Hospitality, Sanctuary, and Decriminalizing Existence

The concept of hospitality is presumably as old as society itself. Whenever strangers entered a community, a decision had to be made. Do we reject them? Do we send them away? Or do we welcome them and share our resources with them? And if they decide they want to stay, do we force them to leave, or do we accept them and integrate them into the community? And how does such integration and inclusion happen?

Recently, a seminar on the topic of immigration was held in downtown Asheville. Sponsored by Indivisible Asheville, it featured speakers from Project South, a leadership development and activist organization based in Atlanta; and the Asheville group Compañeros Inmigrantes de las Montañas en Accion, or CIMA. As Alan Ramirez of CIMA reported on his group’s work in education and advocacy in the local Latino community he talked about one of CIMA’s aims being “decriminalizing our existence.” He spoke of immigrants as being rendered “invisible” to the larger community, and of not only rules but language being used against them. He outlined the systemic racism involved in being presumed to be a criminal because of the color of your skin, and of constantly being asked for your ID, as if you have to justify your presence in a community where you might have lived for years, if not decades.

In opposition to this, Ramirez offered the concept of “sanctuary.” In contemporary discussions about immigration, this term is generally used in one of two ways: “sanctuary cities,” where elected officials and local law enforcement declare they won’t be coerced into unnecessarily helping federal officials detain and deport local residents; and “sanctuary congregations” — religious groups who offer to take in those threatened with deportation to give them time to make their case as to why they should be allowed to stay. But Ramirez used the term more broadly — an outlook, a mindset of resistance where we look out for our neighbors and friends, and stand with those marginalized in any way against individuals or forces who would harass or persecute them.

In this sense, sanctuary might be seen as the next step after hospitality. It is the journey from acceptance to inclusiveness. It is the difference between, “you are welcome to be here with us” and “you are one of us.” And if you are one of us we cannot see your existence as being criminal (or “illegal”). Yes, differences and conflicts may arise. But we will work through those differences as neighbors in a community, and we will defend your right to be here and your right to equal treatment. Because by doing so, we are protecting those rights for all of us.


Hospitality, Sanctuary, and Decriminalizing Existence

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