Could the Sanctuary City Movement take off in the UK?

Rockville, Maryland debates becoming a sanctuary city in March 2017. Image: Getty.

Nowhere could an anti-immigration campaign seem to so utterly lack logic than in America. After all, the country’s white population are immigrants themselves, building a society through plunder and murder against the native American population. Since then, wave upon wave of migration has shaped American society. Indeed, the American dream has migration at its core. So what does it mean when a sizeable proportion of the American public rejects its fundamental national identity?

Meanwhile, the long history of migration to the UK is a footnote, or told in sketches by radical comedians. The recent wave of anti-immigration sentiment has been opportunistically exploited by politicians; culminating, as we all know, in the inflammatory rhetoric of the Leave.EU campaign.

The sanctuary cities movement aims to challenge the onslaught against immigrants and refugees, on both sides of the Atlantic. But how far can this movement resist a right-wing myopia that current beguiles the media and population alike?

The Sanctuary movement

In its modern form, the sanctuary cities movement originated in the States in the 1980s as a way of providing safe spaces for undocumented immigrants. But some, like Barbara Krauthamer, rightly point out that it has its roots in the US’ long and rich history of resistance to slave supporting states and federal laws by African American communities.

Following Donald Trump’s plan to deport undocumented immigrants, the Sanctuary City movement has come into its own. Four states, 39 cities and 364 counties in the US have signed a pledge to protect the undocumented by limiting cooperation with federal government’s anti-immigration practices. In response, Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding and prosecute city leaders in the federal courts. 

In other words, the sanctuary movement in the US is very much part of an attempt to create urban encampments of liberal resistance.


Sanctuary Cities in the UK?

Much immigration to the US comes from the landmass to its south – hence all the puff and blow about building a wall. The complicated relationship of state to federal law also permits forms of legal and governmental resistance.

In the UK, it’s a different picture. The City of Sanctuary movement has grown apace since it started in Sheffield in 2005, and now there are over 90 initiatives across the country. But its activities seem largely cultural and symbolic: as the cancelling of the Dubs Amendment showed, a racist government can hide behind the large moat that surrounds the UK, making it easier to circumvent mass population movements.

What’s more, cities have little power to resist a central government, whose executive powers have grown over the past century, regardless of the creation of the new raft of mayors. Short of individuals hiding immigrants in their homes, or in their car boots en route from France, it seems there is very little sanctuary cities, and towns can do.

What’s the point?

So what are they for? Largely, their purpose is to support those refugees that did make it through.

The City of Sanctuary movement has some key aimsbuilding bottom-up coalitions, which make a public commitment to welcome refugees, and to create cultural change by encouraging local people and refugees to form personal relationships.

The movement also aims to “offer a positive vision of hospitality” that “will also benefit other migrant groups, as well as host communities”. It’s a little vague, but it seems to be saying that an inclusive attitude benefits existing communities.

This idea of the benefits of inclusivity is echoed by Rosalind Scott, a councillor on Colchester Borough Council, who is attempting to win support to turn Colchester into a sanctuary town. She argues that, “We know that this will benefit everyone by encouraging and strengthening community.”

In other words, sanctuary cities are part and parcel of a social inclusion agenda, from Cantle to Casey, which recognises the damage to the social fabric that can occur when communities are fractured. But whereas those reports provoked debate, the sanctuary cities movement works below mainstream discourse, forming connections within communities.

But can we do more? Considering the success of the US sanctuary cities movement in identifying and reacting to the political fault lines of America, resistance in the UK could be a little bolder.

We have an openly anti-immigrant government, an opposition fraught with ambiguity about the EU and therefore dissipating our energies, and a gross attack on the ‘liberal bubble’ from spatially marginalised Brexiteers and their institutional backers.

But that liberal bubble is in fact urban culture. It represents creativity, learning and advanced culture, social tolerance and difference, and multiculturalism – values that have made the UK both tolerable, mobile and wealthy. It is our Library of Alexandria, and we need to defend it.

Much like the US, then, taking hold of the sanctuary cities idea and making it one of the core elements of the resistance could do much to assert a progressive and outward-looking culture’s right to exist.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.

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