U.S. Sanctuary: Architecture & (In)Justice



The violence deployed in the United States by ICE against undocumented people often goes beyond the threshold of the daily spaces of home or work. In this research, Noora Aljabi considers architecture’s responsibility in this violence, and its potential attempts to mitigate it.

Johana woke up because someone was ringing the doorbell. Then, she heard banging on the door. When she opened it, several officers were standing in the doorway. They claimed to be local police looking for a criminal, and showed her a picture of a man she didn’t recognize, insisting that he lived there and that she should let them in. When Johana asked them for a warrant, they ignored her. Her husband was starting to get nervous, and told her to just let them in. When she did, the officers crowded into the living room and started yelling, saying that they were ICE and that everyone in the house needs to show documentation. Johana’s niece and her son had been staying with her since they left Honduras a few years earlier. They had an order of supervision that allowed them to stay in the U.S., but that didn’t matter. ICE deported them anyway.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, was established in 2003 to “promote homeland security and public safety” through the enforcement of federal border, customs, trade, and immigration laws. In recent years, their methods of enforcement have become increasingly aggressive, and arguably unconstitutional. In response, people have joined together to protect the rights of the undocumented members in their communities. As part of this growing movement, several states, counties, and cities around the country have declared themselves “sanctuaries” and have limited their cooperation with federal government efforts to enforce immigration law. These sanctuary jurisdictions refuse to voluntarily provide resources to assist ICE, arguing that reducing the fear of deportation and family separation among undocumented immigrants will encourage them to report crimes, use health and social services, and enroll their children in school.

Although the notion of sanctuary in the U.S. has centered on immigration policies, it should also be considered as an architectural and spatial phenomenon. The spaces in which ICE raids take place, such as the home, the workplace, and the courthouse, have been complicit in allowing for the transgression of rights during immigration arrests. Thus, there is a need for architectural interventions to resist this injustice. But what are the limits of architectural agency to participate in the Sanctuary Movement? Though specific interventions may fail to provide solutions, Architecture, as a discipline, has a responsibility to recognize its complicities and begin to produce social change by engaging with other disciplines, such as Law.

Both Architecture and Law claim to produce clear demarcations through the creation of lines. While Law attempts to separate right from wrong and just from unjust through the enactment of regulations, Architecture similarly attempts to separate inside from outside and above from below through the establishment of walls, floors, and roofs. In practice, however, both the architectural and legal lines are much more ambiguous, and therefore, susceptible to exploitation by entities such as ICE.

Aljabi Funambulist4
Sites of arrests and deportations by the numbers. Policy and architecture are complicit.

In general, these exploitations have taken place in jails, homes, workplaces, and courthouses. While sanctuary policies have largely restricted ICE enforcement activity in jails and prisons, their scope is much more limited in the home, the workplace, and the courthouse. Yet these sites provide a range of potential contexts in which to intervene architecturally, from private to public, suburban to urban, and domestic to institutional. The transgressions taking place within each site also range from clear legal violations, such as coerced consent at the home, to more ambiguous violations of ethics, such as equal access to justice at the courthouse. The interventions, therefore, take on three different approaches:

1) the most pragmatic at the home;

2) semi-pragmatic/semi-ideological at the workplace; and

3) the most ideological at the courthouse.

These three realms of engagement serve as proxies for the conversations that should be a part of the debate around sanctuary.


Aljabi Funambulist
View of the thickened threshold at the home, designed to prevent coercive entry. Even as a material failure, it serves as evidence in court.

The Home ///

Let’s return for a moment to the story of Johana’s niece and her son, which is based on a 2016 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In this case, ICE entered the private residence without a warrant or probable cause, obtained consent to enter through coercion, and searched the entire residence beyond the area within the immediate control of the subject. The home is commonly understood as a place of belonging, identity, and protection, reinforced legally by constitutional rights to privacy, and architecturally by the walls that provide enclosure and shelter. The threshold in particular serves to distinguish the private from the public. It establishes both boundary and access, determined almost entirely by the architectural element of the door.

If we imagine that the threshold of the home is thickened to include three doors, the outcome of this ICE raid could be different. The doors would create two additional chambers for interaction: a soundproof chamber to prevent coercion and a single arrest chamber to prevent search of the entire residence. If the ICE agents continue to ignore Johana’s requests for a warrant, she could close the sliding panel in the door, blocking out their lies and intimidation. After realizing that she couldn’t hear them from the soundproof chamber, the agents would eventually leave.

In this ideal scenario, the architecture successfully prevents the officers from obtaining consent to enter through coercion. But this may not necessarily stop them from kicking in the doors and searching the home without a warrant. By doing so, however, the broken doors, kicked in the opposite direction of the swing, could serve as evidence in a case against ICE. Even if it would not prevent the arrest of Johana’s niece and her son, it could establish a precedent and potentially stop ICE from breaking into the home of another family.

The architectural intervention always has the potential of being destroyed and physically failing as a material construction. However, simple architectural moves, such as changing the direction of the door swing, could still affect how this failure is viewed. By leaving such a violent material trace, the broken door may influence court rulings on ICE’s aggressive deportation tactics and the legal understanding of consent to enter.

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Workers’ housing at the factory, designed to limit views inside and prevent racial profiling.

The Workplace ///

Now let’s take a look at the workplace, and the factory in particular. Factory buildings have become powerful symbols of industry and capital production in the U.S. landscape, organized along grids meant to control and optimize every element of production, including the workers. The grid pushes the semi-private spaces, such as the employee break room, to the edges of the big box in order to allow for an open floor plan of public work areas. While this friction between public and private program creates a complex setting for ICE agents to operate in, the organization of the modular rooms simplifies the raid and allows for large roundups of workers within the public areas of the building.

