What is sanctuary?
In the 21st century, people are fleeing in search of safety, looking for it high and low, enduring countless trials and many don’t make it at all.
Society is no stranger to waves of people, fleeing war, plague and natural disaster.
Today many governments in the West are scrambling to cope with the current crisis in Syria.
The ongoing armed conflict in the Middle East has left tens of thousands seeking asylum.
By now we have seen the photos of unsuccessful attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea, dozens crammed onto small, makeshift boats that often sink miles from their destination.
Desperate people pushed out by the violent conflict engulfing their homes; missile strikes, targeting apartment complexes, chemical gas attack and squabbling government and rebel soldiers.
These crises defined entire eras of our history. In 2017, the U.S. government debates whether to offer safe passage to Syrian refugees. In 1941, U.S. policymakers faced a similar debate, as to what to do with the thousands of Jews escaping the genocidal Nazi regime.
Even in 1941, refugees were saddled with tremendous barriers meant to limit the number of foreigners admitted into the U.S. during a time of war.
Otto Frank, the father of acclaimed writer Anne Frank, applied several times for an immigrant visa for his family and was denied several times. The Frank family was well-connected and respected but after a convoluted application process that contained over 80 pages of documents, Anne Frank died at the age of 15 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany.
It was the Great Depression and poor farming practices that led to the “Dust Bowl,” a natural disaster leaving many small farmers with nothing, forcing thousands to emigrate from the American Midwest to the West Coast, searching for employment. The intense poverty that pushed those to leave was further compounded as they encountered intense discrimination wherever they went. Such as the “anti-Okie” law of 1930s California, which barred Dust Bowl migrants from entering the state.
America has grappled with displaced people from abroad and within our own borders, and these conflicts define our values as a nation.
In 2017, we have already seen the largest recession since the Great Depression. We are seeing the concentration of wealth in a smaller and smaller number of hands. Political unrest across the globe is continuing to push refugees to our front door.
We can see our neighborhoods change day by day.
Today, we have a very different economy, but displacement is the same.
Take for instance the story of Iris Canada, a 100-year old African American woman and 60-year resident of the Fillmore District in San Francisco, evicted from her home last February.
She fought back, but suffered a stroke and died last month. Iris is not alone.
Thousands of long-time residents within this city have lost their homes already. While many more are at risk of losing their homes, elderly, undocumented, disabled and residents of color are overrepresented in this displacement.
In a city with over 7,000 homeless people, over 70 percent were previously housed residents of San Francisco before they found themselves on the street.
The city of San Francisco has 36 Quality of Life laws, 24 of which are specific anti-homeless laws targeting unhoused people and spent $20.6 million arresting offenders of these “quality of life” ordinances in 2015 alone.
For reference: The U.S. launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian government military base earlier this month; each missile cost the American taxpayer an estimated $1 million. While a single military action, totalling over $60 million, can make the financial woes of our city seem insignificant.
The city of San Francisco has an annual budget of almost $10 billion and dedicates 2.7 percent to homeless services. We have to confront the fact that we prioritize aggressive intervention, internationally and at the local level in the form of law enforcement. People are getting pushed out of their housing by U.S. intervention or an Ellis Act eviction. Refugees are being denied visas with no home countries to return to and folks are being told to pack up all their belongings in the rain and move along … to where?
As we look out across the globe to a massive refugee crisis in Syria, we are racked with our own economic refugee crisis at home — in our own neighborhoods.
The city of San Francisco may have spent almost $1.5 billion on homeless services over the last ten years but it is not nearly enough as almost 1,200 people are on the 90-day shelter waitlist at the time of this writing.
The liberal establishment of this so called “progressive” city touts our status as a “sanctuary” city. But for those without homes, there is no sanctuary regardless of migrant status.
But what does this “sanctuary” status mean for the policy makers and people of San Francisco? It means that local law enforcement and officials will not communicate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Let us look at the case of Luis Góngora Pat, a homeless, undocumented, Mayan man who lived and worked in this city for 15 years, supporting his family back home in Mexico. He was shot and killed by San Francisco police on April 7, 2016. The encounter between Luis and SFPD lasted a mere 28 seconds and ended with a bullet in Luis’s forehead. The police did not know Luis’s migrant status, but had they known, they would have kept it to themselves, protecting him from deportation, but that didn’t stop the officers from taking his life. This is the shortsightedness of our status as a “sanctuary” city; it addresses only the chief stigma of one’s migrant status, the threat of deportation. It offers no protection against the city’s general stance against the poor and unfortunate.
The city of San Francisco offers sanctuary in name, not practice.