Representations of undocumented people on television shows such as The Fosters can impact how audiences understand contemporary issues concerning sanctuary and migrants. In this Critical Intervention forum essay, we examine the intricate representation of Ximena, a Latinx woman, and her struggle as an undocumented person who takes up sanctuary in a church to avoid being arrested by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This televisual representation of Ximena highlights the need to incorporate the complexity of undocumented people's experiences into mainstream narratives. As activist scholars, in this brief essay we support, critique, and contextualize representations of undocumented people and sanctuary as part of the work that needs to be done to help challenge dehumanizing representations, laws and policies, and actions.
Although a few television shows have represented immigration and sanctuary in limited ways, The Fosters—ABC Family's Freeform drama about a lesbian couple parenting diverse foster children and the challenges the family members face—offered a multi-episode thread of episodes during Season 5 (2017–2018) devoted to the topics of undocumented immigration, sanctuary, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).1 The New York Times hails The Fosters as a “multiple threat, wrapping up gay parenting, blended families, adoption and foster care and juvenile justice systems in one happy-sad package.”2 The show addresses contemporary social issues, including ones relating to gender, race, and sexuality.
In this Critical Intervention forum essay, we study The Fosters's representation of Ximena, a queer undocumented Latinx woman entering a church for sanctuary. The series explores the ramifications of sanctuary on Ximena, as well as questions pertaining to it—addressing what sanctuary is and what it does for undocumented people. The representation of Ximena in sanctuary plays two roles in our critical cultural analysis. First, we elaborate on the intricate representation of sanctuary and undocumented migrants on The Fosters through Ximena's narrative. Second, we think about Ximena's ability to represent migrants and the new sanctuary movement under attack by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as a morally just fugitive struggle. We refer to this struggle as “moral fugitivity,” moral because it is community support that aims to empower and protect community members and fugitivity or fugitive because, in an effort to uplift community, there is also an attempt to escape and upend unjust federal laws and policies built to attack migrants and marginalized people. Migrants in sanctuary violating immigration laws and policies with the support of community members are one example of moral fugitivity, which fights the presumption that simply living, or rather surviving, in the United States is a criminal act. Although limited by a “liberal democratic framework,” sanctuaries can work toward what A. Naomi Paik calls radical sanctuary, a safeguarding of the multiplicative struggles of oppressed people committed to solidarity in fighting government abuses.3
Narratives created by media and activists are essential strategies in attempting to protect migrant lives from deportation and imprisonment. Activist scholars also have a duty to help contextualize and strengthen representations committed to sanctuary by further educating audiences. Clearing away misconceptions about migrant experiences helps with people's ability to implement campaigns to protect people, or even stall laws that criminalize and sanction the deportation of undocumented migrants.4 In episodes 8–10 of Season 5, we learn that Ximena is a college student whose DACA status has lapsed.5 After Ximena participates in a protest and delivers an impassioned speech outing herself as undocumented, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents pursue her, finding her at a prom hosted at the roller derby she manages. Ximena's friend Callie has a mother, Steph, who is a police officer. Steph “arrests” Ximena, zip-tying her hands to prevent ICE from detaining her. While waiting in Steph's car (off screen), Ximena escapes and jumps into another vehicle with Callie and Callie's ex-boyfriend, AJ. Out of desperation, they drive to a nearby church, where Ximena takes up sanctuary. Before going into the church, Callie calls her brother Jude to ask if his friend Noah's mother, Pastor Nicole, can grant Ximena sanctuary. Jude calls back and says Pastor Nicole will arrive soon and that the doors on the west side of the church are always open. This very brief exchange implies it is easier than it actually is for migrants to enter sanctuary.
Once in the church, Ximena explains that her DACA status has expired. She says, “Look, I let it lapse 'cause we had moved. And I was worried about giving the government our new address. But I—I reapplied a while ago.” One way migrants become undocumented is with documentation lapsing when not reapplying for DACA or overstaying their visa.6 Like Ximena, some do not reapply for DACA for fear that the information they provide on the renewal application (e.g., home address, schools, place of work) will lead to their or their family's deportation.7 By reapplying, Ximena's family becomes newly visible to ICE. Migrants attempting to become “permissible,” and to abide by federal laws and policies, may experience heightened vulnerability, sacrificing their bodies, identities, and spaces.
Producing sympathy for Ximena's fugitive struggle incentivizes people to grasp the fear, vulnerability, and panopticonian assault inflicted upon migrants. The show represents activists, the community, and Ximena as part of a moral fugitivity, hence collectively employing communal power against an immoral and xenophobic government. The affective fear that ICE might not respect the integrity of sanctuary and thus threatens to invade the church is also highlighted. The episode “Sanctuary” (Season 5, episode 10) illustrates this threat by showing police lights shining through the church's stained-glass windows, dramatically implying the police are already outside and ready to arrest Ximena. Callie worries that ICE will enter, asking, “They really won't come in here?” and Ximena answers, “They don't come into churches,” demonstrating her lived, vernacular knowledge of ICE policies and pedagogically introducing viewers to a perspective of fugitive resistance. Ximena is represented as highly aware of the intricacies surrounding law and immigration because of her precarious status. The episode then focuses on ICE's attempt to extract and arrest people inside. ICE calls local police officers who will arrest Ximena if Steph does not, but Steph manages to call them off. ICE then attempts to get the FBI to arrest Callie for aiding in Ximena's escape from custody after she slipped out of Steph's car.
As ICE uses Ximena's fugitivity to deride her advocates, Ximena gains a sense of power through Callie's activism to gain public support for her. In the episode “#IWasMadeInAmerica” (Season 5, episode 12), Callie gives a passionate statement about Ximena's DACA status during the question and answer portion of an anti-immigrant speaker's event. Her statement makes national news in HuffPost, amplifying Ximena's justified fugitivity. As in The Fosters, coalitional pro-immigrant organizations use media to engage public compassion. Although the government dictates federal law and policy, hope for the ethical treatment of migrants is found in communities advocating and creating spaces for undocumented people, even with DHS attempting to demoralize their fugitive struggle by imposing civil fines on migrants totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars.8 As agents of social change, we must continue to uplift migrants' lives and stories by supporting sanctuary's moral fugitivity, and sometimes in opposition to a governing body designed to cast out migrant lives. Communal power is evident in organizations such as the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, which uses its privileges to advocate for people in sanctuary.9 Its much-publicized communal power has won court-issued stays for undocumented migrants, has persuaded legislators to introduce individual bills protecting specific migrants, and has led to the passage of legislation eliminating deportation detainers given out by ICE.10
The Fosters' gesture toward complicating migrant narratives should be praised. Together with critical cultural analysis of the show, even more complexity, and thereby humanity, can be introduced by scholar activists. As migrants are dehumanized by anti-immigrant discourses, it is imperative that we see their humanity represented as a vehicle for ethical social change. Scholars have a stake in the popular images of sanctuary circulating: Not only must we critique them and add our expert voices to them through critique, but we must also educate ourselves by participating in activist efforts to create safe places for migrants whose lives in the United States are continuously threatened.