Solutions that ShelterSome offer legal aid, some engage in disruptive protesting, and others just want to be there to stand in solidarity with foreign-born people and their families.scroll down arrow

Mariposas Sin Fronteras runs an in-house kitchen to give immigrants like Yessenia Palencia, above, a place to work and the means for economic stability.YES! Photo By Raechel Running

How to Build an Underground RailroadAs ICE increases its arrests, 30 churches in Portland face four hard questions

Photo by Karen H. Black/iStock

Mark Knutson is the pastor at Augustana Lutheran Church in Portland. In 2014, the church harbored El Salvadoran immigrant Francisco Aguirre, left, for nearly three months.Photo by Thomas Teal

Pastor W. J. Mark Knutson has turned his church’s steeple into an alarm.He grabs a thick woven rope dangling from the bell tower of Augustana Lutheran Church at Northeast 15th Avenue in Portland, Oregon. He pulls. Deafening chimes echo against the brick. “That goes 12 blocks in all directions,” Knutson says. When neighbors and congregants hear the signal, the pastor says, they will know to surround the church to physically prevent the deportation of whomever may have taken sanctuary inside. “We will use our bodies if need be,” the pastor says.

Corey Pein

Corey Pein writes for the Willamette Week, where this article was originally published. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.

As U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement escalates deportations of undocumented immigrants under President Donald Trump, Portland churches are preparing to take drastic measures.

Augustana Lutheran Church is preparing to shelter as many as 100 people. It’s one of about 30 Portland-area religious congregations that have pledged to offer sanctuary to immigrants in their houses of worship.

Portland’s status as a so-called sanctuary city has so far offered little practical comfort to undocumented immigrants in the time of Trump.

ICE has increased its arrests surrounding Multnomah County courthouses. Federal agents arrested 11 immigrant men early March in Woodburn; Oregon Public Broadcasting reported most of them were Guatemalan flower pickers with no prior criminal history. For every such arrest, dozens more rumors ricochet through local immigrant communities.

“If Donald Trump deports as many people as he wants to, and says he will—that’s 12 million or so—that would be as if the entire states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho disappeared at 6:30 a.m. because ICE showed up and got them,” says Rae Anne Lafrenz of the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, which coordinates a network of 500 volunteers in the local sanctuary movement from a small office in Augustana’s basement. “It sounds like science fiction, but it’s true. It’s really happening.”

That leaves people whose scriptures demand hospitality pondering how to make their places of worship into shelters of last resort for strangers in need.

Augustana is the only local church with direct experience in sheltering someone facing imminent deportation by ICE. In 2014, Augustana harbored El Salvadoran immigrant Francisco Aguirre in a basement room for nearly three months and promoted his case to the national news media. Last year, the U.S. attorney’s office in Portland dropped Aguirre’s “illegal re-entry” charge, but he’s still fighting for his right to remain.

He’s also promoting sanctuary efforts. “Every day we are afraid to go out,” Aguirre says. “We are afraid ICE will wait outside our house to take us into custody and leave our children behind. We will fight. We all contribute to this country and we deserve respect.”

No church will say it’s currently sheltering immigrants on its property. But dozens are preparing. Any group seeking to join them must be ready to answer four difficult questions.

1. Are you willing to break the law?

The legal basis for sanctuary is pretty flimsy. ICE policy lists churches, along with schools and hospitals, as “sensitive locations.” This doesn’t mean agents are barred from entering such locations to conduct investigations or make arrests. It just means agents need special approval to do so.

But the policy was recently updated to remove a clause that said enforcement would not take place in such locations “unless exigent circumstances exist, such as imminent risk to human life.”

Anyone who “conceals, harbors, or shields from detection” a foreigner who entered the country illegally—or even attempts to do so—may run afoul of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The penalty: five to 10 years in prison for each immigrant harbored.

The crucial question of whether a conviction for the crime of harboring requires proving intent to conceal has never been examined by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which oversees Oregon, has interpreted the law more strictly than other courts.

