Mother, head in hand. “Untitled” by mohamed_hassan is licensed under “Pixabay License

On a bright day last spring, a group of Latina immigrant mothers gathered in a park in Somerville, Massachusetts, a small, densely populated city north of Boston. They were there to participate in a weekly arts & conversation group for immigrant parents in the city’s public schools, a collaboration between a local non-profit and the city. Snacks and craft materials were strewn across the long table, all of us sipping coffee from styrofoam mugs, when the conversation turned to death. Losing a family member is always painful. But for the women around the table, immigration policy seeps into their decisions, caregiving, and grieving, across international borders. One mother, a vivacious El Salvadoran with a green card, explained how she had been the one to go home when her father had died. Her brother, living without authorization in another state, could not travel without risking permanent displacement from the U.S. “It isn’t fair,” she murmured, as the other women nodded in agreement.

In some places, where restrictive policies and racialized immigration enforcement leaves families in fear, talking about immigration status so openly and in a city-sponsored space would be unthinkable. But in Somerville, which has declared itself to be a sanctuary for immigrants since 1987, women frequently and openly discuss the constraints of immigrant motherhood, including but not limited to undocumented immigration status. Somerville is not alone in its self-proclaimed sanctuary identity. In the wake of the 2016 election, sanctuary cities proliferated across the U.S., drawing the ire of the 45th president, who threatened to withdraw funds and raid immigrant families’ homes if cities did not cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

Despite this public attention, we actually know quite little about how sanctuary ordinances shape the lives of the immigrant families they purport to help. Refusing to enact a 287(g) agreement, which enables cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration agents, is an important step in creating safe living conditions for immigrants and their families. Beyond this, though, what are the consequences of sanctuary policies on immigrant families, especially women who, through their motherhood, are fulfilling gendered family and social roles? And what role do local institutions –especially schools, as legally accessible institutions for all immigrant children and their families, regardless of immigration status – play in enacting sanctuary in meaningful ways?

My research tackles these questions through an ethnography of Latina immigrant mothers’ lives in Somerville (where I also live and raise my children). Since 2018, I have been observing and interviewing immigrant mothers, educators, and community leaders. In a recently published paper, I argue that welcoming school districts, in the context of a sanctuary city, become central sites of belonging and inclusion for Latina immigrant mothers. The city offers programs for immigrant parents across the district, including parent English classes, an advocacy committee, and the arts and conversation group. While the mothers in my study (and it was almost always mothers who participated) use these programs to learn English, advocate, and develop new artistic skills, they also transform these spaces into sites of what I term intersectional recognition. I define intersectional recognition as the process through which individuals and institutions affirm the intersections between multiple marginalized identities. By acknowledging their mutual social positions as Latinas, immigrants, and mothers, the women position themselves and their families as worthy members of a community, even as xenophobic national discourses situate them as outsiders. Yet as women offer each other this recognition, they bear witness to the ways immigration laws shape their individual experiences of motherhood. One morning, for instance, a meeting of the parent advocacy group had come to an end, and most of the women had left to fetch children from school or get to work. A few of us lingered behind, and Carolina, an El Salvadoran mother and leader of the group, leaned across the long table, telling the stragglers that she had something to say. Some of the mothers were paid for their work, hired by the school district as parent leaders, she reminded us. But undocumented mothers could not be hired, and Carolina was unsettled by this inequality. She continued advocating until gift cards to a local grocery store were distributed to mothers who could not be legally hired.

The gift cards were helpful to the undocumented mothers, and Carolina’s organizing was rooted in her intersectional recognition of how immigranthood, motherhood, and being Latina were intertwined in women’s caregiving and relationships with their children’s schools. But the cards were also inadequate in the face of two broader barriers that shape immigrant mothers’ familial roles and responsibilities: restrictive immigration policies at the national level and extraordinarily high costs of housing locally. While sanctuary cities can refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal government still holds jurisdiction on immigration and pathways to citizenship.So, despite Somerville’s welcoming stance, and a school district that strives to support immigrant families, gentrification threatens the community ties that women foster through participating in city and district programs. Eva, a gifted painter who revealed her talents one day at the arts & conversation group to the surprise and delight of the other mothers, relocated to another, less expensive state. Nadia, a skilled seamstress who crafted beautifully designed children’s clothes from donated scraps, was evicted and homeless for months; she could not secure housing in Somerville and left for a nearby city. Even as women felt a sense of belonging, worthiness, and inclusion in the city, immigration policy and rising housing costs remain critical, intertwined obstacles.

And yet, although these obstacles may feel insurmountable, cities and schools should not acquiesce. They can and should enact welcoming programs and ensure resources are accessible to immigrants with and without authorized immigration status. The symbolism of sanctuary is important, but my research points out that it is also how sanctuary is enacted that really matters. To keep spaces of belonging thriving as gentrification threatens the social and cultural fabric of immigrant neighborhoods, sanctuary cities must respond proactively and creatively to the exorbitant costs of housing that are reshaping our cities. Otherwise, the women who gathered at the park, making art and recognizing the intersectional aspects of who they are, as mothers, immigrants, and Latinas, will not be able to stay in the very city that claims to offer sanctuary.

Sarah Bruhn is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Visiting Fellow at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development. Her research broadly revolves around questions of belonging, migration, gender, and education. She is working on a book that examines how immigrant women resist displacement from anti-immigrant policies and gentrification through their motherhood. You can find her on Twitter @sarahbruhn3 or