By Carolina S. Sarmiento
On January 18th, 2017, three days before Donald Trump assumed the presidency, Santa Ana, California enacted a law making it a sanctuary city. Santa Ana is Orange County’s second largest city, but stands in sharp contrast to the white affluent and conservative portrait that is most often represented in the media. Unlike larger cities like Los Angeles and New York that are also at the forefront of the sanctuary movement, Santa Ana is a mid-sized city with approximately 350,000 people, of which over 85 percent identified as Latino in the US Census. It stands out as one of the largest Mexican and immigrant cities and despite the county’s Republican political history, Santa Ana has an all-Latino all-Democratic Party city council.
“Santa Ana’s policy is amongst the best in the country, and should serve as an example for the state sanctuary bill, ” said Salvador Sarmiento, Legislative Policy Director at NDLON.
The ordinance requires the city to implement policies that include prohibiting the use of city resources for immigration enforcement, protecting sensitive information, preventing biased-based policing and directing law enforcement officials to exercise discretion to cite and release individuals instead of detaining them at a local facility or county jail based on the nature of the alleged crime and removed exceptions allowing the use of city resources in the cases of criminal defendants. It also calls for the city to provide more training for affected employees and establish a task force made up of community members to advise the City Council on policies related to the ordinance.
As Seth Kaper-Dale an activist pastor from New Jersey has observed, “When it comes to sanctuary, offering a bed is only the beginning.” The Sanctuary movement has come to represent much more than the actual “sanctuary” where people would go find a physical location when fleeing or looking for protection
It has grown into a broad movement and network, defending people from deportations while also building power in different ways. But much of the strength of the sanctuary movements comes from the grassroots residents and community based organizations—who are responding and participating in building communities safe for immigrants and their families. This includes families and organizations working to once again provide a physical sanctuary in churches and homes; and families committing themselves to provide the support necessary for refuge. This also includes a rapid response mobilization and network to stop raids by using innovative and alternative communications mechanisms, hotline numbers, and direct actions by allies to stop ICE raids and deportations. Others are developing different ways to support impacted communities, like fundraising for families who have suffered a deportation, and supporting children and families left behind.
Why Santa Ana?
As an immigrant city, Santa Ana is facing similar challenges as cities across the nation with 22 percent of its population living in poverty. These conditions are exacerbated by gentrification and displacement processes that have lead to overcrowding rates that are some of the highest in the nation. The city has prioritized development for middle to upper classes and touts ethnic spaces only as places of leisure and consumption. In effect, the city has used its immigrant communities as a branding strategy, while in reality Santa Ana’s governance and planning decisions reflect this failure to prioritize immigrant needs.
The lack of community participation, transparency and accountability is evident time and again in development and planning decisions which fail to invest in immigrant-based economies, culture, and neighborhoods. As a response, community organizations and residents have come together and made significant wins. Santa Ana’s sanctuary fight builds on years of community based struggles fighting for political, economic, and cultural rights for immigrant communities.
Like many other cities across the US, more than half of the Santa Ana city budget is invested in the police department. The City had been in the business of jailing immigrants with a contract with ICE. The $24.3 million jail facility had incurred a large debt that ICE dollars were being used to pay off. In 2016, the Santa Ana Jail had 182 ICE detainees, including 26 who were gay or bisexual and 31 housed in the nation’s first detention module dedicated to jailing transgender people.
The #NotOneMore campaign and May Day Coalition worked to expose the consequences of having ICE in the jail. The May Day Coalition was made up of organizations including Chicanos Unidos, Raiz, El Centro Cultural and Colectivo Tonantzin who had worked with day laborers for decades and brought the contract with the jail to light. These overlaps between development processes, the budget, the jail, and deportations, exposed the failure to prioritize the growing needs of low income families in Santa Ana and inversely, profit from their criminalization. At the same time, this historic movement shed light on the growing grassroots force that was building in Santa Ana.
On December 6th, 2016 the city council passed a simple sanctuary resolution with no enforcement mechanism. The act was largely symbolic but it was a highly visible act of defiance against the incoming Trump presidency.
“It is a risk but at the end of the day, the greater risk is to remain silent. We have the opportunity to be leaders. To stand up for what is right” said city council person, David Benavides to the packed room at the meeting.
The large turnout at the meeting included representatives from many community organizations, but also a base of local residents who responded to the call and pushed the resolution to be more than symbolic. The city council agreed to push for a full-fledged sanctuary ordinance. Council member Angelica Amezcua stated “We need a timeline. This is just a symbolic gesture. We need to move forward an ordinance as well.”
The council voted 5-0 to reduce the number of ICE detainees to a maximum of 128, resulting in the closure of one jail module and according to then City Manager David Cavazos, also resulting in a $663,743 annual net revenue loss. A full contract termination would create a $2 million hole annually.
In response to the changes in the contract, ICE pre-empted the city from ending the contract, explaining: “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) values its longstanding relationship with the City of Santa Ana, but recent actions by the city to drastically curtail the number of beds available at the city’s jail to house immigration detainees meant the existing detention contract was no longer viable or cost effective.”
“Symbolic words have never been sufficient,” said Salvador G. Sarmiento, Legislative Affairs Director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, at a rally outside city hall before council. “A city with an [ICE] contract is not a sanctuary city!”
