The Nov. 30 acquittal of an undocumented immigrant in the murder of American citizen Kate Steinle has brought calls from the usual suspects for an end to so-called “sanctuary cities,” cities that refuse to be complicit in the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants.
Sanctuary cities have taken a beating since the emergence of Donald Trump on the national scene, including various efforts to deny federal policing funds to them and radio and TV spots connecting them to the rise of the notorious MS-13 gang during Virginia’s gubernatorial election.
Critics acting as though the sanctuary citizen were some modern, liberal invention miss the long roots of the idea. In some ways it lays close to the core of the American ideal. From the first cities in the Near East to the Roman republic, cities were places of refuge, where people could flee from their pasts and start again, often heedless of legalities that bound them to other places.
In medieval Europe, as urban areas recovered from the long funk of the early Middle Ages, cities encouraged immigration, legal or not, with provisions granting citizenship to those who came and stayed a length of time, commonly a year and a day, so long as they caused no trouble and no trouble followed them. That these new arrivals may have been breaking laws in leaving their villages did not much trouble city leaders, who wanted ambitious and energetic newcomers.
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Our first naturalization law, issued in 1790, reflects some of this character by allowing “any alien, being a free white person,” who had lived in the United States for two years and within a state for one, to apply for citizenship and have it granted by any common law court upon proof of good character. As more and more non-“white” people came to America, rules tightened.
America itself can be viewed as something of a sanctuary city.
Seeking refuge from persecution in England, the Puritan leader John Winthrop described the Massachusetts Bay colony, declaring “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” That the Puritans turned to persecution after establishing their city need not detain us; the image of the city on a hill stuck, with Ronald Reagan describing it as “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.”
If anyone has shown “the will and heart” to get here, it is the men and women who left home to face an uncertain future to make the dangerous trek across the border, in search of a better life for themselves and their families.
Places we might call “sanctuary cities” resisted the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, allowing slave owners to claim runaways who made it to free states, negating “personal liberty laws” designed to aid runaways and to prevent local authorities from cooperating in their recapture. Legally empowered slave catchers were met with resistance, up to and including armed conflict, in towns throughout the North. We do not condemn white and black resisters for acting morally in the face of unjust laws.
Today’s fugitives aren’t fleeing the tyranny of slavery, but the threat to their persons in the places they leave behind is often dire. Is the justice of our immigration policy so manifest that it compels obedience, consequences be damned, or is there room for compassion and principled resistance to apparent injustice?
Sanctuary cities, then, operate in the noblest tradition of the city throughout human history. Cities have been sanctuaries from the moment of their first founding, a haven for the refugee, a place for the outcast to find a home. They have been the incubators of our greatest ideas.
By providing sanctuary, by welcoming the outsider, they prove the American motto, making many into one.
Transforming refugees into citizens and providing shelter for the stranger in need has worked for the 9,000 years we’ve lived in cities, and it works still, whether our city is a physical place like Raleigh, or the metaphorical city on a hill, and abandoning it wholesale is abandonment of a noble principle.
Michael G. Bazemore Jr. teaches history at Shaw University in Raleigh.