Sanctuary for Whom?

By Carlos Wadkins

From keeping thousands of children in cages at the border to kicking 25,000 mixed status families out of Section 8 housing, every detail of American immigration policy has been diligently refined over time to inflict the most pain and suffering possible onto immigrants and their families. It truly covers all bases. Zero tolerance policies and concentration camps at the border offer a violent reception to so-called “illegal” immigrants, while visa restrictions and third-country asylum agreements make it harder and harder to enter the country legally. Mass deportation and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids are constantly used to remove as many people from the country as possible, while new “public charge” rules and Section 8 policies prevent immigrants who manage to stay from accessing the services and housing they need. And if that weren’t enough, a string of mass shootings by white nationalists echoing the rhetoric of the president has immigrant families fearing for their lives.

This nation’s treatment of immigrants is horrific, and leaves millions of families feeling terrified and helpless. Julie*, an immigrant mother living in San Francisco, says she sees and feels the fear in her community every day. “We’re afraid to go outside,” she says. “Even at the store I’m afraid, because we live in a country that resents anyone that doesn’t qualify as humans according to the president.” Across the nation, one message rings out to immigrants at every turn: “You’re not welcome here.”

San Francisco though… San Francisco is different, right? After all, The City has declared itself a “Sanctuary City” for immigrants since 1989, long before Trump era policies or the creation of ICE, and more recently the city has publicly condemned many of the current administration’s most hateful moves. In 2018, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution “condemning the Trump