John Berger and Jean Mohr’s beautiful classic about migrant workers’ experiences in Europe – A Seventh Man – emphasizes how migrants lives and bodies become segmented according to forces they cannot control. To be a migrant is to be defined by economic and political powers as a subject, intended to be in a foreign territory only to perform one function and to fulfill a single rationale: to work. All other aspects that constitute a singular life are left outside the picture: being a mother or a father, being a son or a daughter; having other knowledges, skills and capabilities beyond the expected work.

Municipalist initiatives in different places are trying to develop methods to transform the situation of migrants and refugees in cities, not only by granting them basic services and support in a humanitarian sense, but also acknowledging their belonging to the cities they live in. And with that right to belong, the right to their full acknowledgement as political subjects.

This article attempts to reflect on the notion of sanctuary, its various derived practices, and its recent history in the US, in order to propose some learnings for the broader municipalist movement. In doing so, by no means am I trying to “represent” or substitute the voices or positions of the sanctuary movement, but merely to think about a possible dialogue between these experiences and the broader municipalist movement in other parts of the world.

The origins and practices of the sanctuary movement

It is well-known that the practice of taking and giving sanctuary has a long history, going back to the medieval European Christianity. Very broadly, the special role of churches in feudal societies allowed them to have a special legal status, enabling them to serve as a space for refuge for people proscribed by an administration or feudal lord. This notion has survived and evolved throughout the centuries and across religious faiths. As a social movement in the US, the first sanctuary activity dates back to the 1980’s, when many churches in the country decided to open their doors to refugees coming from/originally from Central America, mostly El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The movement was a bold response to the direct military intervention of the Reagan administration in Central America. Hundreds of thousands of people (some figures say about 500,000) were hosted by churches all over the country, especially in California, Arizona and Texas. Given this connection with Central America, the movement was deeply influenced by Liberation Theology. The condition of war refugees of the people protected in the 80’s by the sanctuary movement may seem to constitute a main difference between the movement then and now, when this is not the main circumstance of Latinamerican migrants. However the distinction between the categories of refugees and migrants has always been questioned by the movement for various reasons. The type of US intervention and influence then and now may have changed a bit (direct military intervention then, subtler economic and political pressure now) but still part of the same US imperialist project which has had such a deep impact in Central America.

The current New Sanctuary Movement took its inspiration from this precedent. However, as journalist Laura Gottesdiener points out, there are important differences in scope, practices and composition between both, due to the different contexts and factors that motivated them. The current movement is significantly smaller (the number of people currently in sanctuary is dozens or a few hundred) and its focus lies more on the situation of people already living in the US that are now facing a reduction of their rights due to successive legal constraints put forward by the Federal administrations, as well as the increasing presence of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents in neighborhoods. It is important to note that while the movement has come to the spotlight especially after Trump’s victory, it had already started in the last years of the Bush administration, and continued working and slowly growing throughout Obama’s presidency, which has been the harshest administration to date towards migrants, with record numbers of deportations.

The movement’s main practice is obviously offering sanctuary to people facing immediate deportation. However, churches work as hubs for many other actions and initiatives. For instance, they offer legal counseling and the accompaniment of people to their ICE appointments.

This short video essay by Colectivo Somoslacelula gives an overview on the practice of accompaniment

Through these and other practices, the movement aims ultimately at building power. The physical space of the church is a strong resource for the movement, whilst its fundamental moral legitimacy, and its special legal status as an institution and as a space enables the movement to challenge authorities and force them to confront the actual, concrete consequences of their laws: the separation of families, the tearing apart of entire communities.

Historically, this strong moral sense of sanctuary stems from the religious history of the concept, and the aforementioned influence of Liberation Theology. At the same time, these practices connect with other traditions in the US, such as the Underground Railroad and the Black Liberation movements. But in concrete terms, what the sanctuary as a space enables is the possibility of thinking of a congregation, a neighborhood and community in a territory as an active political subject. It achieves this, first, by facilitating the encounter between neighbors affected by deportation threats, and those concerned about them or merely willing to volunteer and help in one way or another.

