Cosmopolis and the Right to the City

In this essay, Thomas Nail explores the history of sanctuary cities, and proposes the notion of migrant cosmpolitanism as a means of achieving the right to the city.

The right to the city could not be more urgent than it is today. Trump has already begun mass deportations, instituted refugee bans, emboldened xenophobes, promised to strip sanctuary cities of funding, and remains committed to the insane idea of building a wall on the US-Mexico border.

Now more than ever it is important to make explicit the political conflict between the cosmopolis (world-city) and the polis (walled-city).1The word “cosmopolitanism” comes from two Greek words, κόσμος (kosmos), meaning “world” + πόλις (polis), meaning “city.” The English word “politics” also derives from the Greek word polis, which in turn derives from the proto-Indo-European root pelə, meaning “citadel or fortified high place.” It is thus precisely with the birth of the city that politics and walls are born. The three are etymological and historical triplets: politics-city-wall. People all over the US have already begun taking action on behalf of the migrants and refugees in their cities. Just as cities, senators, and local organizations are now taking action to fulfill the Paris climate agreement on their own, without the support of the president, so they are also taking action against federal anti-immigration policies. This is a wonderful start, but if we are truly committed to this course of action, it is important to keep in mind three major strategies that have historically defined and continue to define this kind of effort: sanctuary, solidarity, and status.

At the turn of the twenty-first century we have the advantage of seeing what kinds of political strategies for migrant justice have been used and how they have worked. Whether these struggles will be successful today or not is another matter. Progress is rarely made by benevolent lawmakers alone. Laws are only poor crystallizations of prolonged popular struggles.

In this short article, I would like to remind the reader of three major strategies in the recent history of cosmopolitan struggle and the right to the city that can serve as inspiration for our own efforts today.


The first major tactic of this migrant cosmopolitanism is sanctuary. Before any larger social or legal changes are instituted, sanctuary will likely be required to defend migrants, and provide the first sites of collective resistance. Migrant sanctuary has a very long history, going all the way back to the fourth century, originating as a religious institution. Even today it is churches, more than anywhere else, that have maintained a space of juridical exception where the law of the state does not apply and where the police are not allowed, either by law or by historical convention. The proliferation of sanctuary cities around the turn of the twenty-first century is a clear indication of a growing social desire to protect undocumented migrants and refugees seeking asylum, even if this means for the most part simply adopting a principle of municipal non-cooperation with federal immigration agents.

President Trump signed executive orders to remove federal funding to all sanctuary cities and block refugees to the US, and has proposed to deport millions of migrants from the US. The recent rise of sanctuary spaces of all kinds – #SanctuaryRising, #SanctuaryCampus, and others – are an important continuation of this very basic gesture of protection that had its first major demonstration in the 1996 French Sans Papiers (without papers) movement.

In 1996, the first autonomous organization of undocumented migrants was formed in France against the anti-immigrant Pasqua Laws. On March 18, 1996, 324 Africans, including 80 women and 100 children, occupied the church of Saint Ambroise and demanded the regularization of their immigration status. Four days later, on March 22nd, the police evicted the sans-papiers from Saint Ambroise, an action authorized by the church. Soon after, there were two large public demonstrations in Paris in support of the sans-papiers, and in June the government regularized twenty-two of the original Saint Ambroise demonstrators. Because of the clear public support for the Saint Ambroise sans papiers and their partial regularization, their struggle lead to the creation of more than twenty-five sans-papiers collectives in France. In Lille and Versailles, hunger strikes were conducted that in some cases led to regularization.2Teresa Hayter, Open Borders, 144. However, by far the most well-publicized sans-papiers occupation was the occupation of Saint Bernard Church in Paris later that year, beginning on June 28th. Three hundred undocumented Africans occupied the church and demanded regularization. Ten men went on hunger strikes in the church for fifty days, and set up the Coordination Nationale des Sans-Papiers (Sans-Papiers National Coordinating Committee). Saint Bernard Church was occupied from June 28th until August 23, 1996, until riot police violently broke down the church doors with axes, using tear gas on mothers and babies, and dragged everyone out. That night, 20,000 people marched in the streets to support the sans-papiers. By January 1997, 103 of the original 324 had received temporary papers, 19 had been deported, and 2 were jailed.3Teresa Hayter, Open Borders, 144.

