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The Safest Place: Immigrant Sanctuary in the Homeland Security Era


The dissertation investigates the reemergence of "immigrant sanctuary" in the United States between 2001 and 2008. Immigrant sanctuaries are the product of state and local law or administrative policy that restricts cooperation between police and federal immigration enforcement authorities. The idea of the immigrant sanctuary arose among churches in the 1980s and returned in the 2000s among subnational governments in response to new federal perspectives on domestic security.

Immigration scholars have explained contemporary immigrant sanctuaries and other subnational policies benefitting immigrants as "pro-immigrant" and as a function of liberal ideology. Upon conducting historical-comparative analysis, qualitative comparative analysis, and case study analysis of immigrant sanctuaries in the Homeland Security era, I find that the phenomenon grows largely from a desire among state and local jurisdictions to maintain autonomy in crime governance and, similarly, a political orientation against expansive federal government power. I argue that this sensibility is trans-partisan and should be distinguished from the politics of immigration.

I show that public support for autonomous and decentralized crime governance has historical precedent in the subnational sanctuaries of the Prohibition era of the 1920s and also that subnational sanctuaries, regardless of their underlying motivation, can be challenged and subverted by reports of sensational crimes committed by the social group the sanctuary is meant to protect. Moreover, even when a jurisdiction continues its support of sanctuary in light of such reports, moral panics by constituencies and public officials external to the jurisdiction are sufficient to erode sanctuary policy and practice.

More broadly, the dissertation presents findings and analytical frameworks that provide insight into contestation between the federal government and subnational governments regarding the quality and scope of crime governance. These insights are particularly valuable at a national moment in which federal officials claim integrated and collaborative security administration as a prerequisite for strong domestic security.

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