How A City Becomes A Sanctuary

Around the country, even left-leaning local governments are struggling to find the best way to help immigrants.

March 10, 2017
How A City Becomes A Sanctuary Courtesy of Voz Hispana /

Hillsboro, Oregon, is a long way from Maricopa County, Arizona, or McAllen, Texas, or any of the most infamous frontlines of America’s increasingly fiery immigration debate. A happily humdrum suburb a half-hour drive west of Portland with a population just over 100,000, it’s a liberal city in a liberal state. But since Trump’s shock election victory, the immigration debate has swept through Hillsboro just the same, stoking anger, fear, and recrimination. The focus of the tension: Resolution 2552. Brought forth in December, it asked the city council to declare Hillsboro a sanctuary city.


Effectively, a “sanctuary city” is any city that has pledged not to cooperate with federal agents engaged in deportation. Those sanctuary cities (and sanctuary counties and sanctuary towns and sanctuary villages) do not force their police officers to inquire about immigrations status, and they do not aid in deportations.

But a pledge of non-cooperation doesn’t mean that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, will not be able to carry out its activities in Hillsboro. As the nattily bowtied city council member Fred Nachtigal — a former defense attorney and police officer — put it in one recent public hearing, “When the federal government decides that they are going to come through, they will. We’ve quacked and quacked and quacked. And we’re just about as powerless as the chicken.”


Since Resolution 2552 was first broached, the community responded with a public march of support and rambunctious approval at public city council meetings. It’s not surprising that Trump’s immigration policies were unpopular here: Oregon hasn’t voted for a Republican in a Presidential election since 1984; in 2016 Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Hillsboro’s Washington County by 26 points. Over a quarter of Hillsboro is Latino, and the community’s presence is evident: there’s a carniceria down the street from a mini mart, a Super Tacos Ochoa just around the corner from the Spaghetti Western Wine-and-Dine.

The final vote on Resolution 2552 was scheduled for March 7. Leading in, the question around town was not whether the proudly multicultural Hillsboro embraced or valued its immigrants. The question was how much Hillsboro was willing to risk for that community. How far would the city go to protect its undocumented residents from the federal government?

For cities declaring sanctuary status, Trump has vowed vengeance by stripping federal funding; there’s also the concern that the more boldly a city declares itself a safe zone for immigrants, the more likely ICE is to come rolling in. By loudly declaring sanctuary city status, Hillsboro feared it might be putting itself in the crosshairs of the Trump administration.


“I hear facts like, ‘This could be putting a target on us,” Eric Ruiz, a lifetime resident and a graduate student at Portland State, told me. “I’m at a cross. Do I really want to risk lives? At the same time — do I want to be submissive to Trump’s regime?”


Hillsboro’s sanctuary city movement started with Pastor Jorge Vazquez, of the largely Hispanic Methodist Church for the Nations. He’d been hearing from his constituents that they were seeing increased police activity, that they were fearful an ICE agent was around every corner. Pastor Jorge reached out to the Hillsboro chief of police, who assured him the police department was making the same rounds as always. The facts were not bearing them out; they were imagining that increased police activity. It was a “panic,” Pastor Jorge explained, stemming from “a national conversation of hostility and rejection. It's in the news. It’s in the atmosphere. It’s what we’re breathing.”

Hoping to buck up his shaken community, Pastor Vazquez began consolidating support for sanctuary city status among the faith community. Through a weekly men-of-the-cloth coffee hangout, he locked in agreements from fellow pastors at largely white Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Protestant congregations to push the city council on the issue. Then the churches went to the local immigrants-rights organization Voz Hispana. On February 7, the network mobilized and created a rare sight for Hillsboro: a public march and rally in support of Resolution 2552.


“We were calling people to be at Shute Park at 5 p.m.,” recalled Francisco Lopez, Voz Hispana’s fiftysomething volunteer political director. “And around 5:15 p.m. — fffffwhoooooom — suddenly, you see hundreds. Even in the midst of all this fear, all these undocumented immigrants came out.”

Naming Hillsboro a sanctuary city would join it with jurisdictions throughout the U.S. that have done the same, from quiet towns like Appleton, Wisconsin, to major urban areas like New York City. Generally, it’s been the former that have declared sanctuary loudly and proudly. In a January press conference, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh thundered that he would protect all residents of Boston even if it meant using “City Hall itself as a last resort. If people want to live here … they can use any office in this building.”

