A brief history of the sanctuary movement in the United States
Pay attention as you drive into town along Yolo County’s Road 32 and you’ll see it: a sign declaring my small hometown of Davis, California, a “sanctuary city.” We’ve been one since 1986, when the last great wave of Central American migrants were driven by civil wars to seek refuge in our country.
Our sanctuary city status is something the people of my hometown can and should be proud of. The fact our leaders resolved to remain a sanctuary city, even as the president of the United States took action to target them, should make us prouder still.
Now, it appears the president has a new idea for how to treat sanctuary cities. In a tweet, he announced: “We are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities only.”
He then added: “This should make them very happy!”
The reaction from most of the leaders of sanctuary cities, as well as many respected advocates and defenders of immigrants, has not been happiness. Instead it’s been outrage.
They have a point: How dare the president use human beings as props to score political points?
But in our outrage we are missing an opportunity – and conceding the larger argument to the president and his xenophobic ilk. We should recognize this as a test, not a threat. We must respond with courage, not complaints. Above all, we must reject the premise that the arrival of immigrants is in any way a punishment. In reality, it’s an opportunity to be our best selves and to live up to our values as Americans.
If the president wants to let immigrants come to our cities instead of locking them in cages, we should be happy.
What’s not to like? According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the overwhelming majority of the people presenting themselves at our border are parents with children. They’re families seeking a better life. Many of them fled horrific gang violence in places where local authorities often cannot be trusted. Sanctuary cities are thus the ideal place for them to be. These cities are places where they can safely call the police if any criminal threatens them again.
But the truth – one that, perhaps, President Donald Trump crudely senses – is that many sanctuary cities are not as welcoming to immigrants as their 2016 election margins would imply. After all, how can a place be a sanctuary if no working-class migrant can afford to live there?
The most liberal communities in the country often seek to wall off their good schools and safe neighborhoods from the children who need them most. This goes for my hometown of Davis. Despite being a sanctuary city, we have remained less than 15% Latino for decades. Meanwhile, look at every one of our neighboring towns. Latinos are sizable populations in every one of them: 48.3% in Woodland, 53.1% in Winters, 42.6% in Dixon and 29.8% in West Sacramento.
The disparity stems more from “not in my backyard” policies than from intentional bigotry, but still I wonder: At what point do you call a place segregated? And at what point do segregated places have to admit they are not “sanctuaries”?
The president’s making a bet on this hypocrisy. He’s betting that, deep down, many an affluent progressive is more like him than they think. But his latest provocation is an opportunity to prove the president wrong.
It’s also an opportunity for liberal but exclusive towns like Davis to reckon with our own failings and entrenched inequalities. It’s an opportunity for everyone in California to think about how to build a state that actually provides sanctuary to everyone.
So, to the leadership of my hometown, my home state and every other sanctuary city across the country, big and small: Put your money where your mouth is. Walk the talk.
Send the president a letter saying: “Yes, please. We welcome the immigrants you send our way.”
Then prove it by investing in immigrant housing, services and outreach.