Sanctuary city

Graphic by Shelby Redman

A burdened sigh crackles through the phone. “I left because it was really, really bad,” Lidia tells me in Spanish. “It’s still really difficult for me to talk about. I’d rather not. It still upsets me.”

Lidia came to the United States from Guatemala in 2014 with her son. Between dropping off and picking her son up from school, she rushes between appointments cleaning houses. “For the moment, my life is a bit complicated,” she laughs.

Lidia was detained in Texas before moving to New Haven, where she’s currently fighting a legal battle to obtain status as an asylee in the U.S. “The process has been long and complicated, because when you come to this country, you don’t know anyone, you don’t know the place, you don’t know anything,” she said.

On Jan. 4, 2016, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh C. Johnson issued a statement announcing that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had undertaken concerted efforts to take into custody and deport undocumented immigrants arrested after May 1, 2014, who had received final court orders to return to their countries. Even in cities like New Haven, where officials refuse to cooperate with ICE, the threat of these raids sent fear and alarm reverberating throughout immigrant populations in the U.S. And for good reason: when ICE raids swept through New Haven in 2007, only five of the 32 individuals detained had final court orders.

“At first, I was very afraid because I hadn’t been here during a time like that,” Lidia told me, describing her reaction when the raids were announced. “I panicked and didn’t want to go out or leave my son at school because I thought, ‘If they deport me alone, I don’t want to be separated from my son.’ But now, a little later, things are much more calm.”

At a protest against the raids on Jan. 6, Mayor Toni Harp, ARC ’78, along with other city officials reassured immigrants that city workers would not cooperate to enforce federal immigration law, and would “act in support of all residents regardless of documentation immigration status.” On a WNHH radio program, Harp discussed why she spoke at the protests, saying: “I wanted to let them know that we are still a sanctuary city.”


“Sanctuary city” is a nebulous term applied to U.S. municipalities that have lax immigration policies, or that have policies constructed to protect undocumented immigrants living within them. The principles that guide New Haven’s own stance as a sanctuary city today date back to the early-to-mid 20th century, when millions of African Americans moved north seeking improved prospects in industrialized cities. “New Haven is a city that’s been shaped by many, many people’s struggles and aspirations to come here, to create opportunities for themselves, to protect themselves from persecution, over many generations,” said Alicia Schmidt Camacho, Associate Master of Ezra Stiles College. “So this new arrival of Central Americans and Mexicans and Ecuadorians is part of a much longer history.”

Life in the sanctuary city has not always been easy. White flight and other urban crises during the 1970s hit New Haven hard, sending the city into decline and generating other social and economic inequalities that still linger today. A recent study by the Brookings Institution found that, since the Great Depression, New Haven has had the fastest-growing income inequality gap among all U.S. cities.

Yet according to Camacho, these collective challenges have, in part, informed New Haven’s willingness to welcome those fleeing hardship in search of a better life. Residents and policy-makers felt it was urgent to make New Haven a model of governance that promoted inclusion of newcomers rather than exclusion or criminalization; to display a different kind of response to challenges created by globalization.

During John DeStefano’s term as mayor, New Haven reinforced its position as a sanctuary city, implementing new, innovative policies to better protect and serve its population of undocumented immigrants. In 2005, the city created a program called “Hablamos Español” to increase bilingual services such as dual language and immersion schools, as well as Spanish translations of state government documentation and literature. Around the same time, the city enforced policies to prevent police officers from inquiring about immigrant status so that undocumented individuals would be able to report crime without fear of deportation. Perhaps most radically, in 2007, the city piloted the first municipal identification cards ever issued in the U.S.: the Elm City Resident Card, available to all residents, regardless of immigrant status.

These new initiatives have benefited people like Lidia and her son. “There are lots of good people here, people who understand me,” she said. “I’m happy with my son’s school, too they’ve supported me a lot because of his speech problems. They have a lot of patience with him.”

