The Real Meaning of Sanctuary

Newton is now a sanctuary city (or “Welcoming City”) thanks to a recent vote by its city council. The city, however, is not alone. In fact, being a “sanctuary” something seems to be the norm in the Boston area. Sanctuary cities include Boston, Cambridge, Lawrence, and Somerville. The mayor of Salem is also pushing for her city to join the pack. But what does it mean for a city to become a “sanctuary?” In the case of Newton, it meant simply not helping the federal government to deport immigrants. The problem is, they were never deporting immigrants in the first place. The title of “sanctuary city” in Massachusetts is completely meaningless.

The city of Lowell was considering a bill that would designate it a “sanctuary city,” and it was not passed because the police force already had a policy of not assisting in immigration enforcement. City Councilor Corey Belanger said,“We’re already, essentially, a sanctuary city.”

For me, the biggest question surrounding the problem of immigration is this: Why are there supposedly so many good, hardworking people in the United States, who have been in the country for perhaps decades, who have not been able to achieve a legal immigration status? It seems that, in order for this to occur, there must be significant financial, legal, and cultural barriers that are preventing good people from having a legal immigration status.

As it turns out, there are many different ways of coming into the U.S. You could marry someone who is a citizen, get a job in the U.S., be accepted as a refugee, get in through a lottery system that awards green cards for permanent residence, come as a temporary immigrant on a work or education visa, or visit as a tourist for a very short period of time.

There may be a lot of different ways to get into the country, but if I was any normal individual living in a foreign country, then coming to live in the U.S. would be nearly impossible. I would have to take my chances with the lottery system that only admits a maximum of 50,000 people annually and is under attack by the current presidential administration.

Adrienne Nussbaum, the director of the Office of International Students and Scholars, spoke to me about the difficulties that many international students at Boston College face. The U.S. policy on immigration is egregious. It is extremely difficult, she says, for outsiders to come into the country legally. If someone wants to come on a work visa then they need to have exceptional characteristics and prove that an American citizen cannot do the same job. There are often students at the University who go to her office and try to figure out a way to stay in the country after they graduate and their work visa expires. She says that often, there is nothing she can do for them. They are not allowed to stay.

I spoke with Hans de Wit, the director of the Center for International Higher Education at BC. He explained that immigration has almost never been about individual freedoms, or the right to live wherever you like. The right to move to a different country has almost never been recognized. The vast majority of immigration, at least in modern times, has been about the type of labor a country requires for its economy. In the past, when America was called a “melting pot” and immigration laws were lenient, this was only because there was a high demand for unskilled labor. Therefore, the government allowed lots of people to enter the borders for the benefit of the economy, not because individuals have a right to live freely and peacefully anywhere they desire.

Today, that demand for unskilled labor has dropped. If you have an education, however, many countries will allow you to come and search for a job for a few years and, if you can find one, you can stay for as long as you are employed. This is the practice in Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, and many others. Canada currently has the most lenient immigration policy. Its latest policy has been an online job-matching website where immigrants have to find a job before being granted immigration status. Its aim is to reduce frictional unemployment among new immigrants. Canada, even with its reputation for open immigration, still proves that immigration is mostly not about personal liberty, but about money.

Therefore, these cities that want to call themselves “sanctuaries” and “welcoming,” have a considerable feat to accomplish. If they want to really help their immigrant populations, they ought to make the case not just about what immigrants can give America or America’s economy—they need to make the case for freedom. They ought not to say: “We must allow immigration because it helps the economy,” because that only magnifies a materialist value system as opposed to one which recognizes the humanity of all people.

Machiavelli states in The Prince, “Men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance.” Sanctuary cities should promote the opposite. Humanity is not an enterprise and, human beings deserve the right to pursue happiness wherever they might find it.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor