Inside the American sanctuary city of Somerville

Can the city maintain its 30-year status as a sanctuary for undocumented migrants as Trump threatens to pull funding?

A person holds a sign that reads, 'Somerville Unido Jamas Sera Venico!' – 'Somerville United Will Never Be Defeated!' – during the We Are One rally at Somerville High School [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Somerville, Massachusetts – Natalia  lives in Somerville. She pays her taxes. She goes to a Crossfit gym. She has friends with whom she unwinds after work. She has an affectionate – if prone to shedding – dog. She has everything most of her neighbours have – except citizenship.

She is an undocumented immigrant, waiting on papers for citizenship she filed 17 years ago. All that separates her from being a citizen, at this point, is legislation.

She distinctly remembers the day after President Donald Trump’s election in November.

“I came to work, and the kids were crying, like, ‘We will all move to Mexico!'” the 35-year-old nanny to two children says.

Natalia’s case is not unusual in Somerville. Jaclyn Rossetti, a media representative in the mayor’s office, says that about one-third of Somerville’s 80,000 residents are immigrants, although there is no data on how many are undocumented.

Natalia and one of her charges, Myles, draw their hands during a sign-making party for the We Are One Somerville rally [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]
Natalia and one of her charges, Myles, draw their hands during a sign-making party for the We Are One Somerville rally [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Somerville is a sanctuary city, and has been for 30 years. A sanctuary city is a municipality that does not prosecute undocumented immigrants for violating federal immigration laws. The United States currently has 39 outright sanctuary cities, as well as more than 300 counties that do not comply with federal policing of undocumented immigrants.

But the immigrants’ sense of safety here has diminished in recent months. Trump’s threats to deport undocumented immigrants and to de-fund sanctuary cities for noncompliance hangs over the country.

During his campaign, Trump targeted, among other groups, Mexicans. He said the US should build a wall along its southern border and called Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “drug dealers”.

US sanctuary cities offer support for undocumented immigrants

Trump also alleged that sanctuary cities are rife with crime.

But according to a study by the Centre for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan policy institute, this claim is false. In fact, comparing sanctuary counties to counties of comparable size and demographics, the study concluded that the crime rate was lower in the sanctuary counties. It also found higher labour force participation in the sanctuary counties.

Kacey Brister, another media representative in the mayor’s office, says data collected by the Somerville police department shows that the city’s crime rate is down by 50 percent since 1987 – the year Somerville became a sanctuary city.

But Trump does not seem to care about the facts. Instead, in one of his first acts as president, he signed an executive order denying federal funding to cities that did not cooperate with deportation orders – namely, sanctuary cities.

She is not an undocumented immigrant by choice. When she was 17, she moved to the United States from Mexico, spurred on by the “beautiful dream” her mother painted.

“I moved here thinking I was going to go to school, and that she was going to petition for me, and it was going to be nice and peachy, but it definitely didn’t turn out like that,” she says.

Patches bearing the Rebellion's symbol from the movie 'Star Wars' hang out to dry on a tree, during the We Are One rally in Somerville [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]
Patches bearing the Rebellion’s symbol from the movie ‘Star Wars’ hang out to dry on a tree, during the We Are One rally in Somerville [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Instead, she found herself forced to work, because her mother, already a US citizen by marriage, could not afford to support her. She became a nanny, and saved all the money she could to pay the legal fees that come with the path to citizenship.

Natalia says she worked for about a year to save the several thousand dollars it would take to begin the process, then gave it all to her mother, who had promised to petition on her behalf.

“After a year, I hadn’t heard anything, so I went to the lawyer’s office, and asked [about] the status of my papers,” she says. “Long story short, my mother never petitioned for me. She took the money.”

Since then, her case has dragged on for almost two decades, and she does not see it ending anytime soon.

“I just talked to my lawyer maybe two months ago. And they said they are still processing petitions entered in 1984.”

Deirdre Giblin, a lawyer at the Boston-based Community Legal Services and Counselling Centre, explains that in Natalia’s case, such a wait is not surprising. Because she does not have a family member to petition for her, a path to citizenship is virtually impossible.

“There is a priority list, with first priority given to children [under 21], then spouses … if you are anything less than that, you are put down on the priority list,” Giblin says.

