Within weeks after President Trump’s 2016 election, the Olympia City Council passed a resolution declaring it a sanctuary city. That meant the city – or its police – would not inquire about anyone’s immigration status, and would not act in concert with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And it reaffirmed that no one would be asked about their immigration status to receive city services.
But well-meaning as it was, the impact of the city’s action was limited. In fact, it pales in comparison to the impact of an impressive corps of volunteers who banded together to create Strengthening Sanctuary. This loosely structured, informal but effective group is working to reduce the fear that undocumented – and even documented – immigrants and their children are experiencing in our region.
While most of the attention to immigration issues focuses on our southern border, ICE also has ramped up internal immigration enforcement, and not just of immigrants who are convicted of crimes. Undocumented people who have lived here for many years, worked, paid taxes and raised children now feel they are in daily danger. The worst fears are that adults will be detained and deported, leaving their children in limbo. In some families, this includes both children who were born here, and those who immigrated with their parents. This is not an unfounded fear. Strengthening Sanctuary activists and Steffani Powell, a local immigration attorney, report multiple such incidents.
The result is that many families are now trying hard to be invisible. They are reluctant to call the police when they are victims of crimes, and many are no longer enrolling their children in Head Start or other early childhood education programs. Some older children are not signing up for state college scholarships, even though they are eligible.
Strengthening Sanctuary, and its partners at CIELO, the workhorse local non-profit that offers educational and social support to the local Latino community, have mounted several programs to help reduce the fear and increase the safety of these families.
They also are helping families get passports for their American-born children to hold open the chance that children can visit their deported parents and return to this country. And they are writing “family safety plans” that specify who will take care of children when parents are detained so that they don’t end up on their own or in the state foster care system. There also are financial issues: Who will make their car payments, and is there any way they can they keep their housing while they are locked up?
Strengthening Sanctuary and CIELO also are conducting “Know Your Rights” workshops for immigrant families, and though the advice is helpful, it’s also chilling: If an ICE agent comes to your house, you don’t have to let them in or answer any questions unless there is a warrant. You do not have to answer questions from ICE agents without a lawyer present. You do not have to tell ICE where you are from, but you should never carry any identification or paperwork of any kind from your country of origin. If stopped, try to stay calm – even though you know your family may not see you again.
This is such a plainly moral issue that of course local faith communities are deeply involved. Ten congregations are members of The South Sound Faith Network for Immigration and Refugee Support.
Temple Beth Hatfiloh has declared itself a sanctuary congregation, available to shelter immigrants from ICE arrest. The United Churches of Olympia is considering a similar declaration. This is a huge commitment, requiring money, space, and significant volunteer support.
All these local people doing all this work are surely no substitute for national, comprehensive, sensible and humane immigration reform. But they show us, during this holiday season, what it means to welcome the stranger, to love our neighbors, and – for those of us who are not indigenous – to honor our own families’ immigrant history. And it should inspire all of us to reflect on what an immense, unearned privilege it is to be born in this country.