Commentary: ‘Sanctuary city’ policies should look beyond ICE raids


In the wake of an election year filled with rhetoric of bigotry, hate and fear, the term “sanctuary city” has come to be a badge of honor and sign of resistance for liberal cities.

However, cities like Austin that have adopted the label in this context have done so with little discussion about what sanctuary means beyond limiting police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This move away from police involvement in immigration enforcement is without a doubt an important victory for Austin’s immigrant community — and for the grassroots organizers who put enormous pressure on city officials to enact the change.

As recent raids have spread fear through Austin’s communities and schools, it is important that the city reframe the conversation and carefully consider what our “sanctuary” label should include. We need to see our sanctuary status not just as a symbolic stand against racist, fear-provoking rhetoric, but as a commitment to significant, ongoing support to ensure the safety, well-being and inclusion of our immigrant community. City leaders need to work closely with immigrant community members and advocates to learn what types of protection and support should characterize our sanctuary status.

The Austin City Council took an important step in the right direction when they recently allocated $200,000 in emergency funds for legal services — but there is much more to be done.

Those of us who have never had to face all of the collateral effects of facing or fearing deportation are in no position to define “sanctuary.” As an advocate, I have met with many children who are overwhelmed with fear at the prospect of their own deportation or the deportation of a loved one. I know that witnessing this fear changes the conversation. Our narrowly defined “sanctuary” badge that we carry so proudly will not ensure that a child has enough to eat when her mother misses work because of ICE raids. It will not help her feel safe in her school as Austin ISD officials debate whether or not they can provide simple Know Your Rights information to families.

It will not prevent her family from being targeted by a fraudulent immigration scam charging thousands of dollars for the promise of legal status. It will not protect her from the traumatic and devastating separation from a parent when ICE comes knocking at her door. If Austin is to truly step up and call itself a sanctuary city, it needs to ask that child’s family what sanctuary means to them.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler is a member of Cities for Action, a group of city leaders across the country calling for fair immigration reform. He regularly attends rallies and events and speaks in support of Austin’s immigrant community. However, these statements must be accompanied by action, and immigration is nowhere to be found in the core issues listed on the Mayor’s Office website. A 2015 report by the USC Center for the Study of Immigration Integration suggests that while most immigration laws and enforcement policies are determined by the federal government, cities can play a critical role in shaping local systems and policies to be more welcoming to immigrants.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, six in 10 unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. live in just 20 metro areas, including Austin. Though Austin has an important and urgent role to play in welcoming immigrants to a state and country increasingly characterized by exclusion and discrimination, this role requires resources, commitment and dialogue.

Though Austin may not have the resources or the will to create a mayor’s office dedicated to immigrant affairs following the lead of cities like New York, Baltimore and Atlanta, it can look to their programs to find templates for new initiatives. Austin does have a Commission on Immigrant Affairs that meets monthly and is set to revisit the municipal ID program that was considered by Austin City Council in 2014.

The program – which has already been adopted in some form in many cities throughout the U.S. – would give undocumented residents access to a government-issued photo ID. Immigrant Affairs offices in other cities have also focused on citizenship drives, improving coordination of city and nonprofit services, educational campaigns and public school programming. Nashville’s Parent Ambassadors program pairs trained volunteers with new immigrant families based on a shared country of origin or language. The ambassadors help families navigate the school system and advise school leaders on policies and practices. Last year, the New York Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs launched ActionNYC, an innovative community-based model for legal services. Free immigration legal services are offered in a network of trusted community organizations and schools and are paired with referrals to relevant social services.

Though these programs offer a wealth of information and ideas, Austin must look to its own immigrant communities to redefine sanctuary status according to their unique needs.

LaMotte is graduate student at the School of Social Work and Public Affairs at the University of Texas.



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