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  • Ilana Masad

Sanctuary and Rhetoric: A Review of Kent A. Ono's Humanities on the Edge Lecture

It is fitting that Kent A. Ono’s lecture, “The Rhetoric of Sanctuary in the Post-Truth Era,” takes place in the lecture hall of the Sheldon Museum of Art. Museums are sanctuaries in their own way, spaces where art is discussed in hushed tones as something ephemerally valuable, worthy not only because of its price but because of a vague cultural cachet. Of course, museums also have a contentious history of classism, racism, elitism, and exclusion. They’re complex spaces, their worth not really connected to laws or governments (certainly, the arts are not appreciated by our current government) but rather to the meaning-making of humans and the objects they create. Similarly, Kent A. Ono, Professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Communications, has an optimistic viewpoint when it comes to sanctuary jurisdictions, contentious though may be. He wears a dark suit with a vivid red tie, his grey hair combed neatly to one side. There’s a jolly air about him as he speaks, and he exhibits an optimism and verve that is often missing when we discuss anything related to our current post-truth era.


Ono begins by attempting to define “post-truth,” which he sees as a particularly clever rhetorical strategy. He quotes from the recently created “Post-truth politics” Wikipedia page: “a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of talking points to which factual rebuttals are ignored.” Ono adds that it is not only the repeated assertion of talking points but also their shock-value that aid the current climate of post-truth rhetoric. Yet none of this is new, and Ono is quick to remind us that facts have only become important in relatively recent history; the ancient rhetoricians who founded the field as something to be practiced didn’t rely on scientific facts in the way we do.

“In rhetoric, arguments need to be forever won, audiences require mobilization and re-mobilization,” Ono tells us, emphasizing that “no one has access to forever truths.” Truth is fickle and so are audiences, both changing over time, much like politics themselves. “Revolutions are not fleeting, momentary events,” Ono adds, reminding us never to get too comfortable with anything that appears to be set in stone, for rhetoric is ephemeral.

As an example, Ono reminds us of the birther discourse surrounding President Obama. It didn’t rely on facts but rather on possibility - it is possible that Obama was born in Kenya, post-truth rhetoric posits, and it is possible that he is a Muslim, and because it is possible, it is made probable, these lies mouthed with the certainty of truth. The fire-starter of the birther movement, our current president Donald Trump, kept up this rhetoric right through his campaign and into office. He claimed he lost the popular vote because of millions of “illegal” immigrants voting; claimed the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than anyone else’s; and continues to claim that sanctuary cities are full of gang violence. As recently as April of this year, he tweeted: “Sanctuary Cities released at least 142 Gang Members across the United States, making it easy for them to commit all forms of violent crimes where none would have existed. We are doing a great job of law enforcement, but things such as this make safety in America difficult!”


“A sanctuary jurisdiction,” Ono says, “is a place where people are protecting people from deportation.” It is this more positive rhetoric about what sanctuary is (rather than what it is not - i.e. a hotbed of gang violence and brutality) that Ono is especially interested in. While there are researchers doing the work of proving Trump’s assertions wrong, and while Ono applauds their efforts, he also reminds us that proof doesn’t work in a post-truth era. We could throw a hundred facts in our president’s face, in the faces of those who voted for him and support him, and it wouldn’t matter. Instead, Ono believes we should focus our energies on showcasing what sanctuary is and can be, as a model for the possibility of extra-legal freedom.

The sanctuary movement has its roots are in the 1980s, when churches across the country “often cited Canon 1179 of the Catholic Church’s 1917 Code of Canon Law to justify giving refuge to Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Guatemalans during the Central American wars of the 1980s.” This canon claimed in part that “A church enjoys the right of asylum, so that guilty persons who take refuge in it must not be taken from it.” [i] Ono sees this movement as natural, human, and humane, showcasing the best of empathy and caring for others in distress. Ono believes sanctuary should be looked at as part of a rhetoric of freedom - after all, there’s no federal designation of such spaces, and so the entire process is, as Ono sees it, outside the law.

