policy (detaining and handing over undocumented persons stopped or arrested by local law enforcement, including for traffic violations and misdemeanors). Or city employees and agencies can be prohibited from asking a person their immigration status in the course of conducting normal city business. Today, some form of sanctuary policy exists in thirty-nine cities and more than 200 counties across the country. They are not just in the liberal northeast and Pacific coast but also in Florida, Kansas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Colorado, Georgia, and other states. No county jail in New Mexico will honor ICE detainer policy.

New York has been a sanctuary city since 1989, when Mayor Ed Koch issued an executive order of non-cooperation with immigration enforcement. His successors have continued the policy, including Rudy Giuliani, who defended it in court and, when he lost on appeal, continued it in defiance. Mayor Bill de Blasio has reiterated the city’s commitment to its sanctuary policy (as well as protection of Muslims and women’s reproductive rights). He is one of eleven mayors who affirmed their sanctuary policies in the last weeks. They know they are gearing up for a fight: Trump said he would stop federal block grants to sanctuary cities if elected. Public support and official steadfastness will have to make sure he doesn’t deliver on the threat.

And they have the power to. Deportation on a mass scale is not possible without cooperation from local authorities. City and county governments and institutions such as universities and churches can block a deportation drive. Churches are especially important because they may provide the only source of sanctuary for migrant workers in non-urban areas. Here, then, is an opportunity, indeed an imperative, for all people of conscience to defend our neighbors, coworkers, student peers, and co-congregants who are threatened with deportation.

The American public does not support mass removal of immigrants. Trump does not have a mandate to build a wall, to deport millions of people, to cancel DACA. This is where we draw a line in the sand. We have the power to resist and refuse—and to stop it.


Mae Ngai is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.

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