What “Sanctuary City” Should Mean: Resist Deportations Like the White South Resisted Integration

There was justified outrage recently over a political cartoon that likened Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to Ruby Bridges, the first black child to integrate New Orleans schools. DeVos is a coddled billionaire, wholly unqualified for her job, who was turned away from a Washington, DC, school once by peaceful protesters. Bridges was six years old in 1960 when raging mobs of white parents threw tomatoes and eggs at her and cursed her as she tried to go to school under the protection of armed federal agents. They kept that abuse up for a year. To say that DeVos and young Bridges have nothing in common is an understatement.

But buried in that wrong-headed cartoon is a valuable lesson about political strategy: when the white leaders and civilians of southern states and municipalities were faced with federal integration orders in the 1950s and ’60s, they perceived an existential threat to their values and they resisted like their lives depended on it. Civil servants, elected officials, and ordinary citizens joined together to make their cities sanctuaries for racism. Was their resistance monstrously immoral? Yes. But it was remarkably effective. They marshaled their police forces, their civic associations, their municipal governments, and every other resource available in the service of preserving segregation. In many respects, they pulled it off: through a combination of migration, zoning changes, and sometimes even municipal secession, white people managed to keep educating their children in predominantly white public schools, and to keep living in largely segregated communities.

Now, federal authorities are actively disrupting the lives of American cities through raids that have swept through immigrant communities, resulting in hundreds of arrests. It is not hyperbolic to say that these tactics are an existential threat to the lives of cities, just as integration was a threat to the racist status quo that preceded it — the only important difference being that this time, the federal government seeks to impose injustice and the cities and states seek to resist it. So now, local leaders and residents who truly support our immigrant neighbors must fight back like segregationists did 50 years ago. We must make our cities true sanctuaries for immigrants, just as the white south became a sanctuary for hatred.

Sanctuary city ordinances have focused mostly on orders directing local police not to respect ICE detainers and preventing local institutions like schools from sharing information with the feds. These are a good first steps, to be sure, but hardly the end of what cities can do to protect their residents from unjust federal action. In a city that was truly a sanctuary for immigrants, ICE agents would have their cars towed or booted or blocked in by garbage trucks. They would be arrested by local police on the flimsiest of charges, then released after 23 hours (47 on weekends). The federal buildings they where they work would be surrounded with sobriety checkpoints and road closures and noisy construction at all hours.

In a city that was truly a sanctuary, citizen allies of immigrants would feel a duty to be difficult. We would never show proof of citizenship when asked, even if we had it. We would gather in large numbers to jeer federal agents. We would refuse to serve them in our restaurants, stores, and hotels.

Do we debase ourselves by mirroring the tactics of bigots? We do not, because our cause is just and our adversaries care nothing for morality or humanity. Already, ICE agents have arrested a victim of domestic violence at her restraining order hearing, acting on a tip from her abuser. They have waited outside a church where immigrants were sheltering from the cold. They have targeted an immigrant who was brought here as an infant and never committed so much as a traffic violation. Federal agents have brought violence and coercion to peaceful people, not in the service of public safety, but to slake fear and hatred. We debase ourselves when we call our cities sanctuaries and fail to resist with every resource available to us.

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