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What abortion sanctuaries can learn from the immigrants’ rights movement

States and localities are beginning to declare themselves “sanctuaries” for abortion seekers. 

In June, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed into law new provisions to immunize anyone who may face out-of-state civil actions for providing, assisting or receiving abortion care, proclaiming  “We’ll be a sanctuary,” “Come to Chicago,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said hours after the Supreme Court reversed Roe v Wade. “We will protect you.”   

Approximately half the states are expected to ban or severely curtail abortion access. This will turn hundreds of thousands of people seeking abortion care in the U.S. every year into medical refugees crossing borders to flee oppressive governments, or locals seeking to safely reclaim their human rights to self-determination and bodily autonomy while escaping prosecution for themselves and the medical or lay people who might assist them.  

Immigration policy generated the most prominent “sanctuary” movement in the U.S. in the 1980s, when states and localities fought what they believed were unjust laws and/or enforcement efforts against undocumented Central Americans fleeing persecution and seeking asylum. Those who want to protect people seeking reproductive freedom can build on this history.  

One dimension of sanctuary efforts was refusal to cooperate in the enforcement of unjust laws. As the federal government denied asylum applications, religious organizations stepped in to provide immigrants with sanctuary from deportation. These faith-based efforts eventually spread to cities and states that enacted ordinances and statutes to block cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts. As of 2019, four states, 364 counties and 39 cities implemented policies to limit immigration enforcement.  

Another strategy was material support. Many municipalities went beyond refusing to cooperate with deportation efforts and expanded access to legal services, funding for housing and rights for the undocumented.  

Informal networks of individual accompaniment created personal connections. People housed undocumented people in their homes, made calls to secure legal assistance and accompanied them to immigration hearings. They went beyond their roles as voters and contributed their time, material resources and compassion directly to individuals in immediate need. 

They did this accompaniment against rising fears of arrest for aiding and abetting. Arrests for harboring and smuggling rose under the Trump administration. For example, in 2017, Scott Warren, a 37-year-old college geography teacher and volunteer for the immigration advocacy group No Mas Muertes (No More Deaths), was charged with three felony offenses in Arizona for providing food and shelter to migrants crossing the border. After a jury refused to convict him in 2019 in a highly publicized trial, Warren remarked, “The government has failed in its attempt to criminalize basic human kindness.” 

What can prior sanctuary efforts teach us in this powerful moment of crisis as Americans flee regimes of forced pregnancy?   

The local can be a powerful driver for change. The fact that so many cities, states and individuals were willing to act on their convictions sent a stark message of opposition to the prevailing federal policies. The sanctuary movement empowered those seeking justice to move beyond the ballot box and the symbolic “solidarity” of marches to peaceful, productive resistance and practical support of those in need. Some undocumented people were able to delay or avoid deportation altogether. Fewer faced homelessness, imprisonment or starvation. And while the law dehumanized the undocumented, turning them into fugitives for pursuing safety or a better life, accompaniment provided a powerful space for person-to-person connection and counter-messaging.  

In some places, this solidarity led to true culture change, allowing broader coalitions to be built. For example, after California passed the California Values Act to make it a “sanctuary” state, Government Affairs Director Gina Da Silva said that the collaboration “led to a broader coalition, which includes faith, labor, domestic violence groups and others that has evolved over time. Now, this coalition is not just about lobbying and advocacy, but also correct implementation of California laws protecting immigrant rights and holding law enforcement accountable.”  

We are already seeing similarities. In response to the reversal of Roe, more than a third of the district attorneys representing the 25 most populous counties in anti-abortion states have publicly vowed not to prosecute abortion cases. In 2019, in the heart of anti-choice Texas, the City of Austin created an abortion access fund to help residents pay for travel. Grassroots organizations like the Midwest Access Coalition connect local volunteers and pregnant people traveling from restrictive states for practical and emotional support.  

Differences in these movements make other historical analogies important as well. In the sanctuary movement for the undocumented, states and localities resisted the federal government. Today’s battle is largely between U.S. states, and it involves the jarring removal of a constitutional right. The U.S. is now a patchwork of free states and forced pregnancy states, and the specter of residents of one state helping residents of another makes the Fugitive Slave Act and the underground railroad tragically instructive. 

What would happen if a large number of Americans refused to accept the reversal of Roe? These moments in our past teach us that sometimes progress requires risk and resistance. Laws cannot be enforced without some level of citizen compliance and sanctuary movements directly challenge the social legitimacy of the law. They are both practical and symbolic in ways that can change history. 

Julie Dahlstrom is a clinical associate professor of law at Boston University School of Law and the director of the Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program. She recently authored, “Trafficking and the Shallow State,” in the UC Irvine Law Review. Katie Watson is a lawyer, an associate professor of medical education, medical social sciences, and ob/gyn at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and the author of “Scarlet A: The Ethics, Law and Politics of Ordinary Abortion” (Oxford 2018). 

Tags abortion sanctuary Gavin Newsom Immigrants Rights Lori Lightfoot Politics of the United States roe v wade support sanctuary cities Scott Warren

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