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Challenges for the New Sanctuary Movement

by ERIC JOHNSON-DEBAUFRE

On Wednesday, May 9th religious organizations in five U.S. cities announced the launch of the New Sanctuary Movement and pledged their determination to protect undocumented people against federal efforts to deport them. Modeled in part on the original Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, this new movement distinguishes itself in part by being both significantly more religiously diverse-at the New York launch, representatives included Rabbi Michael Feinberg and founder and amir of the House of Peace, Shaykh T. A. Bashir-and directed towards a larger and more diverse population of immigrants.

As a participant in the original Sanctuary Movement and someone who has in the past written about the need for revitalizing and expanding it (see “Building a New Sanctuary Movement,” CounterPunch 5/19/06), I greeted the announcement with both surprise and enthusiasm. Undocumented people and their allies ought to be encouraged by the emergence of this New Sanctuary Movement and wish it all possible success.

Nevertheless, as the founders of the New Sanctuary Movement no doubt know, this new movement faces serious challenges. The most significant source would appear to come from the larger culture in which the New Sanctuary Movement and, more importantly, undocumented immigrants find themselves. As several recent articles in CounterPunch make clear (see Juan Santos and Leslie Radford’s “Public Terror: Escalating the War on Migrants,” 5/12-13/07; and Carlos Villareal’s “How ‘Law and Order’ Covers for Bigotry in the Immigration Debate,” 5/2/07), these challenges include the proliferation of both discourses that aim to disguise racism and nativism under the veneer of legalism and even, as in the May 1st attacks on migrants by the LAPD, physical violence.

In my own state of New Jersey, this increasing hostility toward undocumented people has expressed itself in the city council of Morristown’s endorsement of Mayor Cresitello’s efforts to have local police deputized as federal immigration officers and in a general increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric. On Monday, as I waited to get a replacement card at the Social Security Administration office in Parsippany, I witnessed this first hand when a kind Latina woman tried to explain to the man behind the desk that the older Hispanic woman next to her had not heard her number called due to her limited English. “Sorry, but this is America!” he blustered, loud enough to draw some approving comments from a few of the people next to me.

Part of the success of the New Sanctuary Movement will depend on changing the terms in which immigration is discussed in the United States. A key component of the “discussion”-I set it off in scare quotes to indicate how undeserving it is of the name-is the dominance of “law and order” rhetoric that, when it isn’t busy merely disguising an unacknowledged racism and nativism, reveals the prevalence of an unreflective fundamentalist legalism in much of the culture. Their favored term to describe undocumented people-“illegals”-makes this abundantly clear. For many on both the anti-immigrant fringe and center, absence of legal documentation alone constitutes migrants as a “criminal” population within the United States. For them, the undocumented are criminals merely by their presence, a stance that seeks to turn the issue of documentation (or its absence) into a debate-ending trump card.

This attitude suggests less a healthy respect for law than a retreat into naïve legalism. Its near ubiquitous presence in the public discourse surrounding undocumented migrants attests to the modern nation-state’s success in monopolizing not only the legitimate use of violence-which Weber regarded as a crucial aspect of modernity’s emergence-but also the legitimate means of movement, a phenomenon explored by writers like Tim Cresswell in On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge, 2006). The unreflective acceptance of the state’s right to control movement, combined with the expansion of global capitalism and legal protections for multi-national corporations, leads to the absurdity of the present: a present in which the borders between states are entirely permeable to the movement of global capital and where treaties protect the right of some “persons” (i.e. corporations) to operate without regulation, often devastating local economies and degrading local environments, and one in which these same borders harden unimaginably against those who would attempt to traverse them in search of the means to secure their own livelihood.

The issue of documentation thus should not be allowed to become a shibboleth in the immigration debate, nor should absence of legal documentation be used to criminalize a population. One can imagine any number of cases where reasonable people would agree that lack of legal documentation for residence in a country shouldn’t matter in the slightest. The New Sanctuary Movement ought to make it part of its task to challenge at every turn this fundamentalist legalism.

But there are other challenges as well, challenges from within the movement itself. As one of its documents, “Prophetic Hospitality: Strategy for a New Movement,” declares, the New Sanctuary Movement pledges its support and protection for only a “limited number of immigrant families” and these are further restricted to those “whose legal cases clearly reveal the contradictions and moral injustice of our current immigration system.” Given the size of the U.S.’s undocumented population and the limited resources of the new Sanctuary Movement, this selectivity is perhaps understandable. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that the criteria being used by the movement to identify potential candidates for support-candidates would be families under a deportation order with American citizen children, good work histories and a viable legal case-risk ceding too much ground to its opponents. Clearly there are solid strategic reasons behind these criteria. The exclusive focus on families with American citizen children is obviously designed to force the culture to either live up to its professed “pro-family” stance or reveal it to be a sham. But the movement may find that the risks outweigh the benefits: narrowing the candidate pool to families with viable cases and good work records threatens to play into the hands of those who would split undocumented people into two groups, a small group deemed “good” and “deserving” and the “criminal” and “undeserving” masses.

Just as at some point the civil rights movement found it needed to move beyond ideal test cases with “model” clients, so too must the New Sanctuary Movement keep its eyes set on justice for more than just undocumented families and their citizen children. Not to do so would be a profound betrayal of its deepest ethical commitments.

The New Sanctuary Movement faces many challenges, but as important as these are they pale in comparison to the movement’s potential to challenge our culture’s habit of demonizing undocumented people even as it simultaneously exploits them for both economic and political gain. In many ways the New Sanctuary Movement has the potential to stand in the great prophetic tradition of the abolitionist and civil rights movements. Whether it can succeed in changing the national conversation about immigration remains both an open question and the profound hope of undocumented people everywhere.

ERIC JOHNSON-DEBAUFRE is a doctoral candidate in English at Boston University and occasional contributor to CounterPunch. He currently lives in Madison, NJ and can be reached at ericjd@optonline.net.

 

 

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