This essay introduces the issues and stakes of sanctuary movements and provides an introduction to the Critical Intervention forum.

Almost immediately upon his election, Donald J. Trump issued an executive order denying federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, as well as other public institutions such as universities. Sanctuary cities are those that mandate that their law enforcement refuse to comply with federal immigration officials, usually except for criminal investigations. In November 2017, a federal judge blocked this order. In the strongly worded decision, Judge William H. Orrick noted, “Federal funding that bears no meaningful relationship to immigration enforcement cannot be threatened merely because a jurisdiction chooses an immigration enforcement strategy of which the President disapproves.”1 Despite the reprieve for sanctuary cities, that order, along with so many other Trump administration actions—raiding, separating families, locking migrant children in concentration camp conditions, targeting people from Muslim countries, shutting off legal pathways for asylum seekers, and continuing to push for his Wall at all costs, among others—contributes to what US immigration historian Rachel Ida Buff calls “deportation terror.”

Deportation terror “creates a culture of fear, which in turn, constitutes de facto immigration policy.”2 The purpose of the perpetual threat of deportation, detention, and disappearance is to incite fear, anxiety, and immobility among migrant communities. Deportation terror also incites immigration justice advocates and activists to reconnect to the shared vulnerabilities of all those lacking access to citizenship in the country where they reside because, as queer migration scholar Eithne Luibhéid argues, there is a shifting line between legal and illegal status for all migrants.3 Sanctuary was one of Trump's targets, and from progressive mayors and police departments, to university administrators and church leaders, to an array of immigration rights and justice groups in the United States, sanctuary has also been offered up as one of the most visible antidotes. Since 2016, sanctuary has been an important organizing mechanism for migrant justice in religious, educational, and civic institutions. Yet, as A. Naomi Paik contends, sanctuary practice largely “has functioned within a liberal democratic framework that not only confines its potential intervention, but can also lead it to reproduce the very exclusions it seeks to challenge.”4 Such exclusions can emerge from reinforcing the legitimacy of law enforcement and participating in respectability politics by supporting only the most “worthy” migrants, which is what many contemporary sanctuary practices do.

A special issue of Radical History Review edited by Paik, Jason Ruiz, and Rebecca Schreiber addresses some of these paradoxes of sanctuary by locating the concept within historical legacies of queer space-making, black fugitivity, and autonomous indigenous forms of hospitality.5 Their special issue recognizes, for example, that as Trump increasingly conflates all racialized people regardless of citizenship through instances such as his persistent use of rhetorics of “infestation” to describe our politics, our movements, or where we come from,6 practices of sanctuary can and should catalyze coalition building beyond different types of migrants to criminalized US citizen communities who may not suffer the threat of expulsion outside the state's borders, but certainly face an array of other related expulsions—incarceration, gentrification, and other forms of state-sanctioned violence and abjection. Further, as Paik, Ruiz, and Schreiber note in their introduction, “the undercurrents that gave rise to Trump are not isolated to the United States,”7 making transnational connections vital. The objectives of this Critical Intervention forum are more modest, although no less significant: Contributors emphasize migration and migrant communities.

Nearly three years into Trump's presidency, and with time and space since the original fervor around sanctuary Trump helped to catalyze, to create this forum, I asked scholars who work on issues related to immigration and militarization, policing and prisons, globalization, fugitivity, and social justice to interrogate the notion of sanctuary in roughly 1,500 words. I asked them to consider questions, including: What does sanctuary mean, and what can it mean? How do/should practices of sanctuary relate to practices of fugitivity, both historically and in the present day? What lessons from history remain to be unpacked in contemporary sanctuary efforts and theorizing? What methodological concerns arise when studying sanctuary or communities impacted by sanctuary policies and politics? What alternatives to sanctuary exist when brainstorming how best to support migrant communities and those seeking to migrate to places like the United States from elsewhere? These questions had become salient in my own thinking, writing, organizing, and speaking about sanctuary, and so I wanted to create a venue for thinkers I admired to work through the same kinds of questions.

As I studied sanctuary policies on US campuses and talked with colleagues about what it would mean to make my own institution a sanctuary, I became highly disillusioned with sanctuary, at times worrying it was a meaningless concept and therefore a distraction from radical organizing. Yet, I couldn't forget the radical history of sanctuary in the United States where people actively defied immoral US laws to provide places of refuge and asylum for those fleeing injustice and violence from Central America. I first learned of this history during one of my own radical awakenings while conducting research for my dissertation with the Coalición de Derechos Humanos in Tucson, AZ. Through my research, I learned of the Manzo Area Council, a federally-funded human rights and social service community organization on the west side of Tucson that started in the 1960s during President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. In the early 1980s, people with bullets lodged in their bodies began to arrive at Manzo's doors. Many of these people were from El Salvador, fleeing growing civil war. Although US immigration policy opened to Cuban refugees, US policy made it so that it was virtually impossible to receive asylum as a Central American. People were coming by the thousands, but found literally no support. For example, US courts repeatedly told these refugees that no credible fear existed in places like El Salvador, so Manzo's advocates began to set up shop in “El Centro,” the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention facility in southern Arizona. Isabel Garcia, a young attorney at the time, would sign blank G28 forms for people who could then say that she was their legal representative. Romantic partners Margo Cowan (Manzo's young director) and Guadalupe Castillo (a Manzo volunteer) devoted years of their lives helping to represent thousands of people in El Centro, simply to clog the system, but these efforts were insufficient in truly helping to provide migrants with relief. And Cowan wasn't even an attorney yet. Though they lacked the capacity to support all the migrants who needed it, the Manzo Area Council workers' tireless efforts signaled the queer, feminist catalysts of the sanctuary movement, a movement that may not have existed without them. Eventually, they solicited religious communities, who facilitated an underground railroad from Central America to Tucson and other parts of the United States, most notably California's Bay Area. Playwright Milta Ortiz's play, Sanctuary (2018), is based on these events, and she generously agreed to allow me to include an excerpt in this forum.

