Cities and Schools as Sanctuaries

By Abelardo de la Peña, Jr.

Since the presidential election, immigration policy has once again become the focus of volatile debate. One side of that policy equation continues to raise the stakes with increasingly inflammatory rhetoric, while the other side desperately tries to hold only hard-won gains, only dimming the chance of comprehensive immigration reform any time soon.

News of ICE raids and the harsh language from the White House defending this tactic has also heightened the anxiety in immigrant communities across the country, particularly in this region.

Increasingly cities and other local jurisdictions have responded by embracing “sanctuary,” a once dubious policy strategy that has not only gained traction but may also offer some respite to immigrant communities. This strategy is also setting up the inevitable showdown between locals and the federal government that could very well end up in the Supreme Court.

By common definition, a sanctuary city (ciudad santuario) is a municipality that limits cooperation with to enforce certain immigration laws. The aim is to reduce the fear of deportation and family break-up and encourage people to be more willing to report crime, use healthcare and social services, and enroll their children in school.

During the campaign, President Trump railed against sanctuary cities, promising to end them by blocking their federal funding. In his first month as president, he signed an executive order directing the Secretary of Homeland Security and Attorney General to defund sanctuary jurisdictions that refuse to comply with federal immigration law.

Recently, Acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director Thomas Homan slammed sanctuary cities, telling Fox News, “I’ve been doing this job almost 34 years and sanctuary cities, in my opinion, are un-American.”

Municipal policies adopted by sanctuary cities include prohibiting police or city employees from questioning people about their immigration status and refusing requests by federal immigration authorities to detain people jailed for breaking local laws beyond their release date.

In California, according to the National Immigration Law Center, about a dozen cities have some formal sanctuary policy, and none of the 58 California Counties complies with detainer requests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

A month before the President was inaugurated, the City Council of Santa Ana unanimously established itself as a “sanctuary city.” The city council also recently directed staff to set aside $65,000 of taxpayer money to create a fund to hire lawyers for undocumented immigrants who face deportation.

The city’s Mayor Pro-Tem Michele Martinez declared the city’s commitment not only protect but to create a sustainable, long-term resource for immigrant communities. “We must not simply support a sanctuary resolution for symbolic purposes and have no impact, stated Martinez. “We must be bold and take it a step forward and push for sound polices that will support our communities during these uncertain times.”

In 2015 Cudahy declared itself a sanctuary city to encourage immigrants without legal status to cooperate with police. LA County’s second smallest city, Cudahy is one of the most densely populated, where some 24,000 people – 96% Latinos – live in tiny apartments, trailer parks and small single-family homes in a 1.2-square-mile area. Since then, the city has not only been targeted by the federal government, but by people who live outside the city who regularly disrupt city council meetings.

Cristian Markovich, who has served in Cudahy’s city council since 2013 and voted in favor of the ordinance, continues not only to stand by the city’s decision but is adamant about standing up to sanctuary city opponents, including the federal government.

“As far as federal government is concerned, for Republicans, whose stance has been historically to allow for state and individual rights, telling them how to govern, is ironic,” said Markovich. “I’ve said in past, those tax dollars are rightfully ours, Cudahy pays taxes, residents pay taxes, we are using them in tangible projects. Why would they want to strip them from us?”

Of comfort to Markovich and other city leaders is the support given to them by other elected officials who represent Cuday. “We’ve had great leadership, from people like State Senator Ricardo Lara, U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, and Congressmember Lucille Roybal-Allard. They are not willing to let us fight this alone.”

In May 2017, the Pasadena City Council unanimously passed an official resolution which declared that the city “will not enforce federal immigration laws and the city manager will ensure that all city policies are consistent with this declaration.”

Though the resolution did not use the term “sanctuary city,” the city council assured the packed chamber that the resolution was a gesture of good faith. “It’s important for the council to make its voice known,” stated Councilmember Victor Gordo to the Pasadena Star News. “The Council has taken a clear position on this issue.”

Phillip C. Castruita and his organization, Foundation for Economic and Social Justice, participated in Pasadena’s efforts to become a sanctuary city. Called in initially to provide guidance for setting up defense committees to protect the rights of immigrants, the group’s efforts and experiences has led to the development of informal guidelines to help other cities to understand sanctuary cities and how to make it work in their communities.

“It’s crucial for local politicians to understand what the community wants. We started by meeting with day laborers, who were most impacted by the crackdown by ICE and others,” says the organization’s director / secretary. “The next step is to work with organizations that are already at the forefront of working with effected communities, like the National Day Laborers Organizing Network (NDLON), the Central American Resource Center (CARACEN) and Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA).

Constituents identified by the organizations packed meetings in February 2017, when ICE began workplace raids in the area. Castruita and his group planned marches and they identified other elected officials who were friendly to the cause. When the question was called in Pasadena, more than 300 proponents filled city hall, which served to give voice to their support for the sanctuary city measure, but also to dampen opposition.

The Foundation has since been assisting officials in the city of Los Angeles and South Pasadena move forward on sanctuary city policies and is set to move beyond, to South and Southeast Los Angeles.

Castruita’s advise to elected officials committed to protecting the immigrant constituents? “Don’t underestimate the power of the community. Outreach is important, from the start. You can’t leave the people affected by immigration policies out of the plan. The hard part is to get beyond fear.”

And while support from Congressional representatives can give the effort legitimacy, it’s not as important as having a community base of support. “In an issue as complex and controversial as sanctuary cities, nobody knows the needs of your constituents better than you.”

Abelardo de la Peña, Jr. documents, analyzes and provides insights on U.S. Latino issues and culture.