Update: Taoseños urge politicians to strengthen ‘sanctuary’ status

'Immigrants and refugees alike put it all on the line to live the American dream'

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When President Donald Trump signed an executive order that sought to punish local governments with immigrant “sanctuary” policies, the reaction was swift. While bigger cities like San Francisco and Santa Fe are leading the charge against that presidential directive, the conversation about the role of local governments in protecting immigrants was ignited in Taos.

More than 100 residents took to the Taos County commission chambers — filling all the seats, siting on the floor and pouring out of the doors — Feb. 7 to demand Taos County leaders take a stand in expanding the county’s role as a place of refuge for immigrants.

José Gonzales, who runs an in-school nurturing center at Enos Garcia Elementary School, told the commission just how real the fear among the immigrant community has been since Trump’s election and his action to make good on election promises to crack down on immigration.

“There are people,” he said on the verge of tears, “getting ready to sell their mobile homes in the event a [mass] deportation does take place here in Taos.”

As nearly 25 people spoke (all in favor of sanctuary status), the arguments for adopting a stronger stance on sanctuary ranged from personal experiences of racism to historical perspective to ethical concerns.

“In spite of all the fear, we’re on the winning side – not only morally in taking the high ground, but also legally,” said Peggy Nelson, a retired judge. “It takes lawsuits a while to run their course,” she said, but added that the “ability to take a strong stand to say we’re part of this [sanctuary] movement” is important in this moment of national attention on immigrant issues.

The Rev. Mike Olsen – of St. James Episcopal Church – said religious leaders in Taos are bound by a common “moral obligation to care for and be inclusive of everyone in our community.” He then cited a Bible verse while flanked by several other interfaith leaders, saying, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. … Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners.”

One person spoke of being born under Hitler’s Germany and entering the U.S. illegally through Texas, while another spoke about her family’s lineage that includes lynching and the search for refuge within the U.S. from the South’s Jim Crow laws and culture of violence.

Ira Vandever spoke of Taos’ unique history as a place of sanctuary for many Native American tribes, including the Navajo and the Hopi, throughout history, adding that “natural law says … to eliminate borders.”

What is sanctuary?

Sanctuary is a “pretty fluid concept,” said Nelson, who drafted a sanctuary resolution for the county commission to consider.

There is no one policy or definition of a sanctuary city, though it generally refers to local governments committing to not cooperating with federal raids or deportations of immigrants.

The town of Taos has been a sanctuary city since 2011, said Darien Fernandez, a town council member. That status is based on several resolutions previously approved by the town council. One resolution minces no words: “The Town of Taos is a city of sanctuary.”

Taos County already has one policy in place, passed in 2014, that says staff at the Taos County Adult Detention Center won’t ask about inmates’ immigration status, nor will they report undocumented detainees to the federal government. However, that policy puts the responsibility of notifying Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about undocumented detainees on the district attorney.

The Taos County commissioners are considering another resolution that would reaffirm and expand the county’s commitment as a place of sanctuary. Like the town’s six-year-old ordinance, the county’s would state emphatically that Taos is a place of sanctuary.

A draft resolution has not been finalized. Therefore, an actual vote by the five-person board of Taos county commissioners won’t happen until at least the next commission meeting later this month.

What’s at stake

Federal funding that trickles its way down to local government is at risk for sanctuary cities, the president said.

That’s given some local leaders pause.

Leandro Cordova, Taos County manager, said the county could lose more than $1.3 million in annual funding should the federal government go after municipalities with sanctuary policies. The majority of that funding, he said, goes to the county-operated senior centers and associated programs.

Taos County Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe also cautioned that his department relies on free training offered at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Artesia (which, two years ago, was used as a temporary holding facility for families and children fleeing several Central American countries).

“I don’t want to see something that compromises [our ability to get free training], but I’m not going to compromise my own integrity and morals for a dollar. If you’re a criminal, your [immigration] status doesn’t make a hill of difference to me,” Hogrefe said.

But just how likely is it that Taos’ federal funding would be targeted, regardless of the strength of sanctuary policies in place at the town and county?

Fernandez told The Taos News that small, rural communities are “very low on their priority list.” 

“They’re going to go after the big cities, where an example could be made. And those cities are ready and willing to take on that challenge,” he said.

Indeed, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales has emerged as a prominent voice in the sanctuary city movement.

“Immigrants and refugees alike put it all on the line to live the American dream. Santa Fe has seen generation after generation grab hold of the opportunity to do better by their children,” wrote Gonzales in a recent commentary in Fortune.

“As one of our country’s first openly gay Hispanic mayors, I know how it feels to be shut out because of who you are. But I also know that America is at its strongest when we welcome the world, when we celebrate its diversity, and when we choose hope over fear. No executive order can force a community to change its values. Now, when we face the hardest test, is the time to stand up for our fundamental beliefs, not depart from them,” Gonzales wrote.

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