However, on Jun. 6, 2007, just days after the New Haven Board of Aldermen voted in support of the new ID program, ICE stormed the Fair Haven community, arresting 31 suspected undocumented immigrants. Both the raids and ID program called national attention to New Haven’s stance toward immigration, but also revealed to New Haven itself just how unique that stance was. “Before the raids, I can’t say that the community felt it was doing anything,” Destefano said. “We were trying to manage our own affairs. I think that we were aware of the issue of resident cards, available to all residents, legal and undocumented, and we knew we were the first state doing that. But we didn’t feel like, ‘Oh we’re doing that to make a national statement.”

In years following the raids, however, DeStefano began to imagine New Haven’s role as a model for policy-making in other cities across the country. “The raids made us say, well, maybe New Haven does have this role to play. To say to the rest of the nation, you could have these policies and there’s not massive unemployment, we’re not having drugs or gangs emerge from this kind of stuff. We could put an end to a lot of the ignorance around immigration policy.”


The protection of a sanctuary city has its limits though. In the face of a threat of deportation like an ICE raid, “there’s only so much New Haven can do,” Claire Simonich, LAW ’16, told me. “If you’re going to be deported, you’re going to be scared no matter how much the New Haven government says it won’t report you to ICE.” Yet even before an ICE raid takes place, challenges associated with the process of asylum-seeking pose a significant threat to Central Americans seeking asylee status in the U.S.

The process of receiving asylum is a complex one, usually beginning with a series of interviews. First, an asylum officer attempts to determine whether or not the asylum seeker has a reasonable fear of returning to his or her country because of oppressive circumstances such as persecution, rape, or discrimination. After this interview, asylum seekers make their case before an immigration judge. “After that, you can ask for a new interview if there was a procedural or legal flaw in your interview,” Simonich said. “For example, if the translator was bad, or if you were too afraid to speak up because you were terrified.”

According to Simonich, the government is making it much harder for Central American women and children to receive asylum than it already is by placing these individuals and families on what’s called an expedited docket. This docket reduces the time between an asylum-seeker’s release from a detention center and the time of his or her hearing. While the process varies from court to court, in some instances, this new procedure can decrease the amount of time that asylum seekers have to prepare a case from years to just a few months.

Even before the expedited docket was set into motion, timing posed a substantial barrier to asylum seekers gaining asylee status. Swapna Reddy, LAW ’16, told me that detention facilities often release families at 11:00 p.m. at a bus station, from which they ride a bus for 24 hours or more to arrive in a city where they can stay. “Eventually, something is supposed to be sent to them in the mail, but that might come one week after they’re released or one year after they’re released,” Reddy says. “So, unsurprisingly, a lot of people never get that piece of paper. They never find out where they’re supposed to go, they fail to show up to court, and they lose their cases as a technicality.”

Trauma, too, poses a barrier to asylum seekers. “It’s really difficult for them to on-command talk to a stranger about what exactly they’ve experienced, when they were raped or what happened when their loved one was murdered,” Reddy said. “That’s why it’s so important for these families to have lawyers, because a lawyer can meet with a client many times on their own until the client is comfortable sharing their story, and then make sure that that story actually gets told to the judge in court.” For families that don’t have lawyers, it’s hard to get that story out the first time. A 2015 study by the American Bar Association demonstrated that children represented by lawyers have a 73% success rate in immigration court, as compared to a 15% success rate for unrepresented children.

“Under the letter of international law, they should get this full asylum hearing, and they should become a green cardholder, essentially, if they have this fear of returning to their country,” Simonich said. “In practice, that’s not happening.”

According to Camacho, the reason the U.S. has made such a resolute effort to deport Central Americans has as much to do with foreign policy as domestic policy. “For the Department of Homeland Security, there’s this sense that in order for immigration policy to be credible, there have to be removals,” she said.

