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Strengthening sanctuary in our communities

On August 15, the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program turned 5 years old with a sword hanging over its head. A group of 10 attorney generals has threatened to file a court challenge to the program, seeking to force President Trump to make a decision: will he eliminate the program, as he promised voters he would?

In the meantime, Trump and his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, have continued to use polarizing rhetoric accusing undocumented people of being gang members and criminals, while blasting city governments that have declared themselves welcoming to immigrants. So far, this rhetoric has failed to result in a wholesale change to immigration policy, but in the words of local immigration lawyer Steffani Powell, “something huge is coming.”

The crime of being undocumented

After years of telling parents it was safe to enroll their children in DACA, Powell now lies awake at night thinking about what will happen to her clients. In the meantime, the wheels of the deportation machine put in place under the Obama administration continue to churn on, but with an added layer of intimidation. The Homeland Security Memo signed by General Kelly in February, a follow-up to the Executive Order issued in January, effectively declared it a crime to be undocumented. There are currently 930,000 people living in the United States who could be separated from their families if these mandates were fully enforced.

Here in Olympia, Powell and other activists organizing with the group Strengthening Sanctuary are doing their best to prepare for the worst. Their efforts began in November, when they urged the City to make a strong statement of solidarity with immigrants at risk.

Olympia adopts a statement of solidarity

They lobbied the City Council to support the Sanctuary City resolution drafted by Councilwoman Jessica Bateman. The Council unanimously adopted the resolution on December 13th, declaring that Olympia officials “will not inquire upon a resident’s immigration status in providing municipal services or in the course of law enforcement.”

This is crucial: if local police do not ask about place of birth or immigration status, both of which are typically irrelevant to the nature of the arrest, they cannot provide that information to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Activists quickly realized that they needed to understand more about how local law enforcement agencies collect and disseminate data. For instance, people arrested in Olympia are sometimes sent to jails in other jurisdictions—so the group needed to know the policies of surrounding municipalities, as well as those of county sheriffs and the State Patrol.

Understanding law enforcement policies

In the simplest terms, this was the first phase of the group’s work: to understand the various policies of each law enforcement entity. The second phase was to make a case for change, as they did with the Olympia resolution. That case begins with a simple question: why would officials want to collect information about a person’s place of birth? In many cases, there is no good answer other than longstanding practice nor is there a state law mandating the collection of that information.

According to Sessions, it is the responsibility of every government entity to cooperate with ICE. But as Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson points out in “Guidance Concerning Immigration Enforcement,” issued in April 2017, “local jurisdictions have a great deal of discretion” in cases where there is no explicit state law governing a particular form of cooperation. Even Sessions’ claim that he has the power to withhold federal reimbursement dollars from agencies that refuse to cooperate fully with ICE is currently being contested by the city of Chicago.

Maintaining trust­—with ICE or with the community?

In the meantime, there are several other factors at play in the policies adopted by local law enforcement. Some state officials are worried they might be blamed for failing to detain an undocumented person who goes on to commit a highly publicized crime. Others, like Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, are invested in maintaining a working relationship with agencies like ICE and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). In conversations with members of Strengthening Sanctuary, Sheriff Snaza mentioned past assistance he has received from those agencies in cases involving drugs or human trafficking. On the other hand, several of the law enforcement officials who attended a listening session hosted by the Hispanic Roundtable on June 25th seemed genuinely concerned about the possibility of eroding trust between themselves and members of the community.

Minimizing harm to immigrant families

In other words, the politics of immigration enforcement, like the law itself, are incredibly complex. The Strengthening Sanctuary activists don’t accept at face value everything they hear from police chiefs, but that’s not the point—the point is to minimize the potential harm done to immigrant families. As Scott Goddard argues, “federal law and ICE are constantly going to be putting pressure” on our local officials. If we push in the opposite direction, “we can at least keep them in the middle.”

Sheriffs, mayors, and city councilors are elected, making them potentially receptive to public pressure, while appointed chiefs are sensitive to pressure from the public bodies to which they are accountable. Captain Monica Alexander, from the State Patrol’s Office of Government and Media Relations, has expressed a particularly strong commitment to ensuring that officers are not violating policy guidelines. The group is still working to establish a line of communication with the Nisqually Tribal Council, whose jail houses people arrested for misdemeanors in Lacey and Tumwater, as well as some of those arrested by the State Patrol.

The goal of all of this data gathering is to minimize the chances that an officer will ask a question that is not merely unnecessary but potentially harmful. But what if the question does get asked? This is where the third phase of the group’s work comes in. Along with dozens of other activists across the state, they have been offering “Know Your Rights” trainings for parents, children, and anyone else who will listen. Many immigrants don’t know that if you’re arrested you only have to give the police your name, not your place of birth. In many recent cases, including that of Seattle Dreamer Daniel Ramirez Medina, legal residents are swept up as “collateral” damage when ICE raids a family’s home; such “collateral” arrests represent the one area in which the Trump administration has significantly increased the overall number of detentions and deportations.

Learning legal rights and when to say ‘no”

Because of what happened to Medina (who was later released on bond) it’s important not just to know your rights, but to practice saying “no.” Accordingly, Powell, her colleague Alejandra Hunt, and other activists have developed a flexible curriculum that allows them to alternate between information delivery, Q&A sessions, and interactive skits. During one recent training in Aberdeen, a latecomer generously volunteered to participate in a skit without having had heard Powell’s presentation, and received shouts of warning from his neighbors when he unwittingly fell into the trap set by the make-believe ICE agents. It’s this kind of active learning that allows immigrants to feel more confident exercising their legal rights when confronted by law enforcement.

What’s next for Strengthening Sanctuary? The group hopes to increase its connection with local schools, offering more “know your rights” trainings for parents and working with school districts to change their data collection policies. Meanwhile, they will continue filling in the gaps in their knowledge of the complex web linking arrests, information gathering, and funding for local jails. Powell says she would love to get a “Know Your Rights” card into the hands of everyone in the state. All the activists agree that candidates running in 2018 should be urged to come out strong on behalf of our immigrant neighbors. Members of the group know they can’t track every arrest, but if residents are willing to lodge a complaint when an officer violates policy, activists can use such complaints to put additional pressure on the agency in question.

Strengthening Sanctuary is fully committed to both short- and long-term goals, but they are not naïve: they realize that the waiting game set in motion by the Trump administration’s threats is making immigrants more fearful and allies more complacent. But that’s exactly what makes Hunt so passionate about the group’s “Know Your Rights” work—“we have to let immigrants know that people care,” she says.

Want to get involved? Strengthening Sanctuary includes a variety of different ongoing work groups, and meets regularly in the Olympia area. Contact for more information.

Links for Homeland Security Memo:

Link to Executive Order:

Link to City Council resolution:

Link to “Guidance” document:

Link to coverage of Chicago lawsuit:

Link to Op-Ed by Ramirez Medina:

Elizabeth Williamson is a Member of the Faculty at The Evergreen State College. More experienced members of Strengthening Sanctuary contributed all the policy and interview information contained in this article.        


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