Status Check

Status CheckStatus Check

I n its 382-year history, New Haven has often served as a sanctuary for those in need, from the Puritan settlers who viewed it as a religious and economic “haven” to the more than 2,000 refugees, asylum seekers, asylees, undocumented people and other immigrants locally served by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services today.

Thanks to immigrant-friendly innovations like the Elm City Resident Card, which, among other benefits, gives the undocumented access to civic necessities like library cards and banking, New Haven is often thought of as a “sanctuary city.” But what makes a sanctuary city? And does New Haven actually qualify?

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The United Way of Greater New Haven

Turns out, there’s no official “sanctuary city” designation. That means cities like Hartford, which added the term to its municipal code in 2016, become sanctuaries simply by saying so. But while the definition of a sanctuary city may not be consistent, the concept has existed for millennia. Legal scholar William C. Ryan, as quoted in the academic publication JSTOR Daily, traces the idea back to the Biblical Hebrews, who

established ‘cities of refuge’ that could be accessed by a person who had ‘accidentally and unintentionally’ killed another and was being pursued by the person’s kin. In another vein, the Athenians offered the right of asylum to ‘all those who were likely to suffer summary vengeance,’ with sanctuary cities designated for the purpose of saving ‘the lives of those defeated in war’… Later, in the early Christian period, sanctuary for a killer served to keep the peace of the kingdom, preventing a ‘blood feud’ between the families of the killer and the deceased. The principle of sanctuary remained in common law well into the nineteenth century, and continues to operate—subject to certain legal limitations—in the United States and Europe.

Today’s concept of a sanctuary city has more contemporary roots in the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when US houses of worship took in refugees from Central America who were fleeing civil war and human rights violations by their own governments but had been denied asylum by the Reagan administration, which was supporting those same governments. At the height of the movement, according to the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, more than 150 Christian and Jewish congregations nationwide “openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families.” Another 1,000 congregations “endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary.”

Unlike Hartford and many other sanctuary cities nationwide—the number is unclear, but it includes major cities such as Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle as well as many smaller cities—New Haven doesn’t yet have a sanctuary law on the books. The closest it has come was an executive order last summer by then-Mayor Toni Harp “Concerning Undocumented Immigrants,” which declares, in part, “Local law enforcement agencies, school police and security departments shall not use agency or department monies, facilities, property, equipment or personnel to detain or arrest a person, based on ICE detainer requests or administrative warrants entered by ICE into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.” Unidad Latina en Acción and other local activists have agitated for getting a law on the books that can’t simply be reversed by another mayoral administration. (Mayor Justin Elicker has said he has no intention of doing that.) A committee is currently at work on legislation to be brought before the Board of Alders.

The sanctuary city designation isn’t without its risks. For example, the Associated Press reported in late February that a new court ruling will allow the Justice Department to withhold federal law enforcement grants from cities and states that refuse to give immigration enforcement access to jails or do not notify them in advance when someone with “illegal” status is about to be released. Additional conditions on grant money are still working their way through the courts.

But the designation is the right thing to do, says local activist Stephen Kobasa, who has curated Finding Home: The Campaign for Sanctuary, a small art exhibit on view at the Institute Library through March 14. The show paints outside New Haven’s lines; a series of photographs by San Franciscan Marc Hors, for example, documents a refugee camp in Athens, Greece, where 1,500 Afghan and Syrian refugees are staying. In one particularly striking image, an older woman sits on a low chair, leaning forward, her arms wrapped around her knees. Her lined face is tightly framed by a plaid hijab. Sharing the frame with her are a scattered pile of clothing, a rumpled blanket and an oblong watermelon. Her lips are pressed together in not quite a smile. She could be our neighbor.

Arguments against sanctuary for those in need bring up what Kobasa calls a “terrible irony.” When people argue that those who cross the border in defiance of US laws should be sent back, he says, “They forget their grandparents or great-grandparents came over here, some of them with papers that weren’t always complete.” It’s a problem, he says, of “failing to see oneself in the faces of others. It’s a very painful sort of reality.”

Certainly, New Haven’s founders had no papers, and they didn’t ask permission to land. Historical accounts suggest they enjoyed a relatively peaceful relationship with the two small local tribes of native people, from whom they purchased land and to whom they promised protection against stronger neighboring tribes. Then they carved out their nine squares and built up a city that spilled beyond the agreed-upon boundaries—one where, more than three centuries later, refugees and immigrants not unlike them seek to be, as the popular sign in some shopwindows says, “welcome here.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, titled “Grandma’s Look,” photographed by Marc Hors. Image 2, featuring work by Margaret Roleke, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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