After the Saint Bernard occupation, sans-papiers occupations only increased across France. As the left and right political parties prepared for elections in June 1997, the right attempted to distinguish its party with the anti-immigrant Debré laws. Among other things, these laws required anyone who allowed a foreigner to stay in their residence to report this to the local town hall or they would be charged with aiding and abetting an “illegal” (clandestine). Following the first application of this law by a French woman living with a sans-papiers in Lille, sixty-six filmmakers called for a massive civil disobedience protest against the Debré law. Soon after, daily newspapers published lists of writers, artists, scientists, university teachers, journalists, doctors, and lawyers, all offering to accommodate foreigners without asking for papers. On February 22, 1997, 100,000 people demonstrated in Paris against Debré. In March 1998, the sans-papiers occupied the Notre Dame de la Gare and Saint Jean de Montmartre churches, and later others marched from Toulouse to Paris, demanding “Regularization for all!” Cosmopolitanism did not happen in the voting booths; it happened in the streets and emerged from sanctuary spaces.

A key feature of the sans-papiers struggle was their demand to speak for themselves and in their own name:

We the Sans Papiers of France, in signing this appeal, have decided to come out of the shadows. From now on, in spite of the dangers, it is not only our faces but also our names that will be known. We declare: Like all others without papers, we are people like everyone else. Most of us have been living among you for years. We came to France with the intention of working here and because we had been told that France was the ‘homeland of the Rights of Man’: we could no longer bear the poverty and the oppression which was rife in our countries, we wanted our children to have full stomachs and we dreamed of freedom. . . . We demand papers so that we are no longer victims of arbitrary treatment by the authorities, employers and landlords. We demand papers so that we are no longer vulnerable to informants and blackmailers. We demand papers so that we no longer suffer the humiliation of controls based on our skin, detentions, deportations, the break-up of our families, the constant fear.4Madjiguène Cissé, The Sans-Papiers: The New Movement of Asylum Seekers and Immigrants Without Papers in France.

After many years, the sans-papiers won several important battles for their papers, rights, and inclusion in French society, yet there is still much to be done. These rights were not won simply because of beneficent leaders with broad ideas about cosmopolitan justice; these rights were won by starving migrants who were publicly beaten, experienced racial discrimination, and expelled by the police. These rights were won because hundreds of thousands of French people said they would rather break the unjust laws against harboring sans-papiers than turn their back on their fellow humans. This is migrant cosmopolitanism.


The second major tactic along the path to the right to the city is that of solidarity. By solidarity, I mean more than just a feeling of kinship, but specific tactics that go beyond the non-cooperation and protectionism of sanctuary. In particular, I mean the active organization of migrant justice social groups and demonstrations by migrants and allies including the extension of social service provision to partial and non-status migrants such as free clinics, Doctors Without Borders, Lawyers Without Borders, safe houses, food and water provision like No More Deaths, Casa de Paz, No Borders camps, and many others; providing cell phone maps to help Mexican migrants survive the desert and avoid border patrol like the Transborder Immigrant Tool in the US and the InfoAid app to help refugees navigate their way through Europe. A “solidarity city” is a city that actively helps partial and non-status migrants to live a normal life in the city. Instead of waiting for the perfect cosmopolis, the solidarity city is an attempt to start making one now.

The creation of solidarity cities for migrants is also part of the sanctuary legacy. The creation of sanctuary cities and asylum is as old as slavery itself; today cities all over the world choose not to enforce federal and state immigration laws in their cities. The solidarity city is a more radical incarnation of the practice of modern church sanctuary that emerged across North America in the 1980s, in response to U.S. foreign policy and civil war in Central America. The idea of entire sanctuary cities has now spread to thirty-one cities in the United States and many others around the world. However, the idea of the sanctuary city remains a largely negative and state-based decision to not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. While top-down “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) city immigration policies may be legally binding at the local level, they often do not stop police, service providers, and individuals in the city from reporting non-status persons directly to federal immigration enforcement. So while the sanctuary cities of the United States (New York, San Francisco, San Diego, Boulder, and others), for example, may directly discourage police from helping immigration officials because it is “not their responsibility,” they can and do. DADT is thus a precarious policy that always risks betrayal to the federal level. This is why DADT must become a matter of solidarity outside the law and against the state, similar to the underground railroads of the United States in the nineteenth century. Sanctuary is not enough; migrant justice must become a collective ethos: a solidarity.

The first major attempts to build this kind of city began in Toronto in 2009 and spread to Montréal and others.5Thomas Nail, et al. “Building Sanctuary City: No One is Illegal–Toronto on Non-Status Migrant Justice Organizing,” Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action no. 11 (2010): 149–162. In 2013, Toronto became the first Canadian city with a formal policy allowing undocumented migrants to access services regardless of immigration status.6 Nicholas Keung, “Toronto declared ‘sanctuary city’ to non-status migrants,” The Toronto Star. Fri., Feb. 22, 2013. The solidarity city movement is a migrant justice movement to (1) ensure that all city residents, including people without full immigration status, can access essential services, such as housing, health, education, social services, and emergency services, without fear of being detained or deported; (2) ensure that municipal funds and city police are not used to support federal immigration enforcement; and (3) ensure that residents of the city are not required to provide proof of immigration status to obtain services, and if such information was discovered it could not be shared with federal immigration enforcement. The goal of the solidarity city is to network with other community organizations to establish clinics, schools, food banks, and women’s shelters to: (1) provide access to anyone regardless of status, (2) train frontline staff to adhere to this commitment and be sensitive to non-status issues, and (3) radicalize service providers and users toward larger actions against forced migration and support: “Status For All.”7DADT policies still need solidarity.

