Compassionate DefianceThe real work of sanctuary—creating safety and shelter and welcome—mostly falls to ordinary people.scroll down arrow

Artwork by Steve Gardner, YES! photo by Paul Dunn

New Mexico’s History of Welcoming Is Bigger Than Any Border WallMany residents view the border with Mexico as a foreign concept, which has allowed the state’s unique relationship with its southern neighbor to overshadow new federal policies.

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

YES! Illustration by Jennifer Luxton

After two hours of public testimony, Ralph Nava was the last of 60 speakers to testify in favor of the Santa Fe City Council’s resolution to reaffirm and strengthen its welcoming policies toward immigrants. As a native of northern New Mexico whose family’s presence in the region dates back generations, he implored the audience and council members to consider the history. “All of this area was Mexico just a few generations back,” said Nava. “All of a sudden, we’re trying to make all of these artificial barriers and walls that don’t make sense.” He went on to tell a story about taking his grandmother to Mexico. On their way back over the border, she kept telling the U.S. border agents she was Mexican even though she had lived her entire life in New Mexico. “She wouldn’t say she wasn’t Mexican,” laughs Nava, who insists that for her, it was not a symbolic stand. “She genuinely thought of herself as Mexican.”

Michael Dax

Michael J. Dax is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West. He writes about the intersection of environment and culture in the American West from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

In 1999, the city of Santa Fe—New Mexico’s capital and the oldest capital city in the United States—became one of the first so-called sanctuary cities across the country. The 18-year-old resolution, which has remained unchallenged, declares that Santa Fe will not target or discriminate against residents whose only crime is non-compliance with federal immigration laws. The city and county have even strengthened their policies by not allowing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement into their jails.

The election of Donald Trump last November cast doubt on the future of the city’s immigrant-friendly policies, but Santa Fe, its leaders, and its residents refused to be deterred. Within weeks, the city’s mayor, Javier Gonzales, appeared on FOX News, CNN, NPR, and other national outlets defending Santa Fe’s welcoming policies and touting the positive impacts they’ve had for the community. The new resolution, passed unanimously in mid-February, strengthens the city’s policy: It establishes confidentiality practices in protecting residents’ information, including their immigration status, and directs city employees to refuse federal immigration agents access to non-public areas of city property. And throughout the state, residents and political leaders have advocated loudly for immigrant-friendly policies.

While the neighboring states of Texas and Arizona have tended to be more conservative, especially on immigration issues, Santa Fe and other pockets throughout New Mexico have continued their long history of welcoming immigrants and providing sanctuary.

And this is no coincidence. As Nava testified, New Mexico’s colonial history remains an omnipresent part of daily life, and despite recent demographic shifts from an influx of transplants, the region’s history, traditions, and culture have retained their unshakeable hold over its modern character. As a result, many New Mexicans view the border with Mexico as a foreign concept, which has allowed the state’s unique relationship with its southern neighbor to overshadow new federal policies.

The Spanish founded La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís in 1610, shortly after Conquistadors began exploring north from Mexico City. For hundreds of years, the Rio Grande served as the central corridor for Spanish travel and exploration to its northern territory, so even after the United States gained control of the Southwest, Mexican and Spanish influence over New Mexico remained strong enough to resist most attempts at assimilation.

Santa Fe reinforced that connection to its heritage in the early 20th century, when leaders launched a campaign to attract tourists by preserving the city’s historic character. Through zoning laws, the city mandated a uniform aesthetic that it maintains today and has since become a haven for artists, writers, and other visitors attracted to Santa Fe’s anachronistic, precolonial style. Because of this, the city evolved as a liberal island to the extent that even its charter includes a provision barring it from discriminating against residents based on “citizenship status.”

City Councilor Renee Villarreal, one of the original sponsors of the recent resolution, asserts that the city’s history of sanctuary has gone beyond immigration. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city served as a refuge for women escaping Victorian social norms and was also a destination for health seekers drawn to the region’s dry air and pleasant climate.

But Villarreal also traces northern New Mexico’s history of providing sanctuary even further. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Isleta Pueblo, south of Albuquerque, offered protection to Spanish and Indian refugees, and churches in northern New Mexico have long respected the right to asylum. “We’ve been known, historically, to welcome the stranger and offer refuge to persecuted individuals,” asserts Villarreal. “It makes sense for our history.”

Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, a 22-year-old statewide immigrant rights organization, agrees. “There’s something to be said about that cultural and historic proximity [to Mexico] that’s created a different space,” she says.

Diaz, whose organization helped pass the original sanctuary resolution in 1999 and was instrumental in crafting the most recent resolution, also notes the lack of a language barrier. Because so many native New Mexicans still speak Spanish—some even as their first language—Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants are able to integrate themselves more easily into New Mexico than other states. “We’ve been connected to Mexico through familial ties and through history,” she adds.

While Santa Fe and northern New Mexico have taken the lead on promoting and strengthening sanctuary policies, the state as a whole has its own history of providing refuge to persecuted groups.

Diaz also credits a longstanding distrust of the federal government from northern New Mexico communities, where residents have often balked at the government asserting its authority, especially over public lands and water policies. “The majority of people who have really pushed the envelope on these sanctuary policies are nortenos —local Hispanos—who are really tied to their community and already have a propensity to ensure the federal government is not encroaching.”

While Santa Fe and northern New Mexico have taken the lead on promoting and strengthening sanctuary policies, the state as a whole has its own history of providing refuge to persecuted groups. In 1986, Governor Toney Anaya declared New Mexico a “State of Sanctuary,” specifically for Central American refugees escaping their war-torn countries.

This declaration marked the beginning of the modern sanctuary movement that has spread from Taos to Las Cruces. In 2011, Taos County stopped honoring requests from ICE to detain undocumented immigrants with little or no criminal record. And more recently, in Albuquerque, acting University of New Mexico President Chaouki Abdallah has assured students that the university will protect community members regardless of their national origin or immigration status. A week before Santa Fe approved its new sanctuary resolution, Las Cruces residents responded en masse when ICE launched raids of local immigrant communities. Supporters immediately took to the streets protesting, first at the federal courthouse and then at a busy intersection, which they shut down for nearly an hour.

Angelica Rubio, who represents the city in New Mexico’s House of Representatives, was heartened by the strong display of support.

According to Rubio, who sponsored bills to redesignate New Mexico as a State of Sanctuary (a designation that was rescinded by Governor Anaya’s Republican successor) and to block the use of state trust lands for the construction of a border wall, allies must push back “on this narrative that the people from Mexico are different than we are, when in fact our cultures and economy and so much of our history [are] so intertwined that there’s no way a wall could end that.”

Although neither bill received a hearing on the House floor, much of this sentiment can be traced back to Nava’s plea alluding to the relatively new barriers—both political and physical—between the two countries that seem wholly foreign to many New Mexicans. Growing up, Rubio and her family frequently made trips across the border into Mexican states Chihuahua and Sonora. “Although there’s already been a wall built along the U.S.-Mexico border, I think the wall that’s being described now is built on this rhetoric that is just inciting false fears,” she says.

Like much of the western United States, New Mexico has experienced a demographic shift over the past few decades. The increasing number of transplants, especially retirees, who have relocated to New Mexico for lifestyle reasons risks diluting the political influence of the state’s long-established Hispanic population. In Santa Fe alone, the Hispanic population dropped from around 63 percent in 1970 to 48 percent in 2010. Yet many newcomers are unified with longtime residents on immigration. “There’s a spiritual, underlying history and energy that people get drawn to Santa Fe for that reason,” says Villareal.

Rubio sees the same trend in Las Cruces. Referring to these newcomers, she says that “a lot of the reason why they’ve moved here and made this place their home is because of the fact that we’ve had this rich culture and history. That’s what brought them here.”

More recently, the state has taken a less friendly stance toward immigration, with New Mexico’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, taking a hard line against allowing undocumented immigrants to hold driver’s licenses. Diaz credits Martinez’s campaign with inspiring donors to help build her organization’s infrastructure and capacity to fight this new battle against the Trump administration. But while history is on the side of Diaz and her allies, the future is much less certain. Still, she is confident: “We’ve learned how to fight, we’ve learned how to win, and we will keep fighting.”

Back at the City Council meeting, that positive attitude was pervasive: The cheering of the audience nearly drowned out the mayor’s announcement that the resolution had passed. Attendees took pictures and talked excitedly with one another during the 10-minute recess, flashing smiles and giving hugs.

Roberto Sanchez, originally from Chihuahua, was one of those milling around in the joyous crowd. He said he has lived in Santa Fe for nearly 20 years and has come to love his adopted home.

