A year after the Santa Fe City Council adopted in February 2017 a resolution strengthening its welcoming and non-discrimination policies toward immigrants, the federal government launched a series of audits demanding verification from local small businesses that their employees were eligible to work in the country. In response to this blitz, advocates and city officials held a press conference in early March calling out an attempt to disrupt business, wreak havoc, and create a culture of fear and panic.
“Today, children will wake up at home wondering if there will be a knock on their door; parents will go to work wondering if there will be a knock at the door of their place of employment; families will wonder if they’ll have one more meal together,” said then-Mayor Javier Gonzales, who, following President Trump’s election, became an outspoken proponent of cities enacting sanctuary and non-discrimination policies. “That is not what our country has ever been about, but it is what this administration is trying to do by dividing our communities. All of us in our community know that one of the best values Santa Fe incorporates every day is the value of welcoming people.”
And that value of welcoming is not just compassionate talk. There is proof that sanctuary policies are working, keeping residents safer than in places that collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement tactics.
According to a new study from Pew Research Center, nationwide deportations made by ICE in 2017 increased 30 percent from the previous year. But these increases are not distributed evenly. In regions where city and state governments worked hand in hand with ICE, deportations have increased more than 75 percent. In regions where sanctuary policies are more prevalent, increases have remained relatively low.
Along with California, New Mexico has emerged as one of the most welcoming states for undocumented immigrants. And it’s not just the capital, Santa Fe. Across the state, immigrant rights groups and faith communities are working alongside local governments in innovative ways to resist the Trump administration’s deportation efforts. Not only have these efforts succeeded, but they have provided a blueprint for other towns, cities, and states to emulate.
Santa Fe adopted its first sanctuary resolution in 1999. It was a reaction to the new Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which threatened undocumented immigrants with lengthy bans. This first resolution was largely symbolic—a declaration of the city’s values, stating only that the city would not use its own resources to aid federal immigration officials.
Nearly two decades later, following Trump’s election and xenophobic rhetoric, city leaders and immigrant communities were activated once again.
Mayor Gonzales appeared on CNN, Fox News, NPR, and other news outlets just a week after the election explaining why Santa Fe would continue its welcoming policies toward immigrants and would resist any large-scale deportation efforts.
Somos un Pueblo Unido, a state-wide immigrant rights organization based in Santa Fe, held a meeting for its members a week following the election to provide a space for people both to express their fears and brainstorm ways of strengthening policies to better protect them. “What’s great is that when you are membership-based, the solutions are so deeply rooted in the realities of lived experiences,” says Marcela Diaz, Somos’ executive director. She has been with the organization for 20 years and helped the city with the 1999 resolution.
Over the next three months, Somos un Pueblo Unido worked with city council members, the ACLU of New Mexico, and other stakeholders to create a legally defensible document that would provide meaningful protection for immigrant families. The new policies bar city employees from inquiring about or disclosing information about residents’ immigration status, deny federal immigration agents access to non-public areas of city property, direct staff to improve language access on all government documents and programs, and mandate outreach to employers and community members to educate people on their civil rights and the city’s new policies.
“We know people that have run and have gotten away.”
While these are considered sanctuary policies, over the course of the drafting process, the word “sanctuary” was removed from the resolution. There is no legal definition of sanctuary, and advocates reasoned that the word could become a lightning rod for the Trump administration.
Even so, when the council unanimously adopted the welcoming, non-discrimination resolution in February 2017, the room exploded in cheers and applause. Everyone seemed to feel the weight of the occasion. “As a native Santa Fean, I’m proud to be on the right side of history,” said city councilor Renee Villarreal.
Unlike the resolution from 1999, this one wasn’t merely a statement of values, but a prescription of policies for the city to implement.
As people celebrated, Diaz said, she was thinking about what lay ahead: “Our work begins now.”
Over the past year the new policies have been put in place. There’s still work to be done, Diaz said, especially in the realm of language access, but has not received any complaints from members about the city not living up to its stated values.
Additionally, Villarreal said the city will start to coordinate with the county, school district, and local community college to ensure each entity is working together in a complementary fashion.
The city and groups like Somos hold know-your-rights workshops. Significantly, many of these trainings are peer-to-peer and allow the kind of firsthand information sharing that attorneys cannot always provide.
“We do a lot of peer-to-peer because it’s just different,” said Diaz. “The difference is that there are some organizations and some attorneys—and rightly so—that say ‘stay calm, don’t run.’ We know people that have run and have gotten away, so it’s weird for us to say don’t run.”
Santa Fe’s immigrant community knows to avoid the state probation office.
Somos does work with attorneys and groups like the ACLU to offer legal advice. But because a lot of important information comes from other members as they encounter ICE and Border Patrol, peer-to-peer is often most effective. As Diaz explained, “We’re not telling you to run—we’re just saying these are the consequences.”
