Documenting the Undocumented: Migrant Refusals in San Francisco’s Sanctuary City

Authors: Daniel Gonzalez*, University of Illinois
Topics: Immigration/Transnationalism, Political Geography, Urban Geography
Keywords: Sanctuary Cities, Immigration, surveillance
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: 8201, Park Tower Suites, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Sanctuary cities are seen as spaces of protection for migrants. Responding to the recent increase of violent incidents against migrants by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), San Francisco has bolstered its 30-year commitment to provide sanctuary. This intensified commitment coincides with the increase in data-centered governance at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Indeed, San Francisco’s sanctuary policy relies on various data creation and storage practices to provide “undocumented” migrants access to local services (municipal identification cards; driver’s licenses; health, education, and employment programs). Despite the benevolent intent of these practices, sanctuary documentation is aggregated and stored by state and non-state agencies for undefined periods of time with little transparency, oversight, or accountability. Moreover, this documentation may also provide DHS and ICE with the necessary information to efficiently track, police, detain, and/or deport migrants even within sanctuary city jurisdiction. This paper calls much needed attention to data collection and storages practices used by sanctuary cities to document the “undocumented”—that is to make migrants legible to regimes of governance. It also points to the ways in which migrants negotiate and/or refuse the terms of their documentation. While extensive amounts of personal information are increasingly incorporated into sanctuary city governance, migrants are not completely subject to the “tyranny of data.” Instead, despite their legal status, they utilize and refuse certain aspects of sanctuary documentation practices, obscure their own legibility, and influence the terms of migrant inclusion.

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