“This city is different,” he declared. “There are good people here. They love us and want to protect us.”

Michael Dax

Michael J. Dax is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West. He writes about the intersection of environment and culture in the American West from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

6 Ways: Compassionate DefianceThe real job of welcoming, sheltering, and creating solidarity falls to ordinary people. Here are six homegrown responses to the fear and hate of xenophobia that come from a place of love.

YES! Photo by Lori Panico
YES! Photo by Lori Panico

Seattle residents Kim Powe and Greg Euteneier will foster Syrian refugee children. Right, their willingness to welcome those needing it most can be seen from the street.YES! PHOTOS BY LORI PANICO

Kim Powe and Greg Euteneier decided years ago they wanted to open their Seattle home to refugee kids displaced from their homes by turmoil and war. But the couple had never quite settled on what country they wanted those children to come from—until Trump was elected president.

The couple, who also have a 5-year-old daughter, are being licensed as foster parents through the U.S. State Department’s Unaccompanied Refugee Minor program, which identifies refugee children who have no parents or relatives to care for them. It then pairs them with American families willing to provide them safe and loving homes.

“I’ve been given many blessings in my life,” said Powe, interim executive director at the Seattle-based social justice organization Puget Sound Sage. “When I learned of this program, it spoke to me. I thought, This is it.”

Powe said she decided on Syrian children because of the devastation of the six-year-long civil war. And she wanted them to be Muslim, she said, because of Trump’s vitriol toward them.

The family expects the new members to arrive by summer—unless the federal courts uphold Trump’s looming travel ban.

Photo by Robert Gerhardt

Installation view of Parviz Tanavoli’s “The Prophet” (1964) at MoMA.Photo by Robert Gerhardt

In a poignant display of solidarity, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in February replaced works in its fifth-floor galleries, long dedicated to pre-1950 Western themes, with contemporary pieces by artists from Muslim countries subject to President Trump’s travel ban.

Nine works by Iranian, Iraqi, and Sudanese artists were installed after Trump issued his first executive order banning refugees and visitors from those and four other majority-Muslim countries. Works in the MoMA galleries are periodically rehung and the new additions—among them an oil painting by Sudanese-born Ibrahim El-Salahi and a bronze statue titled “The Prophet,” by Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli —replaced those by such masters as Picasso and Matisse.

The museum made no public pronouncement about the changes other than a statement appearing on wall labels that the works affirm the “ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this museum as they are to the United States.”

Photo by Jewish Voice for Peace

Anti-Islamophobia canvassers from Jewish Voice for Peace work their way through Oakland, California, engaging with the community and distributing signs for business owners to post in solidarity.Photo by Jewish Voice for Peace

On the day President Trump’s first travel ban took effect in January, dozens of volunteers, many of them Jewish, went door to door in neighborhoods around Oakland, California, soliciting support for Muslims. Canvass organizers with Jewish Voice for Peace had armed them with a script to engage people and advice not to argue. They were to ask homeowners and storekeepers to post signs in their windows: “We stand with our Muslim, Arab, and immigrant neighbors.”

It was the first of what would become monthly canvassing events across the Bay Area, and given the political climate of that first day, everyone was flying blind: “We had no idea what the reaction would be,” said Penny Rosenwasser, a Jewish Voice member and an organizer.

What they got was this: Storeowners hugged them. People on the street and clerics in mosques thanked them. One immigrant openly wept.

And while not everyone agreed to display the signs, Rosenwasser said, not a single volunteer—who ranged in age from 9 months to 90 years and represented many faiths—reported a hostile experience.

“How wonderful it is to walk through the neighborhoods and see the signs in these windows and know I’m connected to people who want to extend the same feelings of solidarity and care,” Rosenwasser said.


As tech industry executives in December were preparing to sit down with then-President elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower in New York, rank-and-file workers who had gathered for a tech meeting in San Francisco shared a mounting frustration. The way they saw it, Trump had ridden to victory on a platform of divisive, anti-immigrant rhetoric, floating the idea of a Muslim registry. And this high-visibility meeting—and Silicon Valley’s apparent complicity— perpetuated the image of their industry as selfish and uncaring.

Days before the big meeting, they launched as a way, they say, to take the stand their leaders would not and in solidarity with Muslim Americans, immigrants, and those whose “lives and livelihoods are threatened by the incoming administration’s proposed data collection policies.”