Because there is no playbook for the crackdown on undocumented immigrants currently taking place, Somos un Pueblo Unido has had to be nimble and adapt to shifting ICE tactics. Through its member network, the organization can quickly disseminate information efficiently when ICE agents enter a community.
When ICE began launching audits back in February, Somos and other organizations throughout the state were forced to act quickly. Two days after the press conference where Gonzales decried ICE’s disruptive actions, Somos co-sponsored a know-your-rights workshop with the city, the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, and the Hispanic and Green Chambers of Commerce. The workshop was specifically designed for employers to learn what they are legally required to disclose during an I-9 audit and how they could best protect their employees. Despite just a couple days’ notice, more than 50 businesses showed up.
“We’re playing whack-a-mole,” said Diaz, referring to the fast-paced, random nature at which they are encountering new threats. “But that’s what sanctuary for us is—helping people understanding what’s going on and sharing resources. All of the answers are not necessarily going to be there. We have to be nimble, we have to figure out how to attack each tactic as it comes.”
Villarreal is also encouraged by the proactive way in which Santa Fe has faced these new threats head on. “It’s a sign of the activism in New Mexico,” she says. “That we have very strong immigrant rights organizations that work well with governments is a large reason why we’ve been successful.
Not all governments, however. Santa Fe’s immigrant community knows to avoid the state probation office and opt to deal with any legal business at the county jail. Why? Even though Santa Fe County does not cooperate with ICE, the state of New Mexico under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez does.
To be clear, members of Somos un Pueblo Unido are in the thick of a battle against the federal government. For these people, wins can seem temporary, while losses last longer and are felt more acutely. They come in the form of people being deported and families being torn apart. Despite the difficulty in feeling successful, though, New Mexico has proved to be a national leader in resisting deportation.
According to Pew’s analysis of data provided by ICE, 143,470 people were arrested during 2017, compared to 110,104 in 2016. (Trump’s first year in office pales in comparison to the 297,898 arrests during President Obama’s first year.)
ICE compiles its data based on 24 different regions that largely follow state boundaries. In 2017, Miami (which includes all of Florida), Dallas (which includes the northern half of Texas and Oklahoma) and St. Paul (which includes Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, and Nebraska) saw the biggest jump in arrests made by ICE with increases of 76 percent, 71 percent, and 67 percent, respectively.
The state has also built a supportive culture around its immigrant communities.
San Antonio (central-southern Texas), Houston (southeastern Texas) and San Francisco (Northern California, Hawaii and Guam) saw the lowest increases at 1 percent, 5 percent, and 9 percent, respectively. But those numbers can be misleading. In raw numbers, the Houston region saw the second highest number of deportations, and San Antonio ranked fifth.
On the other hand, ICE’s El Paso region, which includes west Texas and all of New Mexico, saw a modest growth in the numbers of arrests at 12 percent. But in raw numbers, the region remains the third lowest of all ICE regions with only 1,892 arrests last year. That still ranks above Baltimore (1,666 arrests) and Buffalo, New York, (1,494 arrests), which both saw larger increases last year of 34 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Considering that New Mexico is a border state, its ability to minimize the number of residents deported stands out.
An analysis conducted by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center provides useful context. Mapping every county across the country, ILRC created a 0-7 scale to determine the extent to which counties do or do not work with ICE with 0 representing the highest level of cooperation and 7 representing the lowest level of cooperation.
Counties with a rating of 0 either work closely with ICE or have entered formal agreements under which local law enforcement officers are essentially deputized as federal immigration agents. On the other side of the scale, counties with a rating of 6 or 7, like Santa Fe, have comprehensive “sanctuary” protections in place to block local resources from being used to aid ICE.
According to ILRC, California laws passed last year turned every county in California into a 6 or 7. Oregon and Vermont also stand out with pro-immigrant policies prevalent across each state. New Mexico is the only other state where most counties have policies that favor protecting immigrants. Of the state’s 33 counties, 22 rank as a 4 or higher.
In a similar report, ILRC also looked at how county-level policies changed after Trump took office. In New Mexico, every county that ranked as a 4 or higher strengthened their policies over the past year. The same is true of every California county, along with many in Oregon. On the reverse side, counties in ICE-collaborative regions like Miami, St. Paul, and Buffalo largely decreased protections for immigrants, likely contributing the increased arrest rates.
While sanctuary policies can be credited for part of New Mexico’s success, the state has also built a supportive culture around its immigrant communities. Nowhere is this more true than its second largest city, Las Cruces, which sits just 40 miles north of the Mexico border.
In response to raids in February 2017, NM CAFé (an acronym for Comunidades en Acción y de Fé), a faith-based community organization and affiliate of the PICO National Network, led a protest in downtown Las Cruces, blocking parts of Main Street for 45 minutes. The group was joined by local faith leaders, and the next day a group of eight state senators and local representatives signed a letter to Gov. Martinez calling on her to bar ICE from entering sensitive areas like schools, churches, hospitals, and courthouses to calm the sense of anxiety running through the community.