But the practice of sanctuary is not only, or even not mainly, about “giving” to a passive person in need of help. As Laura Gottesdiener pointed out in a conversation we had, it is not so clear who is the one who gives and who is the one who receives; within a process of sanctuary there have been intense processes of personal transformation for many of the people involved. For instance, Carey Kasten mentioned to me that Action Potluck, an offspring of the New Sanctuary Coalition based in Washington Heights, NYC, and formed mostly by parents, focuses on small scale actions, like picking up kids from parents in sanctuary from school and hosting “know your rights” workshops in schools. As they say in their website, it is about “learning how to be neighbors”.

Sanctuary everywhere

One novelty of the current sanctuary movement has been its expansion of the very notion of sanctuary beyond churches, especially during the Trump administration. The campaign #SanctuaryEverywhere, organized mostly by Quaker groups but which rapidly expanded as a slogan for the whole movement, laid out a series of practices of mutual support at different levels, from the everyday life in the streets to workplace and institutional contexts.

Organizations such as and Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which focus on the conditions of workers in the restaurant industry (which employs a significant number of undocumented workers), launched a campaign in January 2017 with the goal to protect workers’ rights, impede harrasment by ICE agents and create a network of “Sanctuary Restaurants” which has reached almost 400 workplaces nationwide.

Probably the most known example of this broadening of the notion of sanctuary are higher education institutions. About 16 universities declared themselves a “sanctuary campus”, while dozens of others vowed to not cooperate with federal immigration authorities and to maintain protective policies towards their undocumented students, in one degree or another. In many other cases, the gravity and renewed sense of urgency opened by the outrageous treatment of migrants by the Trump administration has opened internal debates within higher education institutions (for example, in those founded by religious denominations), forcing them to rethink their institutional missions, and their definition of education, in the face of the current situation.

Map of #SanctuaryCampus, compiled by Xavier Maciel and Aparna Parikh 

There are, however, important aspects of Sanctuary campuses to consider. First of all, university campuses are not constitutionally capable of providing sanctuary in the same way a church is. Second, whilst in the beginning campus mobilizations against Trump policies was intense, and gave way to a long stride of declarations of support to the sanctuary movement by universities and colleges, after three years it is difficult to measure the specific impact of those mobilizations. Nevertheless, many initiatives of support continue in many campuses as of today, on many occasions beyond or besides official declarations of the institutions. One example is NYU Sanctuary, which provides help with translating legal documents, educational workshops and resources. While movements usually meet ebbs and flows throughout their trajectory, these examples of solidarity may point to the power of the sanctuary notion to build a new kind of migrant movement, with broader ties with civil society institutions.

Sanctuary cities

Part of the recent expansion of the notion of sanctuary is related to the resurgence of the related term “sanctuary cities”. Again, the term itself has a longer history, but it was under the first months of Trump’s presidency when it acquired a renewed currency, as major cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Francisco, declared their non-cooperation with federal agencies like ICE. It is easy to see many of these attempts as mere posturing by Democratic mayors, eager to join the so-called “resistance” against Trump. However, it is important to consider the political potential of such positions. In many cases these stances allowed concrete measures of protection towards undocumented migrants to be implemented.

Also, this type of challenge posed by municipal authorities to the federal government points to a deep constitutional tension present throughout the history of the US: the conflict between different levels of sovereignty (federal, state, and municipal) and the possibility of reconfiguring the relationship between these distinct levels. As it is known, Republicans have used the state level – in the name of a certain federalism – to roll back many progressive policies (abortion laws, for example). The example of the sanctuary cities points to the possibility of thinking of municipal power as an institutional level capable of exerting, if not a complete “counterpower” (the term seems a bit excessive given the complexity of administrative overlaps and connections), at least becoming a stance for building certain leverage towards the federal government.

Nevertheless, it is true that on occasions the self-declared sanctuary cities have practiced a narrow understanding of the term, connecting it to a limited set of policies.  As Shakeer Rahman and Robin Steinberg pointed out, Trump’s immigration measures do not happen in a vacuum, but are sustained by the work (“track and sort”, holding people in temporary detention, the legal process becoming itself as punishment) of local police departments. In order to really undermine Trump’s policies, cities need to implement serious and in-depth police reform, leaving behind “broken windows” and similar strategies.

