In medieval Europe, as urban areas recovered from the long funk of the early Middle Ages, cities encouraged immigration, legal or not, with provisions granting citizenship to those who came and stayed a length of time, commonly a year and a day, so long as they caused no trouble and no trouble followed them. That these new arrivals may have been breaking laws in leaving their villages did not much trouble city leaders, who wanted ambitious and energetic newcomers.
Our first naturalization law, issued in 1790, reflects some of this character by allowing “any alien, being a free white person,” who had lived in the United States for two years and within a state for one, to apply for citizenship and have it granted by any common law court upon proof of good character. As more and more non-“white” people came to America, rules tightened.
America itself can be viewed as something of a sanctuary city.
Seeking refuge from persecution in England, the Puritan leader John Winthrop described the Massachusetts Bay colony, declaring “We shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.” That the Puritans turned to persecution after establishing their city need not detain us; the image of the city on a hill stuck, with Ronald Reagan describing it as “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get there.”
If anyone has shown “the will and heart” to get here, it is the men and women who left home to face an uncertain future to make the dangerous trek across the border, in search of a better life for themselves and their families.