In April 2018, ICE agents detained 97 workers at a meatpacking plant in Tennessee, according to a report by the New York Times. Raymunda was in the cutting line when she heard people shouting “inmigración!” She dropped the butcher knife and ran to the door, but ICE was already everywhere. She tried to hide between the cows, but they found her anyway. ICE arrested all of the Latinx workers in the factory, including one U.S. citizen and several others with legal work authorization. Although a workplace warrant allows ICE to detain anyone they suspect to be a so-called “illegal alien,” this “arrest everyone first, ask questions later” approach constitutes racial profiling.

Workplace warrants are easy to obtain, and they often allow ICE to search the entire premises, except for residential dwellings. Operating within this legal condition, let’s imagine that the factory is renovated to include individual residential dwellings for each worker on the roof. These private rooms would include thickened walls with low windows that limit views into the interior of each room. During a raid, workers could hide inside the rooms and stay close enough to the low windows so that the agents couldn’t see their faces if they looked inside.

This is the ideal outcome, in which the architecture successfully prevents racial profiling. But there are other power dynamics at play, so this outcome is not guaranteed. The design puts the workers at risk of many forms of exploitation. The factory manager, for example, has the power to give ICE agents permission to enter private spaces to arrest workers. In that case, he could allow ICE to arrest any worker who demands better pay or working conditions.

Although this intervention prevents racial profiling and a large roundup of workers, it places even more control of the workers in the hands of the factory manager. The complexity of the situation cannot be addressed by architecture alone, and requires a restructuring of labor regulations. But by overlapping the programs of living and working, the architecture already begins to suggest an overlapping of Fair Housing Laws with Fair Labor Laws.

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The Public Justice Corridor at the courthouse, designed to make all courthouse activities visible and transparent to the public.

The Courthouse ///

Now let’s take a look at the courthouse. As this building typology developed within the U.S., increasing demands for control, efficiency, and security transformed it from a public space of civic engagement to an institutional one of enclosure. Through regulation, segmentation, and centralization, the architecture has produced a complex space of hierarchy at odds with the ideals of equal protection and access to justice. This complexity is hidden behind an imposing façade of brick and stone, adorned in monumental motifs. In doing so, the courthouse presents an image of institutional legitimacy, while concealing the messy elements of the system, as if to say “Trust us. We know what we’re doing.”

The corridor in particular has allowed for the hierarchical orchestration of public and private circulation paths within the courthouse, concealing the movement of judges and jurors between courtrooms. This isolation of movement controls public perception of justice in the courthouse, and provides another opportunity for exploitation by ICE, who often use back doors and private circulation to keep courthouse arrests out of public view.

In March 2018, Sergio Perez Garcia went to court hoping to gain custody of his three children, but was arrested by ICE agents instead, according to a report by Michigan Radio. Sergio knew he risked deportation by going to court, but he felt he had no other choice. He worried about the safety of his children, who were living with his ex-wife’s violent boyfriend. But Sergio was never given the chance to make his case in court. ICE agents were there to arrest him soon after he was ushered into the courtroom, possibly following a tip from his ex-wife. This arrest took place in a part of the courthouse dedicated to non-criminal proceedings, which is a violation of ICE’s stated policy.

Although arrests in public places, including courthouses, are legally permissible, public perception of these arrests can affect ICE’s strategy. As reports of courthouse arrests increase every year, more attorneys, prosecutors, and judges argue that ICE’s policies are counterproductive to maintaining lawful communities because they intimidate people from accessing justice. So let’s imagine that all of the complex internal circulation of the courthouse is reconfigured and made visible through the addition of a Public Justice Corridor. Carved out of the monumental stone edifice, this corridor becomes a public destination where all courthouse activities are reflected and projected in multiple directions by a system of mirrors. This heightened visibility could make Sergio’s arrest go viral online, encouraging people to rally support to prevent his deportation. Moreover, the national spotlight could put pressure on ICE to limit enforcement activity in courthouses.

In this ideal scenario, the architecture encourages public awareness through the introduction of public space within the courthouse. But this outcome is highly dependent on public interest in engaging with the justice system, which may not at all be the case. If no one cares, Sergio’s arrest may not get attention at all. The mirrors could be a distraction, encouraging selfies rather than public awareness. However, the arrests would still become more visible to the judges as they sit in their chambers, encouraging them to speak out.

Although the public may be indifferent to the issue, the architecture can still prompt a change in dialogue by influencing the way judges and lawyers view the courthouse. The concept of the intervention reinforces the ideal that justice should be transparent and that the courthouse should be considered as sanctuary. By doing so, it encourages supporters of this ideology to speak out against its disruptors.

By imagining multiple narrative outcomes of one possible architectural intervention, we — as architects, designers, and thinkers — can begin to understand both the capacity and the limits of architectural agency in producing social change. This process is not meant to provide solutions to the issues confronted by the Sanctuary Movement. Instead, it is meant to emphasize the importance of interdisciplinary engagement. Architecture alone does not have the power to resist all forms of injustice. Although it is capable of affecting a sequence of events, the outcome is not always predictable. It is dependent on other people and other disciplines, such as Law. But beyond its physical and material limits, Architecture also has the power to influence the way other people and disciplines think about space. That is perhaps its greatest potential.