“Technically speaking, where we live, all you have to do is provide food and shelter to be prosecuted,” says Gwynne Skinner, a director of the Human Rights and Immigration Clinic at the Willamette University College of Law. Skinner has advised the Catholic church she attends on the legal ramifications of offering sanctuary. “It’s very unpredictable what this administration is going to do,” she says.

There are also city fire codes and zoning rules to consider, although when stacked up against possible felony charges, these may seem an afterthought. “If there’s a crisis, are we going to ask somebody permission? We can’t,” Knutson says.

2. Whom do you want to shelter?

Different congregations offer different answers. One key question is whether a church shelters only people who share its faith.

“The Latino community is the most visible and targeted in a particular way,” says Katie Dwyer, chairwoman of the justice commission at Ainsworth United Church of Christ in northeast Portland’s Concordia neighborhood. “But there are strong efforts to build bridges with the Muslim community, as well.”

Skinner, the law professor, says churches will also have to decide what level of criminal offenses they’re willing to overlook. Accused criminals are often the first to be deported, although ICE is no longer focusing only on convicts. “We’re not talking about churches providing sanctuary to violent criminals,” she says. “We’re talking about churches providing sanctuary to people who are undocumented and perhaps have minor immigration violations— out of love.”

3. Where are you trying to send people?

Sanctuary congregations also need to decide what their ultimate goals are. Are they seeking to shield targeted immigrants until they can make their cases in court? Or to help them flee the country to seek asylum elsewhere?

The choice a church makes here will determine how much publicity it seeks. Lafrenz says congregations have vowed to do everything publicly—“there’s nothing secret,” she says—but several local clergy hint of other, underground efforts.

“There are people who want to stay below the radar,” says Rabbi Ariel Stone of Congregation Shir Tikvah in northeast Portland, speaking generally. The rationale for secrecy? “Legal boundaries are not respected nowadays. [Congregations] don’t want to endanger our ability to do this work by talking about it.”

Stone fears that showy proclamations of sanctuary may backfire by giving the feds an easy target. “I would hate the idea that somebody who was offering sanctuary to large numbers of people discovered all they had done was create a collection point for ICE,” she says.

Knutson isn’t worried about inadvertently assisting ICE. Sheltering immigrants from deportation, he says, is “meant to buy time”—and generate publicity that could be helpful while they make their case.

4. Where will people stay?

Ainsworth United Church of Christ recently voted on whether to advertise its sanctuary status by placing a banner on the building. Congregants decided no.

Pastor Lynne Smouse Lopez says that’s because her congregation didn’t want to make promises they weren’t yet prepared to keep. One complication: A possible shelter space in the church basement is currently occupied by a day center for people with HIV and AIDS.

“You need spaces for people to sleep,” says Dwyer, a parishioner at Ainsworth. “You need spaces for people to shower. You need spaces where people can be relatively quiet. You also need people to cook meals, and people to provide accompaniment—so someone is at the church building at all times.”

At Augustana, Knutson shows a reporter around the sprawling church compound, which spans 24,212 square feet on two stories—plus the bell tower, which Knutson figures could shelter 20 people in a pinch.

Some rooms are already undergoing renovations. The church has installed diaper-changing facilities in the restrooms, and has builders on call to install showers at a moment’s notice. If a few families moved in, they might be able to enjoy private rooms, but if more should come, the cavernous underground space—or, indeed, the nave with its rows of pews—could be converted into dormitories.

“Say there was a real crackdown overnight,” Knutson says. “That’s what church is for. The door is open.”

Corey Pein

Corey Pein writes for the Willamette Week, where this article was originally published. It has been edited for YES! Magazine.

Where Sanctuary Is Outlawed, a Community Finds a Way Despite North Carolina’s harsh laws, Greensboro police find a way to be helpful

Photo by Iván González, FROM FaithAction International House

Ella, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with a new faith in law enforcement's ability to protect her.YES! PHOTO BY ROBERT ROSS

A flood of negative emotions used to hit Ella whenever she’d see a police officer.“There was definitely a lack of trust,” she says. But now she knows officers by name, saying hello whenever she encounters them on their bikes downtown. Ella, 28, grew up in Mexico, where she was taught to be skeptical of police. And as an undocumented person who could be deported any moment, she has stayed skeptical well after arriving in the United States at 12 years old.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is the climate justice reporter for Colorlines. She also covers immigration, racial justice, and environmental policy. In her free time, she hoards print magazines and rides her bike.