Most places that don't cooperate with ICE are not as bold. Many are arguably as motivated by a certain sense of justice as they are by a desire to save money (eliminating, say, the cost of temporarily detaining an undocumented person for ICE.) Many would rather not be found on lists or cheered online.


For Hillsboro, declaring sanctuary city status is, in large part, be a technicality. Along with just four other states — California, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Connecticut — Oregon already effectively operates as a “sanctuary state.” The state’s law enforcement agencies do not use staff or resources to “detect” or arrest anyone whose only violation is being undocumented. Hillsboro, taking its cue from the state, has long followed those same practices.

In Hillsboro, though, the question of sanctuary since Trump’s election was as much emotional as it was pragmatic. At the city council’s February 21 meeting, Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway attempted to plug an upcoming production from a local theater. “We have a presentation entitled My Inlaws Are Outlaws,” Callaway, a former principal who holds the mayorship as a part-time post-retirement gig, chipperly announced. But the attempt at normalcy was bizarrely out of place, and quickly shouted down: “We want public comment!” multiple voices cried.

Soon, the proceedings were dominated by heartfelt testimonials from kids, mothers, and working professionals. The speakers used one phrase over and over, their voices alternately booming or cracking with sentiment: they were “undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic.”


“Do you know what it takes for an undocumented family to show up to a place where they’re freaking scared?!” one young woman asked. Another, a young college student, said, “I am tired of people considering that I’m some sort of wetback, that I’m some sort of criminal, that I’m some sort of stupid girl. I’m not. I’m here for my education.”

Reverend Adam Hange, of the First Congregational United Church of Christ, is one of the pastors who was tapped by Jorge Vazquez to aid the sanctuary city movement. In a later phone conversation, he called the campaign a “moral issue.”

“When I read the Bible, I see all the stories about welcoming the stranger, caring for the alien in your midst,” he says. “It’s in Leviticus, Matthews — it’s all through the Prophets. It just seems like the right thing to do right now.”


The speakers at the city council meeting did not use the same religious terminology as Pastor Adam. But their throughline was more or less the same: There is right and there is wrong. And we can not just hope to duck the Trump administration for four (or eight) years. It would put us on the wrong side of history.

Over morning coffee Francisco Lopez, of Voz Hispana, grounded the movement back in the practical. He believed the nationwide sanctuary movement must begin to go “beyond the political statements, beyond non-cooperation,” and into actionable, palpable measures. He name-checked health and community services for immigrants and Portland’s recent consideration of a $50,000 grant to help undocumented people fight deportation.

Lopez is correct in pointing out the fundamental weakness of sanctuary status. Take, for example one belief that has recently gained traction: that churches are safe zones where ICE agents legally cannot enter. In reality, as Pastor Andy pointed out to me, “the previous policy, under the Obama administration, was that churches and hospitals and schools are sensitive zones where ICE could go, but would rather not.”


As of now, ICE has continued the Obama administration policy, creating situations in Phoenix and Denver where churches are actively housing and sheltering undocumented people. But there’s no telling how long that will be an effective strategy.

“If you’re a city, you look out for the wellbeing of all of the residents, regardless of immigration status, the color of their skin, their language,” Lopez said. His implication: It’s all well and good that Hillsboro expresses appreciation of its immigrants (as they did in December with a “joint statement in support of diversity”). Hillsboro effectively acts as a sanctuary city, yes. But if Hillsboro can’t bring itself to call itself that, will it ever take an extra step beyond? Should its undocumented residents ever expect real, tangible support?

Lopez is originally from El Salvador: he left in the mid ’80s, at the height of the Salvadoran Civil War, and entered the country illegally, through Texas. (A few years before, while attending the mass funeral of the hugely beloved Archbishop Oscar Romero, he saw his 19-year-old cousin killed by what he believes were military snipers firing with impunity at the crowds below).


His wife is fourth-generation Irish-American; they have two teenage boys that identify both as American and Salvadoran. A lifelong activist, Lopez was recently hoping to scale back some of his volunteer activities. Then Trump got elected. “I was like, kind of trying to retire?” he says, smiling. “Then — ‘Oh God!’”