“We wanted to push back against this narrative that ICE just gets to come in our communities and kidnap people from their homes,” said Johana Bencomo, a community organizer with CAFé. “We wanted to make sure it was something the community knew about.”
Johana Bencomo with NM CAFé thanks Father Tom Smith for the work he has done during the past year with regards to helping migrants in the borderland Thursday Dec. 14 2017 at the closing of the Safe for the Holidays: Migrant Solidarity in the Borderlands at the Branigan Cultural Center. Photo by Josh Bachman/Sun-News.
In many communities, civil disobedience could be divisive. But in Las Cruces, it seems to be energizing. Anxiety persists, acknowledged Bencomo, but “it hasn’t paralyzed people. If anything, it’s woken up many other people.”
Late last year, the city of Las Cruces adopted its own non-discrimination resolution.
“We are called by the gospel and the scriptures to welcome the aliens, to care for those in need.”
CAFé also organized its members to pressure the state’s two senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, to vote against a Dreamers bill that included $25 billion in border security funds. In February, Udall and Heinrich joined California’s Sen. Kamala Harris as the only dissenting votes. In addition to its policy work, CAFé embraces organizing strategies similar to Somos’, such as holding know-your-rights workshops and teaching employers and employees what to expect from I-9 audits.
CAFé has also created a rapid response network that allows people to alert organizers when immigration raids are taking place. Staff and volunteers serve as operators, and once claims are verified, the organization can send email or text message blasts.
And when all else fails, CAFé turns to Father Tom Smith, director of the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla, just south of Las Cruces.
In May 2017, Father Smith took in Jorge Taborda as his first sanctuary case, although Smith prefers the term “Francisican hospitality.” Taborda arrived with his 16-year-old son, who is a U.S. citizen, after his wife was deported to Colombia. And since October, Smith has taken in a second person, Lorena Rivera.
Jorge Taborda and his sons are blessed by Bishop Oscar Cantü during a mass which took place after a press conference put on by Comunidades en Acción y de Fé Saturday June 17 2017 at the Holy Cross Retreat Center. Taborda is being housed at the retreat center after his wife was detained and deported from the U.S. Photo by Josh Bachman/Sun-News.
“We are called by the gospel and the scriptures to welcome the aliens, to care for those in need,” Smith explained.
With room enough for only four people, Smith acknowledges that he alone cannot make a difference on a large scale. And while ICE has agreed not to enter sensitive areas like churches, if federal agents come with a search warrant, he cannot stop them. He said that his work is intended to “raise consciousness.” He allows media access to both Taborda and Rivera and also brings in school groups to learn from their experiences. “They listen to their stories, and it helps change their opinion because they’re hearing it directly from that person,” Smith said.
“Father Tom has been a godsend to our community,” Bencomo said. “He has shown the kind of boldness and courage our community members need.”
“We are building a really strong counter-narrative that is only enhancing Las Cruces’s culture,” Bencomo affirmed.
Despite the work being done by New Mexico communities to keep their residents safe, the Trump administration is determined.
The Justice Department is suing California over its new laws that bar private employers as well as state and local jails from cooperating voluntarily with federal immigration officials. The federal government maintains it has complete authority over immigration issues.
In Texas, the state legislature passed a law banning sanctuary cities. An injunction had been granted, but a federal appeals court ruled in March that the law could take effect. The court battle will continue.
NM CAFé leads a protest blocking the entrance to the local Border Patrol Station in May 2017. Photo by Heather Wilson.
Meanwhile, construction of Trump’s border wall is set to begin in New Mexico as well as parts of the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis authorized the federal government to pay for potential deployment of up to 4,000 National Guard troops for the border mission through September. Arizona and Texas have committed hundreds of troops so far. Many fear that the further militarization of the border will serve only to cast immigrants in a negative light.
With the national landscape more fraught than ever, immigrant rights groups in New Mexico are busy.
Somos un Pueblo Unido has helped facilitate meetings to bring community members together with the law enforcement community and recently conducted a training for 90 Farmington police officers on the benefits of not checking immigration status, which they have ceased doing. Somos was also involved in McKinley County’s decision to cease its cooperation with ICE, and it helped dissuade Luna County, west of Las Cruces, from entering into a deputizing agreement with the agency. In Albuquerque, the election of a progressive mayor has meant a non-discrimination resolution in the state’s largest city is making its way through the city council.
The thought of continuing at this pace for another three years of a Trump term is daunting, but Diaz is encouraged by the experiences of the past year. “What it takes is giving people the space to stand up for themselves.”
Bencomo agreed. “I believe in the power of an organized community,” she said. “I hope we can keep building power so that we can continue to protect more families.”
Michael J. Dax is a writer, environmentalist, and the New Mexico Representative at Defenders of Wildlife. He is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West.