But thanks to a program that brings residents and local law enforcement officers together in Greensboro, North Carolina, where Ella now lives, her anxieties have eased.

Greensboro—and North Carolina in general—is home to a growing population of both documented and undocumented immigrants.

In 24 years, the state’s entire immigrant population more than quadrupled. A 2015 report by the Brookings Institute shows that some North Carolina cities—including Raleigh, Durham, and Greensboro—that have historically had small immigrant populations have seen “extraordinary growth” in recent decades.

Silva Mathema, a senior immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress, says immigrants are moving to states that haven’t historically attracted them “simply because of jobs and cost of living … the reasons that you and I move to other places.” Still, Mathema says, a growing immigrant presence doesn’t always mean state or local governments will be welcoming.

In fact, five counties in North Carolina work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement through the federal 287(g) program, where ICE officials and federal, state, and local law enforcement partner to identify undocumented immigrants. That’s the most of any state.

North Carolina’s state government has also officially banned city or county sanctuary ordinances statewide. In October 2015, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB 318, or the Protect North Carolina Workers Act, to institute the ban. The law also prohibits clerks, judges, and other state government officials from accepting non-government-issued IDs as a valid form of identification.

Before HB 318, Greensboro had declared itself a “welcoming city” to immigrants and people of all races. McCrory’s anti-immigrant bill was a cautionary move against cities like Greensboro. But despite this crackdown on sanctuary policies, Greensboro is still striving to be a welcoming city to its undocumented immigrants.

The city shows that offering safety to undocumented immigrants doesn’t require formal sanctuary-city policies. In Greensboro, building relationships and trust among undocumented residents and local police, faith communities, and schools has been the first step in seeking protections for these vulnerable community members.

Photo FROM FaithAction International House

At FaithAction International House, one initiative is regular ID drives that also serve as know-your-rights trainings. Here, any community member can get identification that can help them avoid detention. Photo FROM FaithAction International House

FaithAction International House, an international faith-based organization that connects immigrants to the broader community, is the nonprofit behind the program in Greensboro.

Back in 2012, FaithAction’s undocumented immigrant members began to share their experiences as victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and robbery. They were hesitant to report the crimes, they said, because they distrusted law enforcement and feared deportation.

“We wanted to be there for them” says Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of FaithAction, “but we recognized that there were some serious crimes taking place … and knew we needed law enforcement involved.”

So FaithAction and other immigration activists reached out to the local police department to organize events that brought law enforcement and undocumented immigrant communities together in houses of worship.

By summer 2013, plain-clothed officers were entering congregations. Faith leaders—whom the community trusted—introduced the officers.

In these sessions, police officers would ask congregants to share their experiences with law enforcement. The officers could share too, and at least one officer shared that his parents were also immigrants. Initially, these meetings offered opportunities for immigrants to meet and build trust with local police officers.

Eventually these sessions evolved into a larger conversation around solutions, says Greensboro Deputy Chief Michael Richey. “What we kept coming back to was a fear of not having an ID, getting them put to jail, [and then] deported.” So the police department and FaithAction took steps to pave the way for the FaithAction ID, which gives someone a community-trusted ID that they can use at health centers, schools, and local businesses.

Since 2013, FaithAction has organized regular ID drives that also serve as know-your-rights trainings. Here, any community member can arrive to hear advice from police themselves. After getting their photos taken, attendees walk away with IDs that their community—including local law enforcement—recognizes, a simple act that helps keep undocumented immigrants from facing unnecessary detainment.

At these events, police officers also answer questions about immigrants’ rights and offer advice on avoiding negative police interactions.

“We don’t feel like we cannot serve a certain part of our community because they’re not documented,” says Richey. “If anything, that opens them up for further victimization, and that [crime] doesn’t just stop with them.”

