Sanctuary: Defending the Vulnerable and Challenging the State from the Nineteenth Century until the Present

Solicited by the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (IEHS)

Saturday, April 4, 2020, 8:00 AM - 9:30 AM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Immigration and Internal Migration; International Relations


Among contemporary immigrant rights formations, those self-described as "Sanctuary Movement(s)" invoke a rich historical legacy, spanning nineteenth century anti-slavery abolitionism, mid-twentieth century human rights advocacy, as well as 1980s Sanctuary mobilizations by Central American refugees and their U.S. allies. This panel analyzes this legacy, with an eye to making more intelligible the sanctuary movements of today. It brings together scholars working on contemporary migration in a historical context, as well as one historian currently employed as a refugee advocate for an NGO. Rachel Ida Buff’s paper searches the practice of nineteenth century sanctuary movement activists as well as internationalist strategies in response to the displaced persons crisis of the mid-twentieth century for the antecedents of today’s migrant sanctuary mobilizations. As Yael Schacher and Carl Lindskoog discuss in their papers, the foreign born have had diverse allies with different ideological commitments and goals. Lindskoog and David Hernandez’s papers also make clear that there has been a dialectical relationship between state repression and sanctuary activism and that one important function of past and present activism on behalf of migrants and asylum seekers has been to draw attention to the causes of their displacement. Each of these histories reminds us that sovereign states have long claimed the right to determine who can enter their territory and what the nature of freedom will be for those who reside within their borders. But these papers also illustrate some of the many ways that individuals and groups (sometimes in the form of movements) have sought to defend vulnerable people, be they fugitive slaves, migrants, foreign-born students, refugees, or asylum seekers. The roots of today’s struggle between Sanctuary Movement activists and the U.S. government run deep and they are part of a much longer history of freedom movements, in the United States and beyond.

Papers Presented

A Conjectural History of Sanctuary

This paper explores two antecedents for contemporary migrant sanctuary mobilizations. Assuming that post-2014 new sanctuary movement formations in the United States directly extend from the 1980 sanctuary movement, this paper searches for more long-term precedents, considering two distinct historical moments: the implementation of the second Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and the displaced persons crisis after World War II. In the 1850s black and white abolitionists in northern states such as Philadelphia, Massachusetts and Wisconsin contended with the depredations of the Fugitive Slave Act, as it created conditions of extreme vulnerability for African Americans, regardless of their birth or status. They attempted to change local laws and initiate practices of court accompaniment parallel to the ones used among contemporary sanctuary communities. Almost a hundred years later, during the high-water mark of human rights, advocates for European displaced persons looked to internationalist discourses to formulate the refugee policies currently being dismantled. The paper considers how the UN High Commission on Refugees Convention of 1951 both drew on and displaced prior internationalist formations.

Presented By
Rachel ida Buff, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

(Whip)Lash of Immigration Enforcement: Family Detention, Separation, and Detention Again

From spring to fall of 2018, the Trump administration implemented, rescinded, and recommitted to a series of innovations in immigration enforcement. In April it implemented the “zero tolerance” policy against the unlawful entry of family units seeking asylum, necessitating the companion procedure of family separation. Scuttled after six weeks due to public criticism, the bungled reunification process inflicted untold trauma and necessitated an obvious and punishing solution—increased family detention and incarceration of children. Only months later, a much-sensationalized “migrant caravan” of potential asylum seekers from Honduras received intense criticism from the White House. In between these events, the Trump administration again made efforts to expand family detention, designing rules that would evade court-ordered protections and make family detention and/or separation central enforcement strategies. The convulsive deployment of detention policy in 2018—restricted to executive orders, proclamations, and bureaucratic tinkering—was soaked in a brew of vitriol and racial anxiety that both justified the enforcement mayhem, and masked the deep roots of displacement abroad. The habitual use of family detention as a deterrence strategy reaches deep into the twentieth century, drawing from earlier administrations for legal rationales and infrastructure, and is the certain by-product of the Trump era of immigration enforcement. This presentation will explore the contemporary asylum “crisis” in the relation to previous “crises,” recurring strategies of family detention, and civic and communal provision of sanctuary. It will then examine how the reluctant response to refugees and asylum seekers dictates the parochial reliance on the detention regime.  

