The Rise of Sanctuary Politics: Asylum’s Legitimacy Crisis and the Production of New Spaces of Immigrant Solidarity

Authors: Austin Kocher*, Syracuse University
Topics: Political Geography, Legal Geography, Human Rights
Keywords: sanctuary, asylum, refugee, immigration, legal geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Silver, Sheraton, IM Pei Tower, Majestic Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The terms “asylum” and “sanctuary” share a political/theological genealogy and denote similar processes of refuge-seeking. Yet the messy relationship between asylum and sanctuary on the ground suggests that these terms mask competing juridical frameworks about which actors, institutions, and spaces can or should provide protection for immigrants in the 21st Century. Space is key here. Although asylum is formally requested at borders, a more complex spatiality characterizes the process of applying for asylum, the demands that prolonged asylum requests and appeals require, and forms of resistance – or coping with – asylum denials. Sanctuary, on the other hand, has emerged as a spatial discourse and practice for local governments (through “sanctuary city” policy) and immigrant rights movements (through “sanctuary churches” and “sanctuary in the streets” actions) that attempt to provide a measure of protection for asylum-seekers apart from the official government process of adjudicating asylum claims. In this paper, I analyze the relationship between asylum and sanctuary through an in-depth case study of a sanctuary church in Ohio (located within a so-called “sanctuary city”), where Edith Espinal has been living for over two years as she fights for asylum despite a deportation order. I focus specifically on the trajectory of Edith’s history with the US-Mexico border, and the spatial, material, and relational processes that she and her team implemented to construct sanctuary as an alternative to asylum. I also discuss the ways that asylum and sanctuary both fail to live up to their imagined potential.

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