Drawing references to past atrocities that involved registries—IBM’s collaboration with Nazi Germany and the U.S. incarceration of 120,000 Japanese people—2,843 tech workers, managers, and executives from companies ranging from Google to startups signed a pledge refusing to build a religious database or facilitate the mass deportations of people.

“There are many people in the tech community who have strong morals and ethics around this and are fighting for justice in the world,” said Valerie Aurora, an industry consultant and one of the organizers.

Photo by American Friends Service Committee
Photo by American Friends Service Committee

Volunteers accompany immigrants to court and ICE check-ins for both emotional support and to document everything that happens.Photos by American Friends Service Committee

In Denver, one group is borrowing from the civil rights and women’s movements, training volunteers to accompany immigrants who face possible deportation and documenting their interactions within the system. The technique of accompaniment and documentation by American Friends Service Committee grew out of a local church sanctuary movement in 2013. Under Trump, both the number of volunteers and immigrants seeking assistance, have increased, said organizing director Jennifer Piper.

Typically, the partnering begins with an undocumented immigrant’s first contact with immigration authorities. It involves not just shadowing them at immigration check-ins and court hearings and detailing every interaction they have, but surrounding them with support, including help finding and paying for a lawyer, if necessary. The goal ultimately is to build the strongest case possible to avoid deportation and keep families together, Piper said.

Of the 15 immigrants whose cases have been fully documented since the program started, 14 have avoided deportation, Piper said, and most pay it forward by volunteering to accompany others. “If we can bring all that moral, spiritual, and economic support to a case as soon as there has been interaction, immigrants are more likely to win before ever needing sanctuary,” Piper said.


An immigrant advocacy group in Austin, Texas, searching for safe havens for those faced with the threat of deportation has launched a kind of know-your-rights campaign for private businesses. As part of its “ICE out of Austin” movement, Grassroots Leadership is building an underground network of sanctuary businesses willing to harbor undocumented immigrants in the event of a raid, or provide refuge to any threatened or targeted group.

Alejandro Caceres, the group’s immigration organizer, said Grassroots worked with attorneys to create the legal language for the campaign. It reached out initially to businesses that participated in the Day Without Immigrants—about 100 or so establishments, most of them restaurants owned by Spanish speakers.

The language outlines what sanctuary businesses are permitted to do—or not do—if they have undocumented workers on staff and how far they may go to support them.

Caceres said he wants private businesses to feel empowered to banish ICE officers from their properties, including their parking lots, and to demand to see warrants before an arrest can be made.

“We want people to be actively on the lookout and make sure ICE doesn’t feel comfortable in parking lots and businesses,” Caceres said.

Lornet Turnbull is a Seattle-based freelance writer. Contact her at [email protected] Follow her on twitter: @turnbullL.


No Tearful Goodbyes This Time — The Fight Is On

YES! photo by PAUL DUNN

Artwork by Steve Gardner, YES! photo by Paul Dunn

I’ve been feeling particularly Japanese these days. That’s not entirely unusual. Being mixed race means I experience my races in sometimes unexpected flareups. And now, as more of white America seems to be trying to rid itself of more of brown America, the murmuring about racism from my Japanese community has intensified. They have something to say about this, and it occurs to me that I do, too.

Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz is the editorial director at YES! She serves on the board of directors for the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association.

To be sure, some of it is seasonal emotion. Where I live on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle, every March brings spring’s first sunshine, early strawberry blossoms, and an anniversary that has marked this community for decades. Seventy-five years ago, on March 30, American citizens and their Japanese-born parents—227 in all—were taken from their homes by soldiers and put on trains and buses to concentration camps. The president’s Executive Order 9066 gave these families six days’ notice. They were the first in the nation to be rounded up; eventually 120,000 people were sent to the camps.

In the decades that I’ve been a part of the Japanese American community here, I’ve been steeped in survivors’ stories of loss and grief—but also their gratitude to non-Japanese neighbors. The community was so supportive that Bainbridge had more Japanese return home after years of incarceration than any other community.

Survivors and descendants gather each March at a memorial on the site where they were ferried away. They do that for the same reason they repeat their stories to school children, to visitors, to each other. Because nidoto nai yoni: “Let it not happen again.”

You hear that uttered a lot around here. It’s a motto with a call to action that shifts. It can be an appeal to justice and compassion: “Let it not happen again … please?” It can be a demand to stand up: “Let it not happen again … dammit!” It’s the latter that is resonating with me now, a reaction to this new government’s racism.