The density and diversity of migrants in the city of Toronto make it a particularly fecund milieu for the creation of a solidarity city network. With over eighty different ethnicities and more than half of its city population born outside the country, Toronto is demographically the most diverse city in the world.8 Nicholas Keung, “A city of unmatched diversity,” The Toronto Star. Wed., Dec. 5, 2007. An estimated 500,000 non-status persons live in Canada, and Toronto is home to more than half of them.9According to No One is Illegal’s website: The Toronto migrant justice group, No One Is Illegal, has taken the idea of solidarity cities one step further. NOII first began in Germany in 1997, inspired by the sans-papiers organizations in France, and has spread to countries all over the world. NOII calls for the regularization of all non-status persons, an end to deportations, an end to the detention of migrants and refugees, and the abolition of security certificates.10A “Security Certificate” is a mechanism by which the Government of Canada can detain and deport foreign nationals and all other non-citizens living in Canada. NOII’s strategy is pre-figurative insofar as it is aims to build a solidarity city in which all the services and institutions of the city agree to serve and protect everyone, regardless of papers. The aim is to mobilize the city in collective civil disobedience against the Canadian government’s immigration policies, effectively building the cosmopolis that they envision without waiting for the state to respond to their demands. As NOII states, “The Solidarity City is about bypassing the ideas behind nation-states and centralized governments.”11 Thomas Nail, et al. “Building Sanctuary City: No One is Illegal–Toronto on Non-Status Migrant Justice Organizing,” Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action no. 11 (2010): 149–162, 159. The goal is to create a true cosmopolis, and they are winning.


The third major tactic along the path to the right to the city is that of status. Full status for all migrants in a given place does not necessarily entail the absence of all borders. Territorial borders might still exist and some kind of political administration may still control the conditions of entry and departure. For example, even the revolutionary Zapatista communities in Chiapas, Mexico guard their territorial borders against paramilitary and government attacks.

Any cosmopolitan city, however, still requires some kind of equality of social status for its occupants. If some had legal status, for example, and others did not, this would simply allow the border to “follow one” around like a general regime of “deportability.” Borders are not only at the territorial periphery, but are all over the place and include all the social mechanisms that materially deprive any person of territorial, political, legal, and economic status. Full social status means that within a given administrative region everyone has full and equal territorial, political, legal, and economic status. “No borders” does not just mean no territorial borders, it means no internal checkpoints, the right to work, the right to free movement, and to political participation by everyone.

Social status can be achieved in two ways: First, provisionally, or de facto, through means of solidarity, as was demonstrated in the previous section. The limitation of solidarity, however, is that people can still report one another to federal immigration and federal officers who can still legally detain and deport as they please. The tactics of sanctuary and solidarity are both necessary but not yet sufficient conditions for the cosmopolitan right to the city. Only full social status for everyone can achieve this.

The second way of achieving status for all is legally or de jure, through political and administrative means. Unlike sanctuary and solidarity, de jure status is not something that can be achieved by grass roots action alone. It is something that must be won by grass roots action but implemented at the highest levels of social organization. There cannot be a social or political body whose job it is to incarcerate and deport partial or non-status migrants. Full administrative status means that everyone who is here belongs here and has full status here. The implementation of “status for all” has an interesting paradoxical outcome. Although implemented by means of the nation-state it effectively undermines the national character of the state, since anyone could belong to it. The state then becomes a purely administrative body to be dealt with by other means, which I have elaborated on elsewhere.12See Thomas Nail, Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari and Zapatismo (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

Full status for all is certainly the most distant of the three tactics for us today, but nonetheless forms the tactical horizon of struggle for the twenty-first century on the path to a true cosmopolitan right to the city.

This short article is only one piece in a much larger history and argument for sanctuary, solidarity, status and the right to the city. The struggle for migrant justice will require many things but at least three of those things will be the protection and defense of migrants in every sector of society from federal immigration enforcement; an active support network composed of material social service provisions like food, shelter, medical care, and others; and ultimately a successful legal battle for universal status at the highest political level. My aim here is to have taken a brief walk along the tactical path that I think, based on historical precedent, will be necessary to recover the right to the city. Now it is time to take a walk in the streets!


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.