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Sanctuary Cities Like Toronto Are Democracy's Last Stand

06/15/2017 10:47 EDT | Updated 06/15/2017 10:47 EDT

Cities have always been the hotbed of political innovation -- starting with the origin of democracy in ancient Greece. It is no accident that the words "city" and "citizenship" have the same origin. In medieval Europe, serfs gained their freedom from feudal bondage when they moved to a city; after living there for a year, they were free members of that community.

Sanctuary cities today are doing the same thing -- at least they try. By embracing residents without federal status, sanctuary cities seek to reframe political membership from the national to the local scale.

toronto skyline

(Photo: Orchidpoet via Getty Images)

Many of America's largest cities, including Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, are sanctuary cities. Inspired by their American counterparts, several Canadian cities have declared themselves sanctuary cities. Toronto was first in 2013 (although it struggles to implement the sanctuary-city policies), followed by Hamilton, London (Ontario), Montreal and others. Cities in Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, Spain and other countries around the world also have or are considering sanctuary policies.

"Sanctuary cities" is a loose term that applies to cities refusing to cooperate with federal authorities to enforce national immigration law. In the U.S. and Canada, so-called don't-ask-don't-tell policies ban municipal service agencies from asking residents for immigration status and -- if they happen to find out anyway -- from providing this information to federal authorities. In this way, sanctuary cities aim to provide policing, health, housing and other municipal services to the residents who lack federal citizenship or immigration status. These cities are defining membership based on who lives in their urban community, and not who can be classified as worthy based on federal status.

For undocumented immigrants, life in a sanctuary city is still highly precarious. Agents of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) or the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) continue to operate within city limits and detain and deport undocumented immigrants. The American Immigration Council therefore warns that the "term 'sanctuary city' is a misnomer," creating a false sense of protection from detention and deportation. Rather than providing sanctuary, these cities only help make life without papers tolerable.

The city, not the nation, is the scale that defines community.

Sanctuary cities, however, are more than a series of flawed municipal laws and administrative directives. They represent an opportunity to strengthen communities, foster democratic participation, and reframe political organization.

Donald Trump's attempt to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities was met with fierce defiance from city mayors before it was blocked by a federal judge. "We're going to defend all of our people regardless of where they come from, regardless of their immigration status," proclaimed New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio. Meanwhile, a recent Texan law that effectively prohibit sanctuary-city policies is publicly opposed by police chiefs from the largest Texan cities, who argue that this law will make "communities more dangerous."

The 2006 immigrant marches against the Sensenbrenner Bill that brought out 100,000 people in Chicago and more than 500,000 in Los Angeles showed that undocumented people are a powerful political urban force. The only reason they are not permitted to participate in municipal elections is -- again -- their lack of national citizenship.


Undocumented immigrants are claiming rights because they are making vital contributions to our urban communities: they are the workers that make our cities function; they are volunteering in community forums and organizing school meetings; and they contribute in many other ways to the public and civic life of our cities.

Which brings me to the issue of scale. The city, not the nation, is the scale that defines community. More than three decades ago, the international scholar Benedict Anderson observed that national communities are "imagined" because they are too large for people to personally know and interact with each other. In the city, however, people intermingle everyday while they are shopping, commuting on the subway or bus, working in the office, visiting the ball park, or enjoying their children's school concerts. Correspondingly, political communities should also be primarily organized at the municipal scale. Urban membership should outrank national citizenship.

Cities are proving to be the last bastion of safety for the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

This is what sanctuary cities are trying to achieve: they imagine the city as a democratic space where everyone is included and can politically participate. Sanctuary cities refuse to label some residents deserving and others unwanted because of federal status. All residents -- independent of national status -- belong in the city.

The current fight in the U.S. over sanctuary city policies reflects a wider struggle over democracy and political inclusion, with cities mitigating the effects of failing national policies. When national leaders such as Donald Trump are challenging the core values of democracy, sanctuary cities are stepping in to defend the principles of liberty and inclusion at the local scale. Cities are proving to be the last bastion of safety for the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

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