In this respect, the Santa Ana law has now moved clearly beyond the symbolic. However, not every city with an immigrant population has the same growing grassroots movements or can pass a sanctuary ordinance. “Passing a sanctuary bill in some places/cities would be close to impossible, and so the sanctuary bill at the state level is urgent where ICE is still in the jail and doing ICE holds,” said Sarmiento.
Scaling Up and Down to the Everyday
This push at different scales is necessary, but the most critical front continues to be local and requires grassroots organizations and residents to respond and push for accountability and transparency regarding policies that impact how and where immigrant communities work, live, organize, and build.
Immigrants rights are organically interconnected to issues of displacement and gentrification and to the disinvestment of our schools, neighborhoods and communities.
Locally, the immigrant community is criminalized and marginalized in a range of ways and places that include housing discrimination, working conditions, and even street art and cultural expression. In these cases, organizations require not just “their base” but that an entire community respond to these issues. Grassroots activists must demand not only a strong sanctuary policy, but also demand housing rights, fair wages, and other community benefits.
One example of a successful broad coalition, was the Sunshine Ordinance that won increased budget and strategic public outreach, site review, open calendars, request for proposals, and meeting notices in 2012. The battle for the Sunshine Ordinance included health, cultural, and housing organizations, immigrant rights groups, and youth who pushed the city council to sign on to one of the strongest sunshine ordinances in California.
According to Sarmiento from NDLON, “In the Trump era, our best of defense are going to be local, and Santa Ana is one of the best examples of building local grassroots groups that are combatant and fiercely independent.”
An important piece of the current immigrant rights movement is both broadening the movement to include the most vulnerable—those deemed criminal for example.
Roberto Herrera from OC Resilience one of the leading organizations in the immigrant rights movement in Santa Ana, stated, “Trump is asking to deport the most vulnerable. For us, Santa Ana will stand strong and be there for us, for the most vulnerable.”
At the city council meeting, a youth organizer stated, “With Trump... there’s no middle ground. We have to be bolder. Here in our local communities, we have to be bolder than Trump.”
Carlos Perea, another organizer with OC Resilience stated “we will not leave anyone behind” as a lesson learned from previous immigrant rights struggles including the Dream Act movement. Recognizing the interdependency of our community, and that those “criminals” are family members, working people, and a part of our community is central to the Sanctuary movement. Shifting the narrative of not leaving others behind, surfaces the interconnectedness of different places and issues.
It’s All Connected
The interconnectedness of our issues is exemplified in the struggle over the city budget. Because of the size of Santa Ana, one city council meeting will have several important issues during a single meeting. For example, affordable housing, community land trusts, and immigrant rights issues may all be heard at the same meeting, bringing a range of demands to one night.
Recently residents of Lacy, a historic barrio facing some of the highest overcrowding rates of Santa Ana began organizing around housing issues and named themselves the Vecinos de Lacy en Acción—VeLA. The group is mostly immigrant women with children. At a recent budget meeting they decided to speak up in favor of legal representation for immigrant facing deportation. OnJuly 5, 2017, the City council members approved the city’s fiscal budget for 2017-18 and included the allocation of $65,000 toward a legal defense fund for immigration resources.
Residents working on housing in Santa Ana recognize the intersections with housing and immigrant rights and respond and vice versa. The issues that individuals face everyday are intersections that can foundations to building intersectional movements that are built from the ground up.
Issues of criminalization and racialized policing in our communities do not require a new frame and narrative that expands the sanctuary movement. Rather, the moment demands that we work effectively at these intersections—in local communities—in a way that can be scaled up to challenge the way the whole system works.
As a result of the loss of the ICE contract, the city is in the process of interviewing finalists in a request for qualifications for a jail reuse study and will be recommending a consultant soon. When and if the city sells public land, the participation of community organizations and residents who can push for community benefits ordinances and land trusts is crucial. Re-envisioning what the jail could look like and be used for can’t be left to a narrow group of experts. Fighting against the criminalization of our communities, and for our space and economies, requires an active base of residents at the local level.
When one considers the sanctuary movement in the context of a larger neoliberal restructuring process, where cities are increasingly investing in amenities for a gentrified class that is accompanied by increased privatization and disinvestment in working class needs and public services, the importance of uniting the fights is even clearer.
Communities are fighting anti-immigrant policies while also having to respond to increased gentrification pressures and worsening housing conditions. Santa Ana provides an example of how movements can be based on building where issues, already interconnected at the everyday scale, can support strong sanctuary policy and more.
The broad grassroots efforts in Santa Ana that led to the ordinance included organizing, trainings, community based media, as well as civil disobedience and direct action, legal defense, grassroots fundraising to stop deportations. The history of movement building including the MayDayCoalition, the NotOneMore Deportation work, the youth organizing from OC Dream Team, Orange County Immigrant Youth United, Raiz, OC Resilience to Collectivo Tonantzin and their organizing of day laborers—all of whom have helped solidify these community networks that responded, from dance teachers to activists.
The sanctuary movement in Santa Ana is about much more than the ordinance. It has a broad goal of making Santa Ana a place and city where immigrant lives are not criminalized; immigrants can have safe and just work; immigrants can live in safe and livable housing conditions; and immigrants can thrive and build the city that they work so hard for.
Carolina S. Sarmiento is a member of El Centro Cultural de Mexico.