Book review: The Sanctuary City: Immigrant, Refugee, and Receiving Communities in Postindustrial Philadelphia

reviewed by Arthur Acolin

30 Apr 2024, 10:11 a.m.

The Sanctuary City book cover

Domenic Vitiello, The Sanctuary City: Immigrant, Refugee, and Receiving Communities in Postindustrial Philadelphia, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022; 312 pp.: ISBN: 9781501764707, US $130.00/£116.00 (hbk) ISBN: 9781501764806, US $29.95/£25.99 (pbk)


As of 2023, the United States, was home to an estimated 2.2 million asylum seekers and another 400,000 refugees under UNCHR’s mandate, representing about 0.8% of the US population and 7.1% of the estimated number of 37 million refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide (UNCHR, 2024). By comparison, the European Union was home to an estimated 8.5 million refugees and asylum seekers, representing 1.9% of the EU population and 23.2% of refugees and asylum-seekers worldwide (UNCHR, 2024). These figures capture only a portion of the people seeking refuge in the US, coming for a diversity of reasons, and part of the 49.5 million foreign born residents in the US. Immigrants to the United States arrive under a range of legal immigration statuses with varying degrees of protection depending on their country of origin and individual circumstances and find their way to build a home in the United States with varying levels of support.

The experience of newcomers to the United States matters for the outcomes of these immigrants and their descendants and also for the communities in which they settle that are increasingly reliant on immigrants for their demographic and economic growth (Vitiello and Sugrue, 2017). For the period from July 2022 to June 2023, net immigration represented 70% of overall population growth (compared to 40% a decade ago) and 1 in 8 metropolitan regions only grew due to immigration, including many in the Northeast and Midwest such as Philadelphia, Boston and Milwaukee (Overberg and Hackman, 2024). The population would be declining without immigration not just in former industrial or rural areas but more broadly in, for example, Miami, Salt Lake City and Seattle metropolitan region (Overberg and Hackman, 2024). The importance of immigrants for future demographic and economic trajectories extends well beyond the US in a context of an ageing population in an increasing number of countries.

Despite the critical role played by immigrants in maintaining the vitality of many communities and in caring for an ageing population, the current political debate in the US, and in many higher income economies, remains focused on ways to limit immigration, particularly from individuals seeking refuge from political, social and economic conditions. In the US, governors from several states (Arizona, Florida and Texas) have sent large numbers of people seeking asylum by bus or plane to cities with a tradition of welcoming immigrants, such as Chicago, New York and DC, strengthening the need for these cities to serve as refuges. In turn, local officials in these cities have at times expressed reluctance to welcome these new residents (Vitiello, 2022).

In The Sanctuary City, Domenic Vitiello develops a tapestry grounded in individual lives and the communities they form. Vitiello mobilises materials from in-depth interviews and archives to allow readers to better understand the experience of individuals arriving from countries including Vietnam, Guatemala, Iraq, Liberia and Mexico, and the sanctuary they seek and find to varying degrees in Philadelphia. When considering the integration of immigrants, much of the focus is on individual outcomes, with recent evidence showing strong levels of intergenerational economic mobility (Abramitzky and Boustan, 2022) and overall acculturation (Logan et al., 2002). The Sanctuary City tells the stories of individuals who moved to Philadelphia and the communities they created. Each ‘story of one individual or family’s reasons for and experience of migration to Philadelphia’ is placed in the perspective of ‘each group’s experiences of settlement in the city, including employment, housing, neighbourhoods and relationships with neighbours, and then examine how civil society evolved to address these and other challenges’ (p. 24). Rather than focusing only on individual characteristics that might have contributed to different outcomes in terms of employment or housing, their stories reveal the structural dynamics that shape these individual trajectories depending on when one moves and where one moves from.

The US federal immigration policy determines who is recognised as a refugee deserving permanent or temporary protection. However, Vitiello (2022) shows how, at the local level, local governments (states and particularly municipalities), local civil society organisations and individuals play major roles in shaping the experience of newcomers. The book documents how, in Philadelphia, the more or less formalised solidarity movements that gave sanctuary to Central American (Guatemalan and Salvadorans in particular) and Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) migrants during the initial period of the modern Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s and 1990s were instrumental in laying the foundation for Philadelphia to become a more institutionalised sanctuary city in the New Sanctuary Movement of the 21st century.

The book shows how the institutions and support systems that formed in the earlier Sanctuary Movement, along with the people involved in them, made it possible for organisations and programmes formed to support Central American migrants to be instrumental in supporting the later arrival of Liberian, Syrian or Mexican migrants. Advocacy by these organisations is also key to Philadelphia’s embracing a version of sanctuary and becoming ‘Certified Welcoming’1 in 2023 as part of a concerted effort by the municipality to be inclusive of migrants independent of their federal immigration status. For instance, Manuel Portillo, originally from Guatemala and featured in the book for his participation in the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, is now the director of community engagement with the nonprofit Welcoming Centre that was supportive of the certification effort as a step towards making life easier and more welcoming for migrants to Philadelphia.

While very much grounded in the experience of migrants to Philadelphia, the book provides a broader insight to the experience of migrants and the role played by receiving communities in supporting or hindering their inclusion in the city. In doing so, it contributes to the body of work on what cities worldwide have been doing, and can do, to supplement national states and to support newcomers with or without legal status from countries such as Australia, Germany, Greece and Switzerland (Bauder 2021; Kaufmann and Strebel, 2021; Sidhu and Rossi-Sackey, 2022; Tsavdaroglou and Kaika, 2022). The book shows the importance of both informal and formal aid networks for finding work, housing and social support and also the need for formal organisations to provide programmes to navigate legal status, accessing schools and healthcare or setting up a business. The programmes delivered by organisations featured in the book, like Juntos, the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Association Coalition (SEAMAAC) or the African Cultural Alliance of North America (ACANA), include English language and computer classes, health clinics, know-your-rights and safety training to address wage theft and workplace injuries.

The experiences of communities that have established Philadelphia as an effective sanctuary over the last 50 years, as described by Vitiello, make clear the need for individuals to continue to organise support for newcomers at the local and national level. By conceptualising and documenting the role of the Sanctuary City, Vitiello establishes the importance of local communities in offering a safe harbour to migrants, which is as important today as ever given tendencies to close the door to many people hoping to find refuge in the US and other countries. In addition, the book reports that for New Sanctuary Movement activists, ‘American cities could not be true sanctuary without affordable housing, good schools, safety, and decent wages for all’ (p. 223). Ultimately this book is, therefore, about the right to the city and who has access to the public resources and public spaces that make life in American cities so rich. As Vitiello documents, in the words of Carmen Guerrero, who fled violence in Mexico, about cultural events she organised, telling these stories might also be a way to ‘help people in the community see [migrants] as Human Beings full of dignity and friendship’ (p. 209).



1. See City of Philadelphia (2023).



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Urban migrant and refugee solidarity beyond city limits by Harald Bauder

Open access study reveals that urban solidarity in Berlin, Freiburg and Zurich is not limited to including migrants and refugees living within the city’s boundaries.

Creating hospitable urban spaces: A multicultural city for refugees and asylum seekers by Ravinder Sidhu and Donata Rossi-Sackey

Ravinder Sidhu and Donata Rossi-Sackey draw on Derrida's (2005) work on hospitality, examining the micropolitics of hospitality towards forced migrants in an Australian city (Brisbane) in this Special Issue paper.

Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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