Are Cities Sanctuaries? Mapping Migration in the Mediated Metropolis

Screen shot from Andrew Desunmu’s Mother of George (2013)
Sabine Haenni explores the limits of local warmth, sanctuary cities, and the mediation of experiences of immigration and migration in fiction films.
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

One of the conversations that re-emerged immediately after the U.S. Election in November 2016 discussed the issue of “sanctuary cities.” Maybe most prominently, the mayors of traditional immigrant gateway cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York re-affirmed their cities’ sanctuary policies, which limit voluntary cooperation with immigration law enforcement, a federal rather local or state responsibility. Policies and possible services for immigrants, such as ID cards and legal counseling, may differ from sanctuary city to sanctuary city, and yet hardly turn cities into “sanctuaries.” More generally speaking, different localities deal with implementing immigration law in different ways: a national map published by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, for example, reveals that a person driving from New York City to Philadelphia will drive through counties where local law enforcement deals with immigration enforcement in five different ways.

IRLC Map showing law enforcement encounters with immigrants

The issue makes visible the complexity of dealing with immigration issues within a metropolitan region. While the last thirty years saw an increase in both legal and illegal immigration, the failure of comprehensive immigration reform on a federal level has resulted in a shift of immigration policy to states and localities.1For a useful and much more detailed overview, see Michael Jones-Correa and Els de Graauw, “Looking Back to See Ahead: Unanticipated Changes in Immigration from 1986 to the Present and Implications for American Politics Today,” Annual Review of Political Science 16 (2013): 209-30. Thus, we are left with highly local policies that fail to extend over an entire metropolitan region, and urbanites staying in one place will be affected by different, sometimes conflicting policies. In addition, despite this highly differentiated, locally specific urban texture, localities are simultaneously reacting to national, and increasingly international, debates. As one recent publication put it: “What happened in Phoenix didn’t stay in Phoenix.”2John Mollenkopf and Manual Pastor, ed., Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2016), Kindle edition, loc. 82.

Meanwhile, immigrant settlement patterns have become geographically much more complex. Not least because of economic restructuring, new immigrants are increasingly settling outside the traditional “gateway” cities—such as New York City and Los Angeles—in a wide range of locations from small towns to large cities, including in the Midwest and the South, that may be very different from each other, but share “well-developed and growing low-skill service sectors.”3Douglas S. Massey, ed., New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008), 7. Therefore, contemporary U.S. immigration patterns incorporate a wide range of cities, exurbs, suburbs, poorer inner-ring suburbs. While each may have differing racial and civil rights histories, many lack historical experience accommodating immigrants. Immigrants can be seen as competitors or as revitalizing declining industries. Jurisdiction in suburbs and exurbs is often less welcoming than in urban cores. Because of these new settlement patterns, scholars have called for a “spatial turn” in immigration studies, a “renewed focus on regionalism, particularly on how the national economy is constituted by metropolitan regions with coherent economies but fragmented governance.”4Mollenkopf and Pastor, ed., Unsettled Americans, loc. 119. They are even trying to develop a sort of heat map, where locations are measured in terms of “warmth of welcome.”5Ibid., loc. 106.

No polarized media debate will do justice to the geographic complexity of an imagined U.S. immigration map, which would have to be three-dimensional to accommodate multiple layers in any location. But what contribution can and do other kinds of media make? While immigration scholars often turn to documentary films—a mode that is certainly important in terms of documenting and providing perspectives on particular issues and places—I want to briefly evoke fictional feature films and the kind of work they do. Given the extraordinary complexity of the map that I have evoked here, it seems neither possible nor desirable for fiction films to reflect immigration issues. Instead, they may provide more specific perspectives, and ways of inhabiting this map. In his farewell address and again in an interview with The New York Times, President Obama emphasized our ability via fictional texts “to get into somebody else’s shoes.” In an age when many voters seem to be unwilling to do precisely that, when we seem caught in our own echo chambers, it would be foolish not to advocate on behalf of this function of inhabiting, embodying, empathizing with another identity than one’s own that fiction can perform, even if it needs to be rigorously defined. Film scholars focusing on spectatorship have long debated how cinema—through editing, camera movement, angles, and much more—shapes experience. In a recent book, Amy Corbin has explored how, in the post-civil rights era, films created “traveling personas” for spectators that aligned with multicultural agendas.6Amy Lynn Corbin, Cinematic Geographies and Multicultural Spectatorship in America (London, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 14.

What forms of urban engagement have fiction films about immigration recently produced? This is not the place to answer this question in much detail, but we could at least think of what the archive would contain. That in itself is not an easy task, because film studies has traditionally been much better at identifying ideologically repressive regimes, or unpacking film movements aligned with specific ethnic identifications (especially, but not only, Black American cinema). But there certainly have been films. Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor (2007) makes the connection between a middle-class white man and illegal immigrants its topic, a daring move because it risks being “too obvious and sentimental.” Other typically urban films, such as Rahmin Bahrani’s Chop Shop (2007) and Man Push Cart (2005), want to connect the viewer to some previously invisible urban characters, even as their affective force depends on withheld information. Andrew Desunmu’s Mother of George (2013) attempts to develop a sensuous aesthetic without exoticizing its Nigerian-American characters, something Desunmu already experimented with in Restless City (2011), a film about an aspiring Senegalese-American musician. But we could also think of different kinds of films: Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1991) and The Namesake (2006) depict not only transnational but also different kinds of American urban geographies—from Greenwood and Biloxi in Mississippi to Yonkers and Scarsdale in New York—that would be intriguing to explore in the context of the above comments about a changing immigration map. Other films, less interested in realism, use genre to upend conventional migration narratives and thematize migration issues, as for instance Lars von Trier’s musical Dancer in the Dark (2008), presumably set in a small factory town in Washington State, but largely filmed in Denmark and Sweden; or Alex Rivera’s sci-fi border film, Sleep Dealer (2008), in which migrant bodies virtually build U.S. cities from across the border. And in this archive we are building, we might want to include films where immigrants as secondary characters get connected to a film’s main, non-immigrant, non-white characters in surprising ways, from the Korean-American grocers in Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) to the Armenian cab driver in Tangerine (Sean Baker, 2015). What emerges in describing this possible archive is a collection of films that stubbornly refuse predictable characters and predictable stories. And while such seeming haphazardness may suggest the films’ inability to make a systematic intervention into U.S. immigration and its connection to urban life, these films and others may collectively make a larger point about the complexity of urban immigrant life, while performing a long series of tenuous affective connections across established lines.

In a recent essay on the cinematic city, Thomas Elsaesser reminds us that Walter Benjamin had helped us understand the cinema as mediating modernity, as a machine that “mimetically reproduces and therapeutically compensates the effects of the city on the body,” and goes on to argue that this concept has reached the end of its useful life because today we are “over-adapted” to the dislocations of urban life.7Thomas Elsaesser, “In the City but not Bounded by It: Cinema in the Global, the Generic and the Cluster City,” in Johan Andersson and Lawrence Webb, eds., Global Cinematic Cities: New Landscapes of Film and Media (London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2016), 21, 22. But this hardly rings true when we think of urban social issues, particularly challenges of migration in times of contemporary xenophobic governments. The films briefly mentioned here do not produce the city as a “sanctuary” but they establish tenuous, local connections that collectively attempt to do justice to the complexity of the urban migration map while creating virtual locations with just a bit more “warmth of welcome.”


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