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.