Can the city maintain its 30-year status as a sanctuary for undocumented migrants as Trump threatens to pull funding?
New York, United States – Every day, Edina does what many New York mums do. She gets her young sons, aged eight and six, ready for school, then goes off to her job, as a residential cleaner. Her husband, Bill*, works in construction, installing flooring. They have lived in Brooklyn for more than 12 years, building a good life for their family.
They go to the store, they go to the movies, they have friends, they pay taxes, their boys go to public school. They felt safe as they carved out their piece of the “American Dream”. That is, until Donald Trump took office.
“What makes me scared is not that I’m gonna get thrown out of the country,” Edina says. “What makes me scared is that I’m gonna be separated from my kids. That would be a disaster.”
Edina was 25 and fresh out of university, with no job. Bill was 37 and searching for something better. They came to New York on a six-month visa, but found jobs and a home, and decided to stay. They heard then-President George Bush talk about immigration reform that would give them a path to citizenship. They heard his successor President Barack Obama talk about the same thing.
“Since we came here, it’s always in the air that something’s gonna happen,” Edina says. “Somehow, we’re gonna get the papers. It never came to reality. But there was always this hope.”
Edina says, for immigrants, New York, “is like a paradise. You can basically do anything if you’re an immigrant. You can buy a car, you can buy a house, you can have a bank account”.
She believes her life here is not so different from what it would be if she had papers, except she can’t travel and, she says, “the quality of the jobs I’m getting is not the same as I would get with papers”.
New York City’s first immigrant, Juan Rodriguez, arrived in 1613. Since then, it’s been either a home-from-home or the first port of call for millions. Irish and German immigrants were followed by Russian and German Jews, Italians, Chinese, Hispanics, Africans and Vietnamese. It was never an easy fusion of cultures and religions, but, in time, they found a way to form what former Mayor David Dinkins once called a “gorgeous mosaic”.
As federal immigration laws were written and strengthened, protecting the city’s immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, became a priority. And so, in 1989, then-Mayor Ed Koch signed an Executive Order declaring New York City a “Sanctuary City”, a move re-affirmed in a resolution by the City Council in 2016, affording some level of security to those who are undocumented. The question is, how much?
The concept of the Sanctuary City started in San Francisco, in 1985, when that city’s leaders opposed the tactics used by immigration enforcement officials to round up the undocumented, and decided they would no longer cooperate with their efforts. “That, at heart, is what Sanctuary Cities are all about,” says Hasan Shafiqullah, a supervising lawyer in the Immigration Unit of New York’s Legal Aid Society.
“We’re not going to use local resources, our local police or our courts to do the work of the federal immigration authorities, because we want to have good relations with our immigrant communities.”It’s important,” he says, to “let people know it’s safe to call the police if you are a domestic violence survivor, or if you are attacked or abused or whatever.”
New York City used to subscribe to a programme called “secure communities”, part of an agreement with the federal government, through which the New York Police Department (NYPD) would inform Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), when a non-citizen was incarcerated or stopped by police.
ICE would then file a “detainer”, requesting that the city hold that person for an additional 48 hours to transfer them to federal custody. When ICE officials admitted detainers were voluntary rather than mandatory, the city stopped cooperating. ICE also maintained a presence at Riker’s Island, a jail where prisoners are held during trial or while awaiting transfer to long-term facilities. Shafiqullah says, “they would go around and speak to the inmates, the detainees, and get them to sign documents basically agreeing to deportation and waiving all of their rights. It was incredibly coercive.” So, in 2014, ICE was told that their officers were no longer welcome.
The city took the concept of sanctuary even further. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed executive orders forbidding city employees, including members of the NYPD, from asking anyone for their immigration status, unless it is relevant to the service they’re providing. For example, if an undocumented immigrant with a child who is a citizen applies for food stamps, he can be asked how many in the household are documented. If someone is arrested or the victim of a crime, they cannot be asked about their status.
NYC Health + Hospitals, which oversees all of the city-run medical facilities, also refuses to request the immigration status of anyone who comes to them for medical services, again, unless it affects their treatment. And if they do have to ask, say, in the case of someone who may show symptoms of a disease like Ebola or tuberculosis, the information is neither recorded nor documented. In an open letter to immigrant New Yorkers, Interim President and CEO Stanley Brezenoff, said, “our primary concern is your health, not your immigration status. We want immigrant New Yorkers to understand they can seek health care without fear”.
Nisha Agarwal, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs, points to the city’s outreach programmes as an important part of keeping the immigrant community safe. “We work with the Department of Education, and sent letters to parents in the backpacks of every child, letting them know the DoE is open and accessible to all. The Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence sent letters to all their providers. We have teams in the field holding ‘Know Your Rights’ workshops.”
There are also city-sponsored programmes, like “Action NYC”, which offers free, safe legal advice to immigrants, and “ID-NYC”, government-issued identification cards for all New Yorkers, regardless of their immigration status. Natalia Aristizabal, co-organising director for the community-based group Make the Road New York, says you can’t overstate the importance of a simple ID card. “For an undocumented person to have access to a city ID card is huge,” she says. “They can use it to go to the store, to get utilities. New York is the only municipality in the country that has universal ID’s.”