Following a surge in immigration from Central America in 2014, the U.S. sent representatives to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to reiterate the Central American countries’ responsibility in deterring illegal immigration to the U.S. “They essentially said, ‘we will not accept these people, your governments are responsible, you must deter out migration,’” Camacho told me. The U.S. also funded the militarization of Mexico’s southern border to the extent that Mexico’s deportation rates have increased by 71%. Currently, Mexico is deporting more Central Americans than the U.S.

“So the U.S. has to do its part to send that message of total commitment to deterrence,” Camacho said. “They say they’re really only going after the people who have orders of deportation, they’re only going after people who have committed crimes, but in fact they’ve far exceeded the bounds of what their program says and they’re going after a lot of ordinary people who have really deep ties.”


On Tuesday, Fed. 23, Camacho was arrested in front of the White House in Washington, DC, for civil disobedience while protesting recent ICE raids. She stood alongside 13 representatives from legal groups, advocacy groups, faith-based groups and political groups—all of whom use unique strategies to address the needs of Central American immigrants and asylum seekers in the U.S. They wore red gloves as they stood in the rain holding a banner reading, “President Obama, you have blood on your hands.”

Camacho told me that what precipitated these protests were reports that 83 of the Central American migrants who had been deported since 2014 had been murdered upon arriving home from the United States. “There’s been allegations that a number of those killed were minors,” Camacho told me. “This created the need to say this whole policy is making the United States complicit in a very dangerous situation that terrorizes these communities.”

As the government has escalated efforts to deport undocumented immigrants, so too have Yale students and faculty extended New Haven’s role as a sanctuary city beyond city lines by advocating for the rights of Central American asylum seekers across the country.

A group of Yale Law School students have recently founded the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) in order to mobilize student talents to meet the needs of vulnerable Central American families that are detained or have been formerly detained. Much of ASAP’s efforts have focused on innovation and in coordinating work efficiently across cases. For instance, the project has restructured the ways in which immigration cases are prepared so that documents can be prepared in parallel by teams of volunteers, instead of in sequence by one lawyer. “We’re able to assemble the case in one tenth of the time because there are 10 people working instead of just one, and are then able to file it within two days of learning about someone’s legal needs,” said Reddy, a co-founder of ASAP.

Much of ASAP’s work directly addresses the barriers that stand between asylum-seekers and receiving protected status. The group is working to secure psychological evaluations for families as evidence of the trauma they’ve experienced that might impede their ability to express their sentiments. “We want to be able to say, ‘Hey, this woman has PTSD, she’s not capable of expressing her fear very well in this interview, so you need to give her a new one,” Simonich said.

The group is also working to reverse deportation orders issued because of procedural issues, rather than a failure to present a convincing case. “When families have received a removal order because they didn’t know to go to court, we’ve been able to help families around the country reopen their cases, to file a document in court, saying, ‘Hey, I was ordered removed because I didn’t even know I had to be there, here were the issues that prevented me from receiving notice, can you give me another shot,” Reddy said.

Already, ASAP has prevented the deportation of 100 families through emergency legal filings; gathered case information for over 5,000 asylum-seeking families; and notified over 750 families of upcoming hearings. The students have provided representation for every family with a full immigration trial in the Dilley family detention center since May 2015, and have won every case.

ASAP’s work and Professor Camacho’s protest are representative of a new immigrant rights movement, one that is looking to generate innovative strategies to serve Central American asylum-seekers whose needs are not always met by the U.S. Justice System. “I think this is a moment where organizers are looking to ask what new strategies do we bring to achieve our ends, because previous strategies haven’t yielded what was hoped for,” Camacho said. “So I think this action was an effort to say we can’t wait, we can’t be patient, we need to act and push on these issues of deportation because it’s so catastrophic.”

New strategies and policies that emerge from this city and its inhabitants will become a part of the continuation of this tradition. “People in New Haven don’t see any difference between me and legal immigrants,” Lidia told me, “And it makes me feel safe and supported in this country.”

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