It’s Time to Expand What “Sanctuary” Means for Undocumented Folks and Beyond

Editor’s note: We now bring you a new column penned by members of Orange County Immigrant Youth United, a longtime non-profit that has fought the good fight for years not just for undocumented folks, but against civic, police, and sheriff corruption, transphobia, and all sorts of other OC nastiness. Every week, they’ll bring us their perspectives on issues local and national—enjoy!

By Hairo Cortes

It seems everything is “sanctuary” these days. Since President Donald Trump came into office, cities across the country have declared themselves sanctuaries for immigrants. Some, like SanTana, have moved beyond symbolic proclamations by codifying enforceable standards recommended by the very same immigrant communities Trump seeks to persecute. School boards, like the Anaheim Union High School District, have taken steps to reassure the families they serve that they will not be complicit in the deportation machine and have declared themselves a “sanctuary.” Not to be outdone, restaurants across the country, including Costa Mesa’s own ZCafe, whose industry is powered by migrant labor, have begun to declare themselves sanctuary. I even heard of a sanctuary parking lot a few days ago (can someone declare amnesty on all those pointless parking tickets SanTana’s nasty parking enforcement give out?).

But what is a “sanctuary,” and what does it take to truly be one?

This is the question that has weighed heavily on my mind and that many in the immigrant rights movement have begun to answer by redefining what a sanctuary is and means.

Sanctuary is proactive! The benchmark by which we determine whether a city, a school, a place of work, or any other place that seeks to call itself that is sanctuary isn’t just determined by safeguards against federal deportation agents, but also by whether they’re taking proactive steps toward investing in uplifting and promoting opportunities for the people at the margins of society. In this way, sanctuary is pro-black, pro-queer, pro-poor, pro-Muslim, and pro-immigrant.

After all, we can’t forget Prez 45 didn’t just attack Mexican immigrants over the course of his campaign, but also scapegoated Muslims and refugees fleeing the hell American foreign policy unleashed across the Middle East. We can’t forget that he appointed Jeff Sessions, a racist whose only complaint about the Ku Klux Klan was them hot-boxing their white hoods, to lead the Justice Department as part of a throwback to “tough on crime” policies. We can’t forget that his hate regime is packed with homophobes and corporate barons who have run off with the profits of our labor and pitted us against each other to fight for scraps.

This, of course, is not new. Politicians across the spectrum have been complicit in expanding anti-immigrant policies, mass incarceration, increasing income inequality, and the ever-deepening military quagmire in the Middle East. But Prez 45’s election has energized the grassroots and created a sense of urgency to resist him that has opened the door at the local level to change course around immigration. Though this is a positive development for us as immigrants, now is the time to imagine bigger and to think outside ourselves and our individual immigrant identity to open that door completely. For policy makers and people in positions of power this moment demands the same.

Looking at this expanded definition of sanctuary, could we say that a restaurant is one for its migrant employees if it refuses to open its doors to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but consistently works to undermine living wage laws, or worse—commits wage theft? The answer is no! What if a city forbids its police department to cooperate with ICE, but prioritizes investments in punitive policing and resists implementing more successful restorative practices and youth programs that address root causes and provide opportunity as a measure of true safety? The answer again, is no! What about when a school district spends more money to police its students than it does on career counselors? You get the idea.

The path toward real sanctuary takes us down a road in which our cities, our schools, and our places of employment rethink their values and their priorities. It’s time for them to divest from exploitation and invest in programs and systems that proactively promote the growth, success, and well-being of the people our society has demeaned, persecuted, and exploited since long before Prez 45 came on the scene.

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