On February 21, the Hillsboro city council met for a “work session — a meeting open to the public, but not, like the general city council meetings, open for debate. They listened to a presentation from a panel of three Hillsboro officials on the possible impacts of the sanctuary city resolution.

They heard that Hillsboro would stand to lose less than 1 percent of its annual $500 million budget if Trump carried through on his promise to cut federal funding to sanctuary cities. (That’d be a tiny part of an estimated $870 million nationwide.) They also heard about the recent climate in the city’s schools. “The common comment children are hearing,” one of the panelists reported soberly, reading off her notes, is “‘You need to go back where you came from — Trump’s gonna send you back to where you came from.’”


True to Hillsboro’s liberal reputation, the city council did not once express actual support for Trump’s mass deportation efforts. Again and again, the conversation circled around to one central idea: would declaring sanctuary city status help or hurt the city of Hillsboro and its immigrants?

Nachtigal, the bowtied councilmember, was the most skeptical of the city council’s six members, and pushed back respectfully. “While the word ‘sanctuary’ is significant to members of our community, it also seems to be significant to the Donald!” he pointed out, referring to Trump’s repeated calls to punish sanctuary cities. Nachtigal also recalled a time, 20 years or so back, when ICE was known as the INS. “They didn’t need our help. And the Feds don’t need our help now.” His message was clear: they can do what they want; let’s not give them a reason to do it. “Perhaps,” he suggested, “it’s not worth the risk of turning the bright lights on.”

“We know ‘sanctuary’ doesn’t have a lot of teeth,” councilwoman Olivia Alcaire said, by way of rebuttal. “But we can at least say, ‘You’re a part of our community.’”


“But ultimately we don’t control that,” councilman Nachtigal offered. “Nobody in this room knows what this particular president is going to do. I don’t think he knows.”

“What is our decision going to be?” councilwoman Alcaire replied calmly. “What are we going to be, as the city of Hillsboro?”

On March 7, the much-anticipated vote was held. It was a clean split. Three council members, including Nachtigal, voted against. Three others, including Alcaire, voted in support. The onus then turned to Mayor Callaway.


He’d been cagey in expressing his opinion publicly, perhaps hoping to best keep tempers down throughout his jurisdiction. But when the decision was left for him to make, he, of My Inlaws Are Outlaws interest, expressed a higher purpose. “For me,” he said, “this is a vote to say to the children who have grown up here, who have done the right thing and have gone to school, that there are no spare parts in Hillsboro.” The Mayor voted aye; Resolution 2552 passed. And the Shirley Huffman Auditorium, watched over quietly throughout the night by 30 or so local cops, broke into cries and applause.

In Trump’s America, even ostensibly liberal communities are struggling to support their immigrants. Just a few days before Hillsboro’s vote was held, Portsmouth, in New Hampshire — a state won by Clinton, just barely — took action to preempt and placate the demands of a burbling pro-sanctuary movement. The city council moved to declare a weaker sentiment: they approved a “welcoming and diversity” resolution. Explained assistant Mayor Jim Splaine, of the town’s reasons for avoiding sanctuary city status: “We could lose about $5.5m, and it wouldn't really accomplish anything. The federal government can do whatever it wants.”

Hillsboro didn’t stand to lose as much money, and maybe that made the decision easier. But it could have ducked as well — it had plenty of opportunities to do so. Instead, it chose to send that wide statement of support.


This is no all-purpose panacea. That Portsmouth assistant mayor, and councilman Nachtigal, and Francisco Lopez are all right: without additional, substantive efforts from local governments to stop deportations — like, perhaps, the aforementioned legal fund for lawyers for would-be deportees — the federal government can kick many people as it wants out of the country. Like Nachtigal said: If the Feds want to come in, they can.

Attitudinally, though, the sanctuary city movement — and its place as a rebuttal to Trump’s vision of America — may already be having an impact.

Earlier, Lopez had gushed about the citizenship classes that Voz Hispana has been holding. “Before the election, on Friday evenings, we’d be lucky to have ten people. Now, almost fifty! That builds optimism. Despite all of this, what is happening, we still want to be in this country. You know? That’s hopeful. I tell you with all my heart, it is hopeful. With all this, the people still want to be Americans.”

How A City Becomes A Sanctuary