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The sanctuary city in Trump's backyard

Michael Knigge
August 8, 2017

While the public focus on the Trump administration's crackdown on sanctuary cities lies mostly on places like New York or Seattle, small cities resist as well. One is just a short metro ride away from the White House.

A yard sign in Takoma Park, a sanctuary city, drives home the message of welcome in Spanish, English and Arabi
A yard sign in Takoma Park drives home the message of welcome in Spanish, English and ArabicImage: DW/M. Knigge

When Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump vowed to "end the sanctuary cities" in a highly anticipated speech on immigration last year, his remarks were followed by major municipalities across the country - including New York, San Francisco, and Miami - designating themselves as sanctuary cities. Yet the movement to let localities decide whether and how to enforce federal immigration orders has also been waged by small communities, one of which is Takoma Park, in the state of Maryland.

"We have been dealing with this since the elections," said Mayor Kate Stewart, who heads the city of 17,000 just outside of Washington, along with city manager Suzanne Ludlow, who runs its day-to-day operations.

With its large share of foreign-born residents (31 percent compared to 13 percent for the US according to census data), many of whom hail from Africa and Latin America and live in apartments, Takoma Park is more directly affected by the Trump administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants than many other city its size. 

This is particularly true since President Trump has made good on his campaign promise to target so-called sanctuary cities, municipalities that do not fully cooperate with national immigration law enforcement.

The latest move by the Justice Department to push sanctuary cities to assist federal immigration officials in their search for undocumented immigrants came last Thursday, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that participation in a new crime-fighting program would be contingent upon cooperation with federal authorities on this issue. The city of Chicago has sued to prevent the Trump administration from enforcing the measure.

Read more: Texas governor signs order to ban sanctuary cities

Kate Stewart, Mayor of Takoma Park, Maryland
Stewart would welcome visits from the president and governorImage: City of Takoma Park

'We are not scared'

Beyond threatening to block sanctuary cities from receiving federal grants, the Trump administration has also ramped up efforts to find and deport undocumented immigrants. In a recent interview, the acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lauded the president for "taking the handcuffs of off law enforcement" and said he planned to deploy more agents to search sanctuary cities, which he called ludicrous, for undocumented immigrants.

"That statement, and prior ones made by the current administration, creates fear and anxiety in a community, and we try to fight against that," said Mayor Stewart, noting that "we are not scared."

Despite the increasing pressure from the Trump administration, the city, which due to its extremely progressive leanings has also been dubbed the "People's Republic of Takoma Park," is not about to give up its status as sanctuary city, which was established over three decades ago.

"We are a sanctuary city and have been one since 1985, and we stand by our values of wanting to be a welcoming and inclusive city, and that means making sure that all of our residents feel welcome here," said Stewart.

"We are going to stand by the policies that we have that our police department and our government staff do not cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in terms of trying to find undocumented immigrants," she added. "We do not ask about immigration status, and we will continue that policy."

Read more: California judge blocks Trump 'sanctuary city' order

Origins in Central American civil wars

The origins of Takoma Park's sanctuary city status can be traced to the brutal civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, which in the 1980s led local churches to offering sanctuary to refugees from those countries. City officials then drafted supporting resolutions which culminated in Takoma Park declaring itself a sanctuary city in 1985.  

Some of the families that fled here in the 1980s still reside here today, and because of its history the community has a special sense of how important it is to offer sanctuary and a place to put down roots for refugees, said Stewart. "We are so lucky that we have been a sanctuary city for so long and we know what that can mean to people."

And while Takoma Park, unlike many bigger cities, does not receive a lot of federal grants and has not yet seen immigration enforcement officers come to town to search for undocumented immigrants, the consequences of the Trump administration's crackdown on sanctuary cities are felt here too.   

Standing firm despite consequences

Takoma Park City Manager Suzanne Ludlow
Ludlow underlines that immigration crackdowns affect everyone, immigrant or notImage: City of Takoma Park

"In the future we may be less likely to get new grants," said city manager Ludlow. "It hurts regular folks getting various support services and very basic things that nobody can be against."

But the Trump administration's tough stance against undocumented immigrants does not only affect the city financially, said Ludlow. "The other impact is for our staff, because many of our staff members are from other countries."

While city employees must be legal residents, they may have family members or friends who are not. To cope with the added anxiety this situation may cause, the city offers internal support and counseling, said Ludlow. 

The city leadership's pushback against the Trump's administration's stance on undocumented immigrants is backed by the city council and local citizens. 

Since the election of Trump, Takoma Park's city council has debated and reaffirmed the community's status as a sanctuary city, said Stewart.

 "I fully support it," said resident Kirk Spence. "And regardless of what happens with the federal government, we are going to continue to be a sanctuary city, the county is going to be sanctuary county. And in terms of getting grants, we have never been a county that's strapped for cash, so we will figure it out. So I am not worried about it."

Tour for Trump?

"I support sanctuary cities because these cities essentially protect their communities and people, and the people that live in these cities are the people that create these cities and communities," said Takoma Park resident Sandra, who was born in El Salvador, but adopted as child by Greek-American parents. She did not want to give her real name.   

Seth Grimes, an outspoken community activist and former city council member, has dared Trump to make the short trip from the White House to Takoma Park to get a firsthand impression of the sanctuary city in his backyard. 

"I doubt that Donald Trump would ever set foot here, but if he does we will give him an earful," said Grimes. "We will tell him how wrong his policies are and we will show him that our approach of providing sanctuary to immigrants, even if they are undocumented, leads to a thriving community and a thriving economy. It's the right thing to do and we would tell him that."

Asked whether she would be willing to give President Trump a tour of the city, Mayor Stewart replied:

"We give tours for everyone. I would like to start with our governor actually - I don't think Governor Hogan [ed. note: also a Republican] has visited our city - and then work ourselves up to the president."

"We'll continue to be a sanctuary city"

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