top of page

Sanctuary Communities: A new approach to comprehensive migratory policy

By Alejandra Lopez | OMC 2024

Photo by yellowsarah from Getty Images Signature.

My parents brought me to the United States from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico at a very young age. I can’t say that I was escaping a lot of things because I wasn’t old enough to conceptualise what that meant. What I can say is that my parents were escaping a hard life, not unlike many migrants today. Our entry to the United States was unauthorised so we were considered undocumented immigrants. Consequently, when I turned twenty-four, I became a dreamer under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. Without legal recognition from the U.S. government, our places of residence were limited to cities that were immigrant-friendly or places where we would have access to basic needs like shelter, safety, work, food, jobs, and education.

The conditions for our movement were clear, and thus our journey across the United States began. The first city we lived in—where my sister was born—was Phoenix, Arizona, but a tough job market and stringent immigration policies pushed us back to Mexico. On our second attempt at migrating, due to speculation of an easier border crossing, we made our way to McAllen, Texas, and eventually to Houston, Texas, which offered better economic opportunities. Later, enticed by relatives and improved job prospects, we relocated to Chula Vista, California, but due to increasing crime and the high cost of living, we returned to Texas. Our stay in Houston was longer this time, but eventually, we moved to Richmond, Kentucky, following promises of better jobs and opportunities from a family member who had relocated there before us. Kentucky was the final stop for my parents, but once I graduated from high school, I moved to Washington D.C. after accepting a job offer as a live-in nanny for two wonderful Vietnamese children.    

In these states and districts—Arizona, Texas, California, Kentucky, and Washington D.C.—we navigated many challenges as undocumented immigrants. Of these only California was recognised as a Sanctuary City – a place that prohibits local authorities from aiding federal immigration authorities in apprehending undocumented immigrants. Despite lacking protection from federal immigration authorities in the other cities we lived in, these places still provided other invaluable forms of aid and protection for families like ours ranging from cash-wage jobs to free healthcare. Our communities were composed of mixed-status migrants from different countries, pooling resources together and creating our own safety nets. Places like churches, schools, health centres, flea markets, and radio stations served not only as migrant network hubs but also contributed to community well-being and created a set of informal policies on migration centred around mutual aid. Cooperation with federal immigration authorities was simply one dimension of what sanctuary meant to us and the other members of those communities.   

These places hosted a transnational array of migrants with diverse legal statuses, united mainly by socioeconomic class. However, they are unaccounted for within the current definition of Sanctuary Cities, thus excluding valuable data points from our analyses of how cities are shaped, provide sanctuary, and react to different migrant populations. In my work, I introduce a new concept: Sanctuary Communities. These communities are defined as a set of actors that work together to provide sanctuary and mutual aid (or both) to migrants that have been displaced. This definition reclassifies sanctuary cities and identifies cities that do cooperate with immigration authorities despite hosting large numbers of undocumented immigrants and expands our focus from undocumented immigrants to all displaced migrants. Sanctuary Communities serve as bridges between informal practices and formal policies, offering insight into the relationship between formal and informal governance. They provide a much more thorough understanding about host communities that receive migrants, the policies and practices that have been adopted to integrate migrants, and a glimpse into the relationships between different types of migrants.  

Sanctuary Communities in the United States can serve as examples of informal migratory policy developed by communities of migrants. They provide us with insights into initiatives that have already been implemented to address migrant populations beyond non-cooperation with federal immigration authorities. By examining them, we can glean lessons on comprehensive approaches to supporting migrants, considering their diverse needs and circumstances as we move into an age where climate change continues to unpredictably alter migration patterns. Sanctuary Communities push past formal policies by highlighting the importance of the informal sector and the need to protect and support the networks that live in the shadows.  


Alejandra Lopez is a Ph.D. student in the Community-Partnered Policy and Action stream at Pardee RAND Graduate School and an assistant policy analyst at RAND. She has an M.S. in Mathematics from Purdue University, a B.S. in Mathematics from Arizona State University, and an A.S. from Mesa Community College. 

Her work at RAND is inspired by her former status as a DACA student, so she focuses on immigration, transnational corporations, sanctuary communities, and climate change. While at RAND she has worked on topics ranging from the blue economy to the recovery of Puerto Rico after the hurricanes. Prior to joining RAND, she was a Purdue Doctoral Fellow where she conducted research in theoretical and applied mathematics. She has worked with the American Institute of Mathematics and the Climate Research Network to create a mathematical model to analyse pathogen mutation and seasonal forcing in zoonotic spillover. Additionally, she worked with the Mathematical and Theoretical Biological Institute while at Arizona State University to model the economics of prison by studying the dynamics of recidivism. 


bottom of page