Without the ID provided, officers are forced to detain individuals. “That’s a problem,” says Fraccaro. “[It’s a] problem for the officer because they don’t know who they’re dealing with and [a] problem for the individual because they can go to jail if they can’t ID themselves.”

HB 318 initially prohibited law enforcement officers from accepting non-government-issued IDs, but the Greensboro and Burlington police departments pushed back. The state added a last-minute amendment, hearing from chiefs of police as well as Rev. Fraccaro about how the community ID program has built trust with immigrant communities so that they will report crimes more often.

Now, 16 law enforcement agencies, four major health centers, and dozens of businesses and cultural art organizations accept the ID throughout the state.

Any Greensboro resident—documented or not—can walk away from these ID drives with a new form of identification and a newfound trust. Ella has one. Her parents do, too. Ella had worked for FaithAction. She says the community policing workshops and ID drives have helped her and her family trust the police more.

Photo FROM FaithAction International House

Community members also hear advice from police on immigrant rights and how to avoid problem situations.Photo FROM FaithAction International House

These ID drives and community policing programs are just one piece of how local groups are working to “serve, love, and protect” their Greensboro neighbors, said Fraccaro. But ultimately, they aren’t enough to prevent deportation.

In schools and churches in Greensboro, congregations and parents are seeking other ways to protect undocumented immigrant families, especially when ICE comes knocking.

At the Congregational United Church of Christ, Pastor Julie Peeples is initiating conversations around how the church could offer sanctuary by housing undocumented immigrants. Where would a temporary shower go? Should they prepare rooms in the church to house people? Or should church members offer their private homes as shelter?

Parents in Greensboro are asking if schools can offer sanctuary, too.

Roughly 15 moms, including Maria Luisa González, have been talking to the Guilford County Schools Board of Education, which oversees Greensboro, about what sanctuary in schools would look like. González is an undocumented 42-year-old mom who’s fed up with hiding and staying silent, she says.

For González, these conversations are enough to feel more hopeful and relaxed than she’s been in a while.

“Groups of parents are getting to know their rights, that we’re not second-class citizens,” she says in Spanish. “We’re human beings who deserve respect and for our kids to be safe and secure.”

Relationships, conversations, and knowledge: This is the recipe.

In North Carolina, sanctuary city policies may be outlawed. But in Greensboro, the nitty gritty work of building sanctuary communities is still underway. It’s happening outside of government halls, in churches and schools. Community members—immigrants, congregants, and local police officers—are gathering in these spaces to learn how they can protect their neighbors. They’re taking it one step at a time.

Yessenia Funes

Yessenia Funes is the climate justice reporter for Colorlines. She also covers immigration, racial justice, and environmental policy. In her free time, she hoards print magazines and rides her bike.

Extra Kindness for the Most Vulnerable (and Resilient) MariposasLGBTQ refugees and immigrants often lack a supportive network of fellow nationals—but now that’s changing

YES! Photo illustration By Raechel Running

Karolina Lopez, a transgender undocumented immigrant from Mexico, leans on Yessenia Palencia, a lesbian from El Salvador. Both found refuge and the opportunity to help others like them with Mariposas Sin Fronteras in Tucson, Arizona.YES! Photo illustration By Raechel Running

Undocumented and transgender, Karolina Lopez was held at an immigrant detention center near Tucson, Arizona, for three years while awaiting asylum. Originally from Acapulco, home to the highest murder rate in Mexico, Lopez came to the United States to escape discrimination from her family and community. She landed in a detention center after reporting a robbery to the police, who arrested her when they discovered her illegal status.

Norman Allen

Norman Allen is an award-winning playwright. His work has appeared at theaters ranging from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the Karlín Music Theatre in Prague. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Smithsonian, and he blogs for On Being and Tin House.

During her years in detention, Lopez suffered abuse from both fellow detainees and guards. “It was constant—verbal, physical, psychological,” she remembers. But she emerged ready to help those in similar situations. “I am resilient,” she says proudly. “I know that I have a voice and that I can have influence if I raise that voice and speak out.”

Lopez’s situation is not unusual. Held in detention while awaiting a hearing or deportation, an LGBTQ immigrant must choose between being closeted or becoming vulnerable to abuse and violence. Upon release, they often lack the personal and professional support systems that other immigrants find among fellow nationals.