Sandra Suarez holds her daughter Enola on her shoulders, as they listen to music, during the We Are One rally outside Somerville High School [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]
Sandra Suarez holds her daughter Enola on her shoulders, as they listen to music, during the We Are One rally outside Somerville High School [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Moreover, “if you are from a country that is already oversubscribed, your wait is even longer,” she adds.

An oversubscribed country is one that has exceeded its visa quota, which, as of November 1, 2016, was set at 23,400 visas. Unfortunately for Natalia, Mexico is one such country.

But even without all those obstacles, citizenship would still be difficult. In an ideal situation, Natalia would have to wait five years under a legal residency permit, while paying around $5,000 for a lawyer, as well as hundreds of dollars for required miscellaneous expenses, such as medical fees and vaccinations. But depending on how long the process drags on for, Giblin says, it can cost a lot more: Natalia says her expenses have run up to between $10,000 and $15,000.

Fortunately for Natalia and others like her, lacking citizenship does not mean they lack support. In a phone interview, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone iterated what he has been saying since the election: “We are not going to run away from our fellow human beings, our neighbours, our colleagues … We are not going to profile based on immigrant status.”

In other words, city officials will refuse to cooperate with any upcoming orders to hand over undocumented immigrants for potential deportation – regardless of what that means for the $6m in federal grant money Somerville receives for programmes such as special education, substance abuse programmes and school lunch programmes.

The mayor’s office said in late November that the city would “tighten our belts” if Somerville does lose the funding. 

Curtatone’s office has been closely following the legal case of San Francisco, California, which has made headlines recently, as it was the first sanctuary city to sue the Trump administration over his order to withhold federal funding. 

Curtatone told Al Jazeera that Somerville is also prepared to take legal action, if necessary. 

Because the mayor does not know exactly what kinds of challenges could arise – the situation is truly unprecedented in the US – he and other community leaders have been meeting to discuss various options.

One such leader is Luis Morales, the pastor of Vida Real Internacional. A refugee from El Salvador granted citizenship in 1983, Morales knows what it is like to be forced to flee a dangerous country immediately, rather than risk his life waiting for the legalities of citizenship. At the time Morales left the country, there was a raging civil war that ended up killing more than 75,000 people.

“We came to the sanctuary city just to be protected,” Morales says. “I am going to protect my community the best I can. My church is willing to do whatever it takes.

“Churches have always been sanctuary places in the US … I have beds, I have bathrooms, and I will do whatever it takes,” he adds, implying that people could live in the church, “if worse comes to worse”.

Ben Echevarria runs The Welcome Project, an organisation dedicated to working with the immigrant community since 1987. He, too, is working with the mayor to push back against Trump’s threats.

Natalia paints an equality sign on the head of Boden, Myles' brother and Natalia's other charge [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]
Natalia paints an equality sign on the head of Boden, Myles’ brother and Natalia’s other charge [Carolyn Bick/Al Jazeera]

Since Trump’s election, The Welcome Project’s resources have “been stretched thin”, Echevarria says, with undocumented immigrants statewide calling in to ask for assistance from the organisation. Lack of federal funds would cut even more deeply into the organisation, as it receives a community development grant.

Echevarria fears that the order will have negative effects on the community as a whole, not just on undocumented immigrants. If people are afraid to talk to the police for fear of having their legal status questioned, crime rates will increase, he says. Because the community and city government promote immigrant-police dialogue, residents currently feel safe reporting crimes, or coming forward to act as witnesses to them.

“But we know what happens when these people are no longer part of the community, when these groups become disenfranchised. There all of a sudden becomes a problem with policing. Crime rates go up, because nobody wants to talk to the police,” he says.

Echevarria knows the value of the integrated neighbourhood that is the modern-day Somerville, because it was not always like that. Although he was born in the US, his parents came from Puerto Rico. The family was targeted for being Latino. Echevarria can remember nights in Somerville, “nights of people throwing rocks through our window, yelling, ‘Go back to your country!'”

“It wasn’t a perfect city, but it certainly has changed,” Echevarria reflects.

He also believes that Trump’s order will cripple the city economically, in ways aside from losing the federal funding.

“We are seeing a lot of entrepreneurs and restaurateurs [from the immigrant community]. It’s not just American fare, any more. We are seeing more and more small businesses open up from migrants.”

Source: Al Jazeera