In One of the Nation’s Most Conservative Places, A Sanctuary City

Advocates in Santa Ana mobilize to educate, assist, protect, and inspire undocumented residents.

“This is a photo of older Santa Ana Fourth Street held up over what is there now. The bridal shop that used to be there closed down because the person who owned it couldn’t afford the rent anymore.”

All photos by Josué Rivas.

Protection, shelter, fear, and displacement: I found them all in Santa Ana, California, a self-proclaimed “sanctuary city.”

This was my first home in the U.S. after my mom brought me here as a child. I remember a vibrant Fourth Street, a hub for all Mexican-related things, from homemade tortillas to traditional music. Though much has changed in the 18 years since I lived there, Santa Ana remains the epicenter for social justice activism in Orange County, one of the most conservative places in the country. The people are the spirit of this community, and they have mobilized to protect their undocumented brothers and sisters.

In December, the Santa Ana City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting the use of city resources for immigration enforcement. This was a positive step toward becoming an actual sanctuary for undocumented people.

But even in a sanctuary city, more work must be done. Advocacy groups, such as Resilience Orange County, lead the fight for fair implementation of sanctuary practices and transparency from the city.


Carlos works with Resilience OC, which organizes grassroots deportation defense and educates youth of color and their families to become outspoken leaders in their community. His demeanor is the spirit of that movement and brings a little bit of gentleness into the crazy world of trying to prevent deportations and mobilizing people to protest. His story is very similar to my story. His mother sacrificed a lot to bring him to this country to pursue higher education. He’s here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. 

Undocumented folks live in fear of the day they will be pulled over by the police or have an encounter with any sort of authorities. When ICE chased down this undocumented young man and his father, Resilience OC’s Abraham and Carlos arrived within minutes and immediately got to work: They took photos and livestreamed, contacted their network to get the word out about what happened, called attorneys. Advocacy is basically the community coming together to document and monitor these enforcements. They talk to immigration agents. They talk to police. They become involved. They keep the law enforcement accountable. They are unafraid. 

Inside the Santa Ana Resilience OC office, activists have created a sanctuary of their own. This is a poster created by my friend Ernesto Yerena. Art has become an important tool for social justice movements. This poster honors and brings out the beauty of these movements. 

I met Marilyn when I was in high school. She reminded me a lot of Mother Earth back then and still does. She holds so much responsibility for her family. She has the privilege of citizenship, as opposed to her parents. As she told me her story, she sometimes got overwhelmed by her situation. If her parents are detained or deported, she will be the one to take care of her brothers and sisters. So she is a sanctuary for her family. This reminded me of the resilience of our women of color, which I have personally experienced in my family with my mother and my sisters. And in indigenous communities across the U.S., the women are the sanctuary, just as Mother Earth is the sanctuary for all of us. Marilyn is holding in a lot. I wanted to be of some sort of service to her and lift up her spirit. She is a warrior. 

I came to Santa Ana for this photo project in days that were politically crucial to the sanctuary movement. Jose Solorio, a council member, was trying to bring back the city’s jail contract with ICE. This really shows the contradicting opinions within the Santa Ana government. The city dances with the idea of truly being a sanctuary city, but in reality it has benefitted from the detention of undocumented people. The city built a very expensive jail, and ICE paid them to be able to use the jail as a detention center. But the community spoke out against this, and the council at the end of the night did not reinstate the contract. A week later Solorio tried again. He failed. 

In some ways, Santa Ana is timeless. I used public transportation and walked throughout my time documenting this project. There are things you need be on the ground to really see. Even though the Latino community feels the pressure of gentrification, there are places where it continues to thrive. Today, Latinos make up 78 percent of Santa Ana. 

This taco truck brought back memories of growing up there. You could walk out of your house and have a really delicious meal prepared by amazing people. During this visit, the city was considering a proposal to get rid of taco trucks. Why? In order to get rid of a certain group of people, you need to get rid of the things that come with them, the things that give them a sense of culture and identity. With taco trucks come not only really good meals, but also community. 

Documenting this sanctuary city also represented a return to places that I knew in my youth. I would wait for my mother to get off work at her bridal shop on Fourth Street and get tacos down the street. Many of those businesses are no longer there. Instead there are upscale coffee shops and hipster clothing stores. This is a photo of older Santa Ana Fourth Street held up over what is there now. The bridal shop that used to be there closed down because the person who owned it couldn’t afford the rent anymore. 

Alexis was in his first week working with Resilience OC. He had previously worked on the development of the sanctuary policy adopted in December. But Alex believes the city now needs to implement its policy in a way that is compassionate and creates a real and positive relationship between city government and its community, not just a symbolic one. Issues such as youth incarceration, gentrification, and lack of resources are pushing the immigrant community out of Santa Ana. Why be a sanctuary city if you’re going to displace the people who need it?