Even though we are a sanctuary city and we're not directly cooperating with ICE, the minute I get fingerprinted for anything, the whole thing starts.
It’s particularly important for interactions with the police, especially when you consider that, while New York City’s sanctuary status is helpful, it’s far from perfect.
In February, a raid on Staten Island swept up five Mexican nationals, four of whom have US citizen children. It was part of nationwide sweeps, and Trump’s promise to deport more than three million undocumented immigrants.
And, however dedicated New York may be to protecting its immigrants, there’s not much the city can do. “I think that one thing that’s really important for folks to know is that the city really does, genuinely, have limited capacity,” says Commissioner Agarwal. “ICE has the ability to arrest people in public spaces. Unfortunately, the city does not have the ability to intervene in their behaviour in those sorts of actions.”
Shafiqullah agrees, but adds, there’s a lot more the city can do to protect its undocumented immigrants. “Even though we are a sanctuary city and we’re not directly cooperating with ICE, the minute I get fingerprinted for anything, the whole thing starts,” he says. “If I rent a Citibike and I run a red light, and I don’t have identification with me, the police officer can take me to a precinct and fingerprint me.”
“Those fingerprints will not be shared directly with ICE, but those fingerprints are digitally recorded and sent to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice in Albany, which shares them with the FBI for its database, which ICE can check. There’s nothing stopping ICE from showing up at the summons part in criminal court. We know they’re questioning people outside Family Court, questioning people outside homeless shelters.”
Beyond that, there are currently 170 offences for which the city will work with ICE towards deportation, mostly violent crimes, any crime that is weapons or “terror-related”, and some major drug crimes. When pressed at a budget hearing in the state capitol, Mayor Bill De Blasio said that list could be expanded. “If there are some offences that should be added,” he said, “we are willing to do that, always.” And that worries advocates for the undocumented. “It cuts against the promises New York City is making to its non-citizen residents,” Shafiqullah says. “We would urge him not to do that.”
The election of Donald Trump has made the job of those protecting and defending the undocumented that much harder. As non-citizens are rounded up across the country, and the administration threatens to “punish” cities that offer sanctuary, community-based groups vow to keep doing their part, holding “Know Your Rights” workshops throughout the city.
“We tell them you don’t have to say anything to immigration,” says Make the Road New York’s Aristizabal. “You don’t have to let them in unless they have a warrant signed by a judge. You have to have a plan in case you or anyone in your family gets picked up. Who is going to be responsible for your children? Talk to people who live on your floor, so you can be each other’s eyes and ears. Now, more than ever, community needs to be the answer.”
Immigration attorneys, too, are doing their part to make sure all New Yorkers are afforded due process. While undocumented immigrants in the US have no right to counsel, a new pilot programme called the Immigrant Family Unity Project would offer free counsel to poor non-citizens being detained by ICE and beginning the hearing process.
“In immigration court, where you’re facing deportation back to a country where maybe you left as a child, you don’t speak the language, you have no support system, or where you might face torture or persecution, the government has said, ‘We’re not paying for an attorney’,” says Shafiqullah. “NY is the first jurisdiction in the country with a programme for universal representation, with assigned attorneys for people who are in immigration detention.”
They’re not only informing undocumented immigrants of their rights, but helping those who are not facing immediate deportation find possible ways to fight, and stay with their families.
Immigration advocates point out that the Trump administration has taken ICE’s enforcement priorities from violent criminals and repeat offenders to, basically, everyone. A single mum who may have overstayed her visa is in as much danger of deportation as a convicted killer.
Edina says she refuses to be frightened. She’s taking her children to school, going to work as normal, holding onto the hope that, shes says, that white Europeans are not the undocumented immigrants ICE is actively looking for.
If she is picked up, she says her plan is to plead that her removal would cause undue hardship for her children, and to ask for a “cancellation of removal”, which could give her a path to a green card. It’s a programme the Trump administration is trying to end, so, if that doesn’t work, she says, she’ll bring her family back to Hungary and start over, recognising that she is one of the lucky ones.
“I think if I have to go back, my situation is not so bad,” she says. “It’s not as bad as people who come from Third World countries. I think I could still have a nice, normal life.”
There’s no denying that Trump’s threats at retaliation have New York City officials concerned. His first attempt at a proposed budget, described by the former staff director of the senate budget committee as “vindictive”, contains massive cuts to the city’s public schools, public housing, infrastructure and $190m in cuts to the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts, which New York’s police commissioner, James P O’Neill, described as, “the backbone of our entire counterterrorism apparatus”.
The irony of that is not lost on Agarwal. “It’s amazing that the funding that may be most at risk is public safety money,” she says, “when the focus of this executive order is supposed to be protecting public safety.”
Still, those charged with protecting the rights of New York’s most vulnerable residents, from hospitals to lawyers, public advocates to the mayor’s office, say they will fight to maintain the city’s sanctuary status, no matter what it takes.
“The federal government can’t just swoop in and take funding whenever they feel like it,” Agarwal says. “We’ll see. If we end up in court, we’ll end up in court. I think there are gonna be a lot of battles down the line like this.”
* Name changed to protect his identity.