Rethinking Sanctuary Aid in Light of Immigrant Incarceration

Angel Musyimi & Isabelle Caban | May 2021

Sanctuary is founded upon the idea of offering respite to those who have committed a crime. Rather than face the punishment, offenders were permitted to escape to a neighboring sanctuary city to gain protection. As the Sanctuary Movement has progressed in the United States from its origins in the 1980s to now, there have been large efforts to distance undocumented immigrants from associations with criminality. Sanctuary activists have continued to prove that the only crime that many of those seeking sanctuary have committed is attempting to enter a country. Instead, we offer a framework affirming the criminality of sanctuary – and of immigration. Doing so may be helpful to understand how crime operates largely. If something as harmless as immigration can be deemed illegal, what other “crimes” are also just as arbitrary? If immigration is indeed criminal activity, what does it mean to be a criminal?

To deepen this line of analysis, it is necessary to understand immigration detention as analogous to the prison-industrial complex. When undocumented immigrants are detained, they, too, are arrested and forcibly placed in facilities with conditions that frequently do not meet standards of decent living. Additionally, immigrant families are split up and many face the same kinds of isolation that those in prison face. In fact, the majority of all federal criminal prosecutions are immigration related crimes. So why then do we not compare the two on a regular basis?

Disconnecting Detention from Prisons to Prevent Public Dissent

Part of the answer has to do with the way that these issues are framed on the national stage. Inherent to the nature of politics, these issues are separate on the debate stage, with politicians insisting on the myth that they must be approached differently. Perhaps insidiously, the Obama administration’s ban on private prisons did not include ICE detention centers, though only 9% of all incarcerated people are held in private prisons to begin with. It is also helpful to note that many of the ICE facilities that hold undocumented immigrants are owned by companies that also operate for-profit prisons, so the same hands thrive off of the expansion of both mass incarceration and increased immigration enforcement. By separating immigration from incarceration, it is easier to pretend to ameliorate one while perpetuating and worsening the other. More specifically it shields these companies from public scrutiny of their involvement in both.

By understanding incarceration and immigration detention as parallels, we can approach immigration from an abolitionist perspective while ensuring that sanctuary does not replicate the weapon of mass incarceration. Through understanding the physical and mental ailments that are caused by incarceration, we can work to remedy them when the same problems appear for those in detention, and even in sanctuary. 

As reported by the American Psychology Association, “when prisoners are typically confined to their cells for 23 or more hours a day, with little or no programming or meaningful social interaction… it creates serious psychological risks for prisoners; many of them experience panic, anxiety, rage, depression, and hallucinations, especially when confined for long periods of time (some up to 25 years).” Of course, those in sanctuary have the ability to go outside and have visitors, but the basic aspects of the prison still remain true. 

In order to distance sanctuary from the violence of the state and to address the mental illness of immigrants in sanctuary and, more broadly, those affected by the prison industrial complex, we must reorient the way that we approach aid.

Mental Health and the Sanctuary Movement

Providing mental health resources such as therapists and/or psychiatrists to undocumented immigrants taking up sanctuary should be a mandatory part of the sanctuary network. While sanctuary serves as a safe haven and sacred space, many sanctuary seekers will attest to feeling trapped in an inescapable liminal space. This feeling alone takes a large toll on their mental health. Before sanctuary, many migrants experience traumas both in their home country and during their travels to the United States. Many of these traumas remain unaddressed by those who volunteer their time and efforts with the Sanctuary Movement. It is absolutely vital that the trauma migrants face be recognized by sanctuary providers and that the mental health resources needed are furnished and viewed as a priority for the safety and well-being of migrants. 

Some people may believe migrants are “safe” within the walls of their sanctified space, but in reality the depression, anxiety, and PTSD many migrants experience will never allow them to truly feel safe. As Juana Luz Tobaz Ortega describes in Escape Bound, she barely had any social interaction with others and did not get to see her family for most of the time she was in sanctuary. She describes feeling depressed from going on for so long in the same room, mostly by herself with only one other person. Additionally, she’s burdened with the emotional toll of explaining her story to a new person every few hours and the overall inconvenience of the shift switches throughout the day. Sanctuary for her seems like a prison, which begs the question posed by geographer Jennifer J. Bagelman, “How is sanctuary—supposedly resisting the state—reproducing the very state technologies it attempts to challenge?” 

Multiple aspects of sanctuary’s intended safety contribute to the unintended decline of many immigrants’ mental health while in sanctuary, including how they share their stories. Currently, many immigrants are asked to recount their trauma in front of many people multiple times before talking to a professional. Not only has this practice been done at the sanctuary sites around the country but also at conferences in support of sanctuary. Sharing trauma on stage in front of hundreds of people and then being promptly escorted off is difficult, especially when the focus of the conversation is the trauma rather than the person who lived it. Prioritizing the well-being of the person by providing resources and services means providing adequate support for those who have to share such stories or discontinuing the practice of traumatic storytelling altogether.

Addressing the mental state of migrants in sanctuary needs to be part of the basis of the Sanctuary Movement in order to dissociate the practice of accompaniment and aid from the violence of the state. Restructuring some practices with the goal of prioritizing the mental and emotional well-being of the migrants is necessary in order for the movement to serve as a network for migrants. Without this shift in the mindset of the Sanctuary Movement, it will continue to exploit the emotional labor of migrants and contribute to the decline of their mental state. Now the only question is, which sanctuary site will be the first to take action?