Last week, Senator Ted Cruz full throatedly repeated one of his top priorities as President: “ending sanctuary cities.” Cruz has not fully detailed how he would stop or eliminate (his terms) Sanctuary Cities, but has made it clear they are wrong.
The Sanctuary City movement began in the 1980s. The term is applied by some to cities in the United States (or Canada) that have policies designed to not prosecute undocumented immigrants and exiles. 31 US cities have designated themselves Sanctuary Cities, including Washington, D.C.; New York City, Jersey City; Los Angeles; Philadelphia, San Francisco; Santa Ana; San Diego; San Jose; Oakland; Salt Lake City; Dallas; Houston; Detroit; Chicago; Salinas, California; Minneapolis; Miami; Denver; Baltimore; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; New Haven; Somerville; Cambridge; and Portland, Maine.
Less well known is that on May 27th, 1986 the Rochester City Council, by a 6 – 2 vote, declared Rochester a “city of sanctuary.” The Council had debated an amendment by Councilman John G. Erb for the stronger label, Sanctuary City, that would have offered illegal aliens some protection from prosecution or federal enforcement efforts.
Ultimately, the mostly symbolic designation “city of sanctuary” was approved, one that does include official support for the actions of the six Rochester sanctuary congregations aiding refugees from war torn Central America.
At the time, co-sponsor Councilman Tim Mains praised the resolution for advancing Rochester’s tradition of providing assistance to persecuted people, exemplified by the participation of citizens in the underground railroad.
Nonetheless, for almost 30 years now the vote of the City Council to name Rochester a city of sanctuary has stood.
While larger cities with stronger sanctuary policies would seemingly be targeted under a Cruz Administration, realistically, calls to revoke Rochester’s 1986 resolution are unlikely.
At the same time, Cruz’ anti-sanctuary city rhetoric invokes memories of the mid 1980s when Rochestarians actively demonstrated solidarity with the peoples of Central American: building bridges not walls.
To learn more Rochester’s sanctuary movement I turned to Julie Everitt who you have met before.
During the mid-80s, El Salvador was involved in a bloody civil war, exemplified by notorious “death squads” preying upon peasants and human rights activists. Many El Salvadorean refugees left for the United States, including coming to Rochester.
Six Rochester churches provided a haven for refugees, most of whom were considered by authorities to be illegal aliens. The precipitating event behind the City Council resolution was the arrest and jailing by the Immigration and Naturalization Service of Alejandro Gomez, one of the refugees sheltered by the churches. In response, the City Council resolution called upon federal authorities to halt deporting procedures against Gomez.
Julie’s late husband, Tom Harris (whose poem “In a clinic in Paiwas” you have read) was involved in raising money to cover the cost of Gomez’ bail.
Like many Rochesterians, Tom’s work extended beyond the Gomez case. Julie says, amongst others, Gail and Peter Mott, Arnie Matlin, Michael Armagon and Jim Good were involved in supporting Latin American peoples through the Rochester Committee on Latin America (ROCLA) and Sister City Project of Metro Justice.
Tom was very active in Project Bueno, a project to support a Women’s Furniture Cooperative. To provide needed financial support, funds were raised through a newsletter Tom edited. I remember Tom inviting me to a fundraising Line Dance at a local church celebrating Latino-American culture in all its colorful richness.
As seen in “In a clinic in Paiwas,” Tom also went to Nicaragua a half-dozen times, bringing supplies and solidarity.
Looking back 30 years later, Julie comments, “It was a different era — one more sympathetic to refugees and immigrants.”