Presented By
David Manuel Hernandez, Mount Holyoke College

“History Will Hold Us Accountable”: Counter-Revolution in Central America and the Reagan Administration’s Campaign against the Sanctuary Movement

This paper examines the relationship between U.S. foreign policy in Central America in the 1980s and the Reagan administration’s campaign against the sanctuary and Central American solidarity movements. Drawing upon a wide range of archival sources including government and movement records, interviews with policy makers and activists, and journalistic and secondary sources, this paper documents how the government’s campaign against these domestic movements was an extension of its policy of counterrevolution in Central America, adding to our understanding of the dynamic relationship between foreign policy, international migration, social movements, and state repression. Revolution and counterrevolution in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala drove approximately 1 million Central Americans to seek refuge in the United States during the 1980s. The Reagan administration granted asylum to only a tiny fraction of the Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum seekers, even as it advanced a foreign policy that fueled the violence that drove the Central American exodus. In response, activists in North America created the sanctuary movement to offer refuge to those fleeing U.S.-backed violence, partnering closely with a Central American solidarity movement that sought to expose and obstruct U.S. support for the Contras in Nicaragua and to the military and paramilitary forces in El Salvador and Guatemala. Because the sanctuary and Central American movements challenged the U.S. government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy objectives openly, the government attempted to destroy these movements by employing a public relations and legal campaign against them, and covertly through a Federal Bureau of Investigation operation of surveillance and intimidation.

Presented By
Carl D. Lindskoog, Raritan Valley Community College

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Laura Madokoro, Carleton University
Laura Madokoro is a historian and Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. Her research explores the entangled history of migrants, refugees, humanitarians and state authorities in shaping the possibilities and experiences of refuge. She is the author of Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War (Harvard, 2016), and co-editor of Dominion of Race: Rethinking Canada’s International History (UBC, 2017). Her work has appeared in a number of journals including the Journal of Refugee Studies, Refugeand Photography and Visual Culture and she also contributes regularly to print, visual and social media, including Her current research explores the history of sanctuary among white settler societies from the 17th century to the present.

Presenter: Rachel ida Buff, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee
Rachel Ida Buff teaches history and Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where she also directs the Cultures and Communities Program. Her most recent book, Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights appeared in 2017. It considers the history of the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born as an antecedent to contemporary immigrant rights mobilizations. She is currently working on a project entitled: Terms of Occupancy: The Words We Use When We Talk About Migration.

Presenter: David Manuel Hernandez, Mount Holyoke College
David Hernández is Associate Professor of Latina/o Studies at Mount Holyoke College. Previously, he was Assistant Professor of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA. He completed his Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley. His research focuses on immigration enforcement, the U.S. detention regime, in particular. He is completing a book on this institution titled Alien Incarcerations: Immigrant Detention and Lesser Citizenship for the University of California Press. He is also the co-editor of Critical Ethnic Studies: A Reader (Duke University Press 2016). Other work has appeared in journals such as Border-Lines, Harvard Journal of Hispanic Policy, Journal of Race and Policy, Latina/o Studies, and NACLA: Report on the Americas.

Presenter: Carl D. Lindskoog, Raritan Valley Community College
Carl Lindskoog is assistant professor of history at Raritan Valley Community College in Branchburg, New Jersey, where he teaches course in United States, Latin American, and African American history. He is the author of Detain and Punish: Haitian Refugees and the Rise of the World’s Largest Immigration Detention System (University of Florida Press, 2018) which provides the first in-depth history of immigration detention in the United States and reveals how the world's largest detention system originated in the U.S. government's campaign to exclude Haitians from American shores. He received his Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2013.