So, OK, nidoto nai yoni! But how exactly do we “let it not happen again” when federal agents come for our neighbors? What can a community really do to guard civil liberties and lives?

In 1942, even this exceptional multiethnic community—home to the only West Coast newspaper that spoke out against the incarceration order—did not gather in the streets and shout, “No! You will not take them away.” The nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans), who at least had citizenship, did not rise up and shout, “No!” That was just how things were back then.

“Seventy-five years ago, everything was so quiet,” remembers Kay Sakai Nakao, 97. She’s the oldest living survivor, a 22-year-old at the time of her incarceration. “There were no marches, not like today. No one was saying, Don’t take our neighbors. I don’t think they even thought of that.” She says her daughter has asked her why she and other nisei didn’t speak up. “We were trying to fit in and do the right thing,” she says. “Now, we’ve learned so much, probably we’d be marching now.”

That is true, says Brian Niiya, the content director for the Densho project. “Lending aid and comfort were the limits of the community support they got.” For more than 20 years, his organization has made its mission the digital preservation of firsthand stories like Nakao’s. Because nidoto nai yoni.

One reason for the lack of protests was that popular opinion on the West Coast was against the Japanese. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anger and fear were the prevailing emotions. Even the Japanese American Citizens League—at the time a new national civil rights advocacy organization—supported going along with the incarceration order.

“That is the big difference between then and now,” Niiya says. “Today, there’s no way you could pull off a policy like that against Arab Muslims, or whatever targeted group, without mass protests and civil disobedience.”

Photo from Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community

Bainbridge Island couple is removed from their home. Photo from Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community

Public opinion affects political will, and political will makes a difference. When protesters jam airports demanding the release of Muslim travelers or march in the streets with signs, they are forcing politicians to take notice and the world to witness.

Would loud, visible civil disobedience have made a difference back then? Of course, Niiya says, although he finds it inconceivable that there would have been such protests in 1942, given the political climate after Pearl Harbor. But today, Niiya believes, mass protests and civil disobedience—even the threat—would undoubtedly make a difference.

As an example, Niiya points to the case of Hawai‘i, a place I know well. That’s where my people are from—and still live—where Japanese grandmothers on both sides of my family worked in sugar cane and pineapple fields and raised U.S. citizens.

By rights, Hawai‘i should have been the epicenter for irrational response after Pearl Harbor. And while there was martial law and racial ugliness, there was no mass forced removal of the Japanese. Niiya explains that there just wasn’t an appetite for it.

The Japanese in Hawai‘i made up 37 percent of the population at the time and were fairly well-assimilated, holding business and community leadership positions. Not only was mass removal impractical, but business and political leaders opposed it. “It’s harder to demonize a group when you know them personally,” Niiya points out.

Robert Shivers was the head of the FBI in Hawai‘i at the time. Like so many other influential white people, he and his wife had a live-in Japanese maid. Her name was Shizue Kobatake, and the Shivers family treated her like a daughter. It was Shivers who helped convince President Roosevelt that mass removal of Hawai‘i’s Japanese was unnecessary.

Another factor: Hawai‘i’s experience shows what’s possible when people feel secure in their rights and community support. The Hawai‘i nisei tended not to be submissive, Niiya said; they were used to being in ethnic-majority situations, used to raising their voices and being heard.

In one of Densho’s digitally preserved interviews, I watched Bainbridge Island nisei Sadayoshi Omoto—who was 19 at the time of the evacuation and died four years ago—say wistfully that his West Coast nisei cohort perhaps should not have gone to the camps quietly. “Sometimes I wished … that the niseis stood up and said, No, we won't go.’”

His interviewer asks about the non-Japanese community. “This is the kind of question we get frequently: How did our neighbors react?” Omoto remembers white friends showing kindness and support—but only individually, not in any organized way. “Somewhere along there … we totally—‘we’ meaning the niseis—we didn’t do our job properly. Maybe ... we should have had a whole mass of Caucasians saying, These are loyal people. But we didn’t.”

That’s what must happen now, says Nakao, 75 years after she obediently boarded a train not knowing where it was taking her. Nidoto nai yoni comes down to this: “We have to fight for them—fight for them!—because not too many people fought for us.”

That’s what I think too, Kay Nakao. This time, we can’t let them take away our neighbors.

Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz is the editorial director at YES! She serves on the board of directors for the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial Association.