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How to talk about sanctuary cities

On Jan. 18, 2018 the community came together as Oscar Canales took sanctuary at the Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, North Carolina.  Photo: Betsy Blake / AFSC

This week a federal judge ruled in favor of Philadelphia in its sanctuary city case against the Trump administration. relations. “Philadelphia has always been and will always be a welcoming city,” said Mayor Jim Kenney after the ruling. 

Everybody should feel safe and at home in our communities. But harsh immigration enforcement measures tear families apart and make all of us less safe. That’s why some cities like Philadelphia have enacted a range of “sanctuary” policies that help protect members of our communities from detention and deportation by limiting the cooperation of local law enforcement with federal immigration agents. 

To build support for humane and inclusive immigration and welcoming policies, here are some suggestions for how to talk about sanctuary cities in positive, affirmative terms:

 Tip #1: Highlight that sanctuary is about creating inclusive communities where everybody can feel safe.

While the Federal Court this week rejected the Trump administration’s arguments against sanctuary cities, much of the media coverage on this subject still portrays sanctuary cities negatively. AFSC conducted an analysis of national media coverage of sanctuary cities, analyzing over 100 articles from July 2017 to January 2018. Most commonly, news stories portray sanctuary cities as “protecting dangerous immigrants,” echoing the Trump administration’s vilification of immigrants. The second most common frame focuses on sanctuary cities as “resisting the administration’s migration policies.” Both top frames focus on conflict and negativity rather than showing how communities are working to create safe spaces for all. 

One way to emphasize the positive work of sanctuary jurisdictions is to highlight the connections between today’s sanctuary city policies and the Sanctuary Movement, context that the media rarely provides. Rooted in deeply held beliefs about the dignity of all people, in the 1980s the Sanctuary Movement drew people of many faiths together to offer sanctuary – often literally in church spaces – to immigrants facing deportation from their home and family here, sometimes to violence and oppression in their countries of origin. Today, the Sanctuary Movement is organizing again and many courageous immigrants are claiming sanctuary in churches and faith communities to avoid being wrested away from their families and communities. 

Although sanctuary city policies are distinct from congregational sanctuary, they invoke the Sanctuary Movement in their name because they share the premise that there should be places where everybody can feel safe. When we talk about sanctuary cities, we should focus on the positive values that drive these policies.

Tip #2: Avoid myth-busting, and connect sanctuary policies to commonsense policies and values that people already support. 

The Opportunity Agenda has conducted an excellent study that shows that misinformation and fearmongering have dominated how the public understands sanctuary. Unfortunately repeating false information – even to debunk it – can reinforce negative impressions about sanctuary, further associating sanctuary cities with crime and danger. Instead of myth-busting, talk about sanctuary cities as efforts by communities to create safety for everybody. 

You can also reframe the discussion to focus on what happens when immigrants can fully participate and belong in our communities: we all benefit.

The public already supports policies like keeping families together, and creating a roadmap to citizenship for longtime residents of our communities. When talking about sanctuary policies, connect the issue to other pro-immigrant policies that many people already support. 

Research shows that it can help to emphasize that immigration enforcement is closely connected to racial profiling – which harms our communities, violates our values, and can ruin people’s lives.

Tip #3: Learn how you can create sanctuary in your community.

Take action to defund hate. Immigration enforcement measures are tearing families apart, violating our core values, and harming our communities. Click here to tell Congress to stop funding Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and then share on Facebook and Twitter.

Then watch AFSC’s recent Sanctuary Everywhere webinar to learn about successful efforts to establish sanctuary policies in cities and schools. In the webinar recording, you can learn from folks who have run successful campaigns to make more welcoming spaces in schools, both for immigrants targeted by ICE and those targeted by other law enforcement, and in cities.

By emphasizing the positive ways that sanctuary policies can help create safer and more inclusive communities, you can reframe the debate and build support for immigrants and other targeted groups in our communities. Please sign up to receive emails from AFSC to stay informed. 

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and served as the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.