The idea for this underground railroad is owed to another underground railroad in the 19th century that assisted enslaved black fugitives on their way north to freedom. The practices of fugitivity of the loose network known as the underground railroad participated in bold actions. As historian Eric Foner writes, “In Boston, Syracuse, Troy, and other communities, crowds stormed courthouses where fugitives were being held, overpowered guards, and spirited the runaways to Canada. Groups of black and white Northerners, at considerable risk, hid fugitives in their homes and facilitated their journeys north.”8 These risk-taking ventures emerged from the persistent radical resistance of the black community.9 Thus, even without the conditions of the Trump-era deportation terror, heightened attacks on US citizen communities of color, and growing global fascism, sanctuary has always potentially signaled radical possibility, even if that possibility is often thwarted through the persistent application of a liberal framework.

Each of the essays in this forum in one way or another interrogates the radical possibility of sanctuary alongside its limitations. The forum opens with two essays that detail how the sanctuary movement transpired following Trump's election by considering the author's university campuses. The authors of these essays, A. Naomi Paik and Jason Ruiz, also led national efforts at the American Studies Association annual meeting to coordinate resources and strategize together in 2016, making their reflections on their work especially important. Paik discusses what happened at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) when gender and ethnic studies faculty delivered a petition demanding sanctuary to university leadership. Although UIUC did not declare sanctuary, Paik shows how pressure by insurgent faculty and students forced the administration to offer some protections while also revealing the many contradictions in the university's espoused principles with some of its practices. Ruiz explores what occurred at the University of Notre Dame following a sanctuary petition that received more than 4,000 signatures in just a couple of days. Unsurprisingly, administrators responded indirectly, opting for a “wait and see” approach followed by a refusal to name the campus as a sanctuary because that approach could have unintended negative consequences. Although this was a loss, as Ruiz puts it, if the push for sanctuary led to the creation of more resources and support for undocumented students (as happened on his campus), this is important, no matter what it is called.

Anthropologists Linda E. Sánchez and Susan Bibler Coutin (who wrote one of the most important books on the 1980s sanctuary movement in the United States10) move the forum in a different direction as they offer a model for sanctuary as a research practice. Their model focuses explicitly on those working on immigration issues, and asks such scholars to enter spaces of risk for their work, reject essentializing terms, embody ethics of fugitivity, and expand sanctuary beyond traditional sanctuary spaces. In a similar vein, critical communication scholars Oscar Alfonso Mejía and Kent A. Ono argue for the importance of media and activist narratives in intervening in the violences that constitute migrant lives. They also insist that activist scholars have a mandate to contextualize such narratives and extend them. In their essay, they explore several episodes of the popular ABC series The Fosters that dealt with an undocumented character asking for sanctuary. Through their analysis they develop a concept of moral fugitivity to describe the depiction of sanctuary. Although the story is simplistic, Mejía and Ono insist that such media representation is a vital part of bringing visibility to justice movements.

The forum closes with an excerpt from Ortiz's Sanctuary. Ortiz documents the early origins of sanctuary in Tucson from a perspective not normally told—the queer and feminist women who catalyzed it. Although I could include only one scene here, Ortiz's entire play not only reveals the tensions that disparate advocates and activists had over how best to support Central American migrants, but it also highlights the complex relationships among the migrants who came, blurring the lines between oppressor and oppressed. This excerpt, which I frame with a brief interview with Ortiz, gives the audience a glimpse of how the movement began. Taken together, these pieces record important sanctuary histories and offer readers new ways to think about sanctuary practices. My hope is that this Critical Intervention forum will catalyze innovative intellectual and political projects.


Eli Rosenberg, “Federal Judge Blocks Trump's Executive Order on Denying Funding to Sanctuary Cities,” Washington Post, 21 November 2017,
Rachel Ida Buff, “The Deportation Terror,” American Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2008): 531. For an important history of resistance to the deportation in the mid-20th-century United States, see Buff, Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2018).
Eithne Luibhéid, “Sexuality, Migration, and the Shifting Line Between Legal and Illegal Status,” GLQ 14, nos. 2–3 (2008): 289–316.
A. Naomi Paik, “Abolitionist Futures and the US Sanctuary Movement,” Race and Class 59, no. 2 (2017): 5.
A. Naomi Paik, Jason Ruiz, and Rebecca M. Schreiber, “Radical Histories of Sanctuary,” Special Issue, Radical History Review 2019, no. 135 (2019).
Asher Stockler, “CNN Anchor Defends Baltimore Against Attack Trump, Notes President Uses ‘Infestation’ When Talking about Minorities,” Newsweek, 27 July 2019,
A. Naomi Paik, Jason Ruiz, and Rebecca M. Schreiber, “Sanctuary's Radical Networks,” Radical History Review 2019, no. 135 (2019): 3.
Eric Foner, “What the Fugitive Slave Act Teaches Us About How States Can Resist Oppressive Federal Power,” The Nation, 8 February 2017,
Stephen Kantrowitz, “Refuge for Fugitives,” Boston Review, 16 May 2017,
Susan Bibler Coutin, The Culture of Protest: Religious Activism and the US Sanctuary Movement (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993).