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Sanctuary Cities Are Sacred Spaces

Op/Ed By George Payne –


payne newAs reported in the Jan. 18 edition of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “Last February, the Rochester City Council unanimously passed a resolution reaffirming Rochester as a “sanctuary city.”

The move came as the Department of Homeland Security issued sweeping orders to implement President Donald Trump’s plan for increased immigration enforcement…The council resolution, which re-stated one passed in 1986, directed the city administration to adopt policies that protect “all who come within its borders” and says the city is not required to collect information or “engage in immigration enforcement.”

Regionally, Rochester is not alone in making this bold declaration. Syracuse is also an official “Sanctuary city.”

Under ICE practices during the Obama administration, undocumented immigrants who hadn’t been accused of crimes, especially those with families, were less likely to be picked up by ICE.

“Now, that is no longer the case,” said Rebecca Fuentes, a organizer with the Workers Center of Central New York.

According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, data from ICE states that: “In 2016 in the Buffalo region, which includes Syracuse, there were 1,103 administrative arrests by ICE. Of those, 160 were non-criminals. For 2017, there were 396 non-criminal arrests by ICE out of 1,494 total.”

Three months into 2018, it appears that those numbers are going to skyrocket.

Slate journalist Jamelle Bouie has written, “This is all part of a larger strategy to create an atmosphere of fear and desperation for unauthorized immigrants. “It’s behind President Trump’s decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and end deportation protections for immigrants from Haiti and El Salvador.”

Bouie went on to report, “While the overall number of border removals – those caught trying to cross the border – dropped last year, as a result of economic trends and Trump’s hard-line policies, the proportion of interior removals undertaken by ICE increased. Most deportations still involve immigrants from a handful of Latin American countries, but the number of deportees from other nations rose 24 percent in Trump’s first year.”

Vox’s Dara Lind describes it as being a combination of policy and messaging to keep the threat of deportation hanging over immigrants’ heads that is meant to make sure they don’t get too comfortable here, because they could be taken at any minute.

So, under these conditions, what does it mean to be a “sanctuary city”?

Let’s elevate the conversation.

What if it means to be not just a place of refuge and protection, but also the most sacred part of a religious building (such as the part of a Christian church in which the altar is placed)?

It is this second meaning that interests me as a philosopher and theologian.

What does it mean to create sacred parts of the United States, where an altar of freedom is inviolably established?

If we think about sanctuary in this way, when a city council passes a resolution to declare itself a “sanctuary city,” what they are saying is that their space will be a holy section with an altar, i.e., a room in the building where one may not enter unless they are willing to humble themselves before some power greater than themselves.

To be a “sanctuary city” is to be a site of reverence where everyone is equal before the Creator.

It means to see past someone’s nationality, and to look for their humanity. It means to ignore someone’s place of birth, and seek out their place of residence as a global citizen.

It is that area in the building where people are treated with radical respect and dignity.

No one, I mean absolutely no one, has the right to touch anyone else without their permission, not there. No one has the right to judge or cast aspersions on anyone else, not there. It is a pure space, a gentle space, an egalitarian space, and a place of love.

What if “sanctuary cities” were viewed as something more religious and mystical than a legal proclamation?

In secular terms, California Senator Kamala Harris has said it best, “We have to get smart and understand the vast majority of these undocumented immigrants are following the law, working hard, raising their children, paying taxes, and we have to provide a pathway for them. Sanctuary cities evolved around the idea that we also don’t want to deny access to public safety, public health, public education for anyone who is living in our community.”

But, as secular as those words may sound, if that’s not a definition of the sacred, I don’t know what is.

(George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer, domestic violence counselor, theologian, and adjunct professor of philosophy at the State University of New York. He live and works in Rochester, NY.)

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(Disclaimer: The views expressed on our opinion pages are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or viewpoint of the Minority Reporter).