Furthermore, this extra-legal space has somehow succeeded in being protected despite the president’s attempts. On Trump’s fifth day in office, January 25, 2017, he signed Executive Order 13768, titled “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States” (the title is an evasive rhetorical trick all by itself), which was meant to block federal funding from sanctuary cities that refused to comply with law enforcement on immigration issues. But lawsuits began pouring in immediately, and the order was deemed unconstitutional on November 21, 2017, since it was in effect violating the right of states to control their own law enforcement.

While not exempt from laws, churches still play an important role in the sanctuary movement, as they shield immigrants from deportation. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, has generally left church properties alone, as they count as “sensitive locations.” Such locations include, according to ICE’s website, schools, medical treatment and healthcare facilities, places of worship, religious or civil ceremonies of observance like weddings and funerals, and public demonstrations. However, ICE only advises against actions at such spaces, and as we’ve seen the government work under the cover of darkness recently in order to avoid attention as they moved hundreds of children to tent cities, it’s hard to trust them. Still, Ono remains hopeful.

Rather than arguing against untruth as rhetoricians have done so far in this post-truth era, Ono advocates that we spend time thinking about sanctuaries and extrapolating from the possibility they demonstrate. Isn’t it odd, he asks, that we have this thing in the US called sanctuary that protects people that is extra-legal and outside of national law yet national and federal law respects it? Morally and ethically it makes sense, he thinks - it seems natural that when there are people escaping sure death, we feel there should be something done to protect them. “This is a really important place to think about freedom, what freedom can be, and how law relates to freedom,” Ono says. One of the common comparisons made to sanctuary jurisdictions and how they work is the Underground Railroad - it is not a direct parallel, but it is another instance where citizens worked against the law to provide freedom, helping enslaved people move from regions where slavery was legal to those where it was not.

Migration is heavily surveilled, policed, and controlled in the US. Even upon gaining citizenship, migrants experience second-class citizenship. Migrants are infantilized by the state through their absolute dependence on it, and experience coercion to become economic and cultural subjects within whatever locale they happen to inhabit. Sanctuary is beyond this process, outside of it. Ono believes that looking at freedom only as connected to the government limits us, and further, it emphasizes migrant subjects’ assimilation through colonial practices. Sanctuary, on the other hand, provides an alternative to how citizenship has been theorized. Rather than looking at the migrant’s connection to the state (where freedom means escape from control), we can look at freedom and our citizenship outside of what the government does in relation to us.


In the final portion of his talk, Ono turns to broadening the concept of citizenship in effort to destabilize a model of freedom that relies on the state. He identifies “formal citizenship” as the freedoms given to citizens of the US from the government such as the right to vote, to own property, to avoid certain kinds of paperwork in order to drive a car. What Ono calls “informal citizenship” has to do with privilege, with how a person is treated. One person - perhaps a white cis male, for instance - won’t be scrutinized while driving a car down the highway. He has no legal protection against being watched, yet he is not. He is given a freedom from surveillance. Another person - perhaps someone with brown skin - is never able to drive without being watched. Even if both are formal citizens of the US, or even if neither is, these two drivers will be surveilled differently. And even if a person begins as a migrant and later gains legal citizenship, Ono explains, they are forced to live in segregated areas where police do not protect but rather arrest, surveille, brutalize them etc. Clearly, the law does not guarantee informal citizenship - yet we all practice it, and can use such informal citizenship to protect rather than penalize those without it.

There is something to be said for Ono’s optimism, his belief that in the end, sanctuary spaces rely on human kindness that comes naturally. However, the past two years seem to prove that kindness and empathy are not as universal as we’d like to hope, and that when given a platform, there are plenty of people who will be open and upfront about their dehumanizing beliefs, their “us vs. them” mentality. Further, Ono doesn’t address the fact that claiming sanctuary in a church may be a protection, but it is not freedom, because it requires those seeking such sanctuary to remain in a small, enclosed, protected space where they are again infantilized due to their need to rely on kindness and empathy for continued safety, support, and sustenance. While Ono’s focus on positive rhetoric and on abandoning efforts to “prove wrong” those folks who are not looking for factual evidence anyway rings true, his audience was left with questions, and the Q&A portion of the talk yielded few answers.


[i] Rabben, L. (2016). Sanctuary and Asylum: A Social and Political History. 1st ed. Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, p.37.

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