In that vein, organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy put together extremely useful reports and documents, such as the Municipal Policy Toolkit, aimed precisely at providing local public officers legal tools and language to put forward initiatives capable of delinking federal and city policies. These include the aforementioned police reforms, limiting cooperation with ICE, rejecting sharing any information with federal agencies, implementing free legal counseling to undocumented individuals, among many other measures.

Given the expansion (even inflation) of the term sanctuary, what is a real sanctuary city? What would it look like? That is, understanding the concept not (or not only, as in many immigration debates) in humanitarian terms, as a type of emergency measure under a specific administration, but as a long term political strategy.  The term has been invoked by some progressive city mayors as a response to Trump immigration policies, but we can see how it points to a series of interconnected issues, policies, and power structures that go even beyond the immigration and deportation problematic. By saying this, I am not trying to diminish those problems, tragic as they are. On the contrary: it is about pointing out 1) the centrality of migrant lives, labor and struggles in contemporary cities’ economies and societies, and thus 2) how so called “migrant problems” far from being some kind of isolated, rare, “marginal” issues, are connected to many other dimensions of social, economic, political and cultural life of cities.

The purpose of this framing would be to help understand this centrality, this importance, in order to spark an understanding of migrant struggles not as something “foreign” to the city itself, but as something actually enmeshed within the problems of citizens from the receiving countries and cities as well. Migrants are not “a problem” isolated from other realities, but are, at many levels, constituting elements of urban realities themselves.


Reframing citizenship through municipalism

To return to Berger and Mohr’s ideas that opened this text, the seventh man, the seventh woman, are seen as a supplements of the city, an invisible presence. But one upon whose work the rest of the city depends. Similarly, when Lefebvre coined his famous concept of the “Right to the City” he stressed the fact that living in a city means not only working in it, but also becoming a citizen in its full sense: the life of an individual can not be segmented only according to economic reasons, but realized in its fullest, most integral sense. That is why the right to the city is first and foremost a political right: the right to take part in the decisions that shape the city’s present and future. And as such political right, it is one that cannot be exerted individually: to take part in the political life of the city is to become part of a collective body.

One of the main potentials of municipalism as a political project lies in its redefinition of what it means to live in a city, to be a citizen. Certainly, the concept of citizen, as well as related terms like citizenship, is loaded with historical meanings and resonances. In the US, citizenship is usually understood almost solely as a person’s legal status. Municipalism, in contrast, aims to expand the notion of the citizen to all inhabitants of the city, regardless of their legal status, in order to enable everyone to access basic services and social rights (healthcare, education, etc.) as well as being capable to take part in the political life of the city.

This resonates with municipalism’s attempt to redefine political notions such as citizenry and citizenship. On the one hand, the citizenry, the whole of the citizens of a city, is not merely a population, or a grouping of voters or consumers, a passive object for statistical study, but a political subject. Citizenship, on the other hand, is thus not a question of individual legal status, but a question of belonging to a collective body, through a variety of economic, but also social and cultural ties.

If individual persons become segmented, considered merely as a set of skills, so do cities as well: fragmented, segregated, through an urbanism of inequality, embodied in rental hikes, the rise of condos, the displacement and policing of whole communities and the threat of deportation for so many others. A city in the image and likeness of capitalist economy, and its narrow needs and desires. The sanctuary movement, in its various aspects, shows us that there is a whole city within the city we currently know. An invisible “seventh city” made of neighbors not only giving and taking solidarity, but with languages, practices, knowledges and capacities capable of helping the whole city to reimagine itself.


The author wants to thank Laura Gottesdiener and Carey Kasten for sharing their knowledge and thoughts about different aspects of the Sanctuary movement, and the collective Somoslacelula for their video. Also thanks to Pedro Cabello for sharing his observations and experiences in the movement throughout time.

Featured image: Members of the New Sanctuary Coalition outside of ICE headquarters in Manhattan on July 13, 2017.

Photo by: Elia Gran.