LGBTQ refugees attempting to enter the United States from the six countries banned by President Trump’s executive order are in particular danger. Ty Cobb, director of HRC Global, explains, “So many LGBTQ asylum seekers enter the refugee process in a country of origin where they are especially vulnerable. There are refugee camps in Kenya, in Turkey, in areas that are particularly hostile. Now they’re stuck there.”

In recent years, organizations have emerged across the United States to address the specific needs of LGBTQ immigrants and refugees. Upon her release from detention, Lopez helped form the Tucson-based Mariposas Sin Fronteras (Butterflies Without Borders). Taking its name from the beauty and freedom of the butterfly, the organization simultaneously reclaimed the word mariposas from its slang usage, a Spanish equivalent to “faggot.”

At Mariposas, Lopez works alongside a team that writes letters of support, visits detention centers, helps address legal issues, and raises public awareness. Since its founding in 2011, the organization has raised bond payments totaling more than $100,000, providing freedom to LGBTQ detainees while they await court hearings.

One of the recipients of those funds is Yessenia Palencia. Detained for a year and three months, Palencia, a lesbian from El Salvador, was apprehended while crossing the Mexican border with her partner. “When they realized that we were together, they moved me to another part of the detention center,” she explains.

While still in detention, she was referred to Mariposas Sin Fronteras by the Florence Project, which provides legal and social services to immigrants detained in Arizona. “It helped a lot to have visits from people on the outside,” Palencia remembers. “You realize you’re not alone. Someone knows where you are.”

After posting bond, Mariposas helped Palencia find a job in Tucson. She’s now one of the organization’s core members. “I visit with people in detention and try to give them strength,” she says. “One guy was about to give in and ask to be deported. I told him I’d been in for the same length of time and knew how he was feeling. I tried to give him the strength to keep going. Sure enough, now he’s out of detention.”

“It helped a lot to have visits from people on the outside. You realize you’re not alone. Someone knows where you are.”

Operating on a broader scale, Immigration Equality is based in New York City but serves LGBTQ immigrants in 39 states and Washington, D.C., using a network of 100 law offices that offer pro bono services.

The national scope of the work allows staff to spot trends and to identify potential “impact litigation”—cases that challenge unjust laws and practices. During a 2015 hearing before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Executive Director Aaron Morris gave testimony that helped overturn the ruling of a judge who had failed to consider an asylum seeker’s transgender identity, and who had conflated issues of sexual orientation and gender expression, as though challenges faced by gay men and lesbians were interchangeable with those faced by people who are transgender.

A lack of cultural competence among asylum officers and judges presents an ongoing challenge. “We train new officers on LGBTQ issues,” says Immigration Equality’s public affairs director, Jackie Yodashkin. “For example, to receive asylum you might be asked to prove that you’re LGBTQ, but what if you come from a country where you’ve had to be closeted? It’s not like you’re going to have selfies of you and your partner kissing.”

Closeted asylum seekers often have only their personal testimonies to offer. Others prove their sexual orientations or gender identities with screenshots of Facebook chats, social media exchanges, or dating apps. Some might share arrest orders from their countries of origin, which name their orientations or identities as the crime.

Newly arrived in the United States, an immigrant often enters a community that shares a country of origin, benefiting from connections to employment, housing, and legal assistance. For the LGBTQ immigrant living in a homophobic or transphobic culture, such benefits are contingent on staying in the closet. It can be especially difficult to find a lawyer with the understanding, and the will, to argue an asylum case.

Like others in the field, Yodashkin highlights the threat to transgender men and women. Detention officials, recognizing that transgender detainees are vulnerable to violence and abuse, sometimes isolate them from the larger community. A 2015 memorandum from Immigration and Customs Enforcement details the care of transgender detainees, including the possible need for “medical and administrative segregation,” for their personal protection. However, a 2013 report from the Government Accountability Office points out that such isolation makes transgender detainees especially vulnerable to abusive guards.

Yodashkin explains that guards and staff are seldom trained in the issues facing the transgender population, including health care needs. “Detention centers are run like prisons for people who have done something wrong rather than for people who are coming to our border and saying, ‘My life is in danger,’” she says.

That danger has been well-documented. A 2015 report from the United Nations Human Rights Council reports that 76 countries “retain laws that are used to criminalize and harass people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.” In seven countries across the Middle East and Africa, those laws stipulate the death penalty for consensual same-sex relationships. In other places, “anti-propaganda” laws become the basis for harassment and discrimination. Such laws also limit health care education, putting youth at particular risk for HIV infection.

Dangers faced by the LGBTQ community in Guatemala were enough to prompt Javier Cifuentes’ mother to emigrate with her family when he was 6. “My mother realized at a young age that I was different,” says Cifuentes, who is now 20 and identifies as queer. “She knew it wouldn’t be safe for me to grow up in Guatemala.”

Cifuentes became a citizen in 2010 in order to participate in a high school trip to South Korea. He now lives in Washington, D.C., and interns at the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ rights in the United States and around the world. He’s become a popular spokesperson for immigrant justice.

Like Cifuentes, Ruby Corado, a transgender immigrant from El Salvador, has turned her personal trials into a passion to serve. “It’s a place of love,” she says of Casa Ruby in Washington, D.C.

Founded by Corado in 2004, the organization supports struggling LGBTQ people, with an emphasis on immigrants and refugees. Housing opportunities range from a single night’s shelter to short-term stays to permanent residences available to those who can pay rent.

“When I was homeless, I would go to shelters and find they didn’t want me,” Corado says. “So I created a place that was loving, accepting, and embracing. It’s a place with real solutions for a community that has unique needs.”

Corado has a firsthand understanding of her clients’ needs. “I live at the intersection of many labels,” she says. “I’m a transgender woman of color who is HIV-positive. I’m previously undocumented and homeless, and I’m the survivor of sexual assault and hate crimes.” She laughs. “I’m also heavyset and short! I’ve been told I have a pupusa face, which is supposed to mean that I look too El Salvadoran. I think it means I’m a delicacy!”

In addition to its housing initiatives, Casa Ruby trains community health workers, provides case management for those who are HIV-positive, and connects immigrants and refugees with legal services. “We’re not at the border,” Corado points out. “But every year we serve almost 600 LGBTQ immigrants from around the world.”

Corado has noticed a distinct change since the inauguration of Donald Trump. “There’s fear,” she says. “And those fears are valid.”

In February, the Department of Homeland Security expanded its goals for deportation, calling for the funding of 10,000 additional ICE agents. For LGBTQ immigrants and refugees, the prospect of deportation is especially alarming.

According to the Trans Murder Monitoring project, 1,573 transgender or gender non-conforming people were killed in Central and South America between 2008 and 2015, accounting for 78 percent of transgender killings worldwide. Because many incidents are not reported as hate crimes, the actual numbers are estimated to be much higher. “The passport I carry has a male name,” Corado says. “So I don’t go to El Salvador anymore. I’m not going to die.”

She’s happy to share stories of clients who have remained in the United States and gone on to careers in health care, education, information technology, and government. “People want to hear the story that ends with the $100,000 salary,” she says with a shrug. “To me the best success stories are the ones when the person comes to Casa Ruby thinking, I’m ready to leave the world, and, when we finish talking, they say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ or they just stay.”

Every client receives a personal guarantee. “I don’t promise that I’ll get them housing, and I don’t promise they’ll get a green card,” Corado says. “What I do promise is that they won’t struggle alone. They will have love.”

Norman Allen>
			<p class=Norman Allen is an award-winning playwright. His work has appeared at theaters ranging from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to the Karlín Music Theatre in Prague. His essays have appeared in The Washington Post and Smithsonian, and he blogs for On Being and Tin House

Why Not Offer “Sanctuary” to All Oppressed People?A new platform wants safety for people of color and low-wage workers as well as immigrants

Photo by Jake Ratner

Organizers gather at the launch of the Freedom Cities initiative in New York City, calling for an end to municipal collaboration with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and safety that goes beyond policing.Photo by Jake Ratner

This summer will mark the third anniversary of the death of Eric Garner, a New York man who was killed by police officers outside of a neighborhood convenience store in Staten Island (he was suspected of illegally selling loose cigarettes). Garner’s death is one of many that has raised Americans’ concerns about the increasing number of Black men, women, and children killed by U.S. law enforcement officers.

Zenobia Jeffries

Zenobia Jeffries is an associate editor for YES! Magazine. She covers racial justice issues.

At only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans are killed by police, incarcerated, live in poverty, and have poor health at higher rates than White Americans, who make up the majority populace. These numbers and conditions are much the same as those attributed to other disenfranchised citizens, including Latino Americans, who are 17 percent of the population.

Contemporary movements continue to address these tragedies.

Black Lives Matter is campaigning against the criminal justice system, calling for an end to racial profiling, police brutality and killings, and for officers to be held accountable for their actions. The Movement for Black Lives policy platform, released last summer, is demanding the reallocation of resources to improve and protect the lives of all Black people in the United States—citizens, immigrants, cis, trans, queer, gender nonconforming, and differently-abled. And, in response to the Trump administration’s deportation machine, cities are looking for ways to create safe spaces for immigrants and refugees in the sanctuary movement.

Earlier this year, a campaign was launched to extend these ideas to all marginalized groups that need safety. Named Freedom Cities, this campaign expands on the sanctuary movement to create a framework for cities to offer protection to all oppressed people in the United States.

Marginalized U.S. citizens need protection, too

Historically, sanctuary cities or states have existed since slavery, when certain areas were identified as safe zones for enslaved Africans who had escaped their owners’ plantations. But the term became more common in the 1980s, under the Reagan administration, when protests grew against federal immigration laws that prevented Central American refugees from gaining asylum in the United States. Pastors designated their churches as sanctuaries for the undocumented immigrants, who were poor and homeless. Today, this concept—sanctuary as a strategy in which cities refuse to invest local resources in immigration enforcement—does not go far enough, some say.

On Inauguration Day, a coalition of New York City-based organizations held a mass demonstration outside the Trump Hotel, demanding resources for oppressed communities not only to survive, but also to thrive. The coalition wants sanctuary to include the provision of safety for citizens who live in danger daily. Members ask, “Where is the sanctuary when ICE is setting up checkpoints and conducting raids in our communities? Where is the sanctuary for folks impacted by the War on Drugs, racial profiling, or police violence? Where is the sanctuary for people with convictions?” Cities, towns, and neighborhoods need to be safe for low-wage workers, Black, Latino, and Muslim Americans—as well as immigrants—they say.

Where is the sanctuary when ICE is setting up checkpoints and conducting raids in our communities? Where is the sanctuary for folks impacted by the War on Drugs, racial profiling, or police violence? Where is the sanctuary for people with convictions?

Enlace, an international multicultural alliance of low-wage worker centers, unions, and community groups in NYC, is a member of the New York Worker Center Federation, the coalition that is organizing Freedom Cities. Enlace Executive Director Daniel Carrillo says the group is shifting how safety is defined.

“The way that Trump and past [presidential] administrations defined it was more prisons, more police in the streets, more deportation and detention,” says Carrillo. The Freedom Cities campaign seeks to change that and look at what safety means for whole communities, he explains. “Because all those measures don’t create safety actually. They create more of a police state for us.”

The goal of Freedom Cities, he adds, is for all people to be safe and free from the threat of physical violence and economic disadvantage: immigrants—documented or undocumented—people with criminal convictions, workers, gender nonconforming folks, the poor, and all people of color.

Freedom Cities strategy and framework

Days after the 2016 presidential election, the plan for Freedom Cities emerged at a meeting run by NYWCF, a multicultural coalition of organizations for the rights of workers, immigrants, and people of color. The coalition wasn’t just responding to the election. It sought to address the violence and oppression against marginalized groups that had been taking place for years. In particular, coalition members looked to the deaths of Garner and Delfino Velazquez—a New York construction worker who in November 2014 was killed on the job due to contractor negligence—and the addition of 1,300 NYPD officers the following year. While city officials proclaimed more police officers meant safer neighborhoods, these activists disagreed.

So they have developed the Freedom Cities campaign to create safer communities. The demands in the framework are inspired by various social justice organizations’ campaigns over the past decade. Members studied sanctuary city tenets and the Movement for Black Lives policy platform. The Freedom Cities campaign builds on these movements and applies their core principles to issues of immigrant rights, police brutality, gender justice, and state violence. The result is a six-point platform for what the campaign will work toward. This includes:

1. Ending Criminalization Divest from policing and militarization and invest in programs that produce real public safety, such as mental health services and restorative practices. This includes campaigns to end practices such as broken windows policing.

2. Economic Justice and Workers Rights Create labor protections, jobs, and employment opportunities for workers. Engage in efforts to combat discrimination, increase wages, and protect the right to organize.

3. Investment in People and Planet Divert resources toward communities’ basic needs, including housing, education, health, (nutritious) food, and safety net programs. Protect our communities from environmental injustices.

4. Community Control Gain real control of the institutions that people interact with daily, including police and other public agencies.

5. Community Defense Establish systems of self-defense in neighborhoods to protect rights and dignity.

6. Global Justice Link national struggles for liberation with others across the world. Recognize that our identities and migration histories connect us globally, and that we are part of an international movement of those who believe that everybody deserves safety and freedom.

Organizers say the action plans are still in development. However, one of the tactics that Freedom Cities is looking to engage in initially and build upon is Hate Free Zones.

Hate Free Zones, Peace Zones for Life

A model for Hate Free Zones currently exists in Detroit under the designation Peace Zones for Life. For the past five years, Peace Zones has worked to address community violence and interpersonal conflict, which organizers say can bring about police violence when officers are called to scenes of crime or domestic disputes.

The group facilitates community meetings, where participants discuss “what peace zones look and feel like.” Organizers have found that sometimes discord comes from the feeling of being ignored. The meetings allow all voices at the table to be heard and space for leaders to emerge within the community.

Artwork plays a role in Peace Zones too, and the campaign works to beautify neighborhoods to let potential troublemakers know that crime is not welcome, and lessen the need for heavy police presence in their neighborhoods.

Similarly, Freedom Cities’ Hate Free Zones seek to end the practice of broken windows policing by restoring and reclaiming neighborhoods through resources that could prevent community violence. The Hate Free Zones campaign extends to Islamophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia.

“I know that there are neighborhood watch groups that work with the police, but in these times where you have to watch out for your neighbors and police from attacking you, this is the alternative for targeted communities and their allies to organize and create safe communities,” says Carrillo.

Linking struggles

When Freedom Cities launched in January, it attracted the attention of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, where Black Lives Matter co-founder Opal Tometi is a member. The two organizations have partnered with NYWCF’s Freedom Cities campaign.

“What many people don’t know is that Black immigrants, like African Americans [and Latinos], live in communities subjected to over-policing, racial profiling, and practices such as broken windows, that result in them experiencing criminal contact more often than their White counterparts, and ultimately disproportionate deportation rates,” says Carl Lipscombe, deputy director of BAJI. For this reason, BAJI has led and participated in a number of campaigns that build toward freedom cities over the past few years.

While it’s not the first time multicultural alliances have formed in social justice movements, members recognize the challenges and benefits of working together.

“It takes incredible humility and strength to reach out or to accept a call from someone reaching out to restore bridges, or build new ones,” says Carrillo. “It is definitely a process … of learning from each other and developing trust.”

The process, he says, includes learning how to talk about each others’ issues and using messaging that does not undermine one another’s work.

So, unity building is necessary, especially in this time of fear and separation of families, says Rosanna Rodríguez, the co-executive director of Laundry Workers Center, another member organization of the NYWCF. Rodríguez says the Freedom Cities campaign creates a safe space to unite.

“Freedom Cities brings to our work the real solidarity [among] the different groups … working with the same purpose together. Our struggles for liberation have always been linked with others across the world.”

Zenobia Jeffries

Zenobia Jeffries is an associate editor for YES! Magazine. She covers racial justice issues.