The 1980s Political Origin to Contemporary Battlegrounds in Immigration Federalism

Allan Colbern, Arizona State University

The Refugee Act of 1980 brought U.S. law in line with international human rights. More fundamentally, it set up a new legal framework for unjust administrations in federal law that racialized and dehumanized immigrants as “illegal,” which sparked a new form of political activism through federated institutions (constitutions, courts, parties) and social movements to counter federal exclusion. This paper provides a fresh lens for understanding the Central American refugee crisis and President Ronald Reagan’s denial of political asylum throughout the 1980s as a critical juncture in American political development and immigration federalism. Specifically, the paper argues that the church sanctuary movement of the 1980s fueled developments in immigrant rights organizations and alliances with national, state and local political leaders that helped broaden the exclusively national focus around immigration reform to include strategic progressive pushes at state and local levels for sanctuary and inclusion. This paper is part of a forthcoming book that reframes sanctuary laws as transforming and protecting African American rights and immigrant rights at the state and local levels since America’s founding, whenever federal rights and protections were non-existent. Anchoring our understanding of the 1980s sanctuary movement as part of broader dynamics at play in American political development and social movements, this paper offers fresh insights to understanding the origins of progressive policies and movements that are still taking shape today in battles over immigration federalism.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 242. Immigration Federalism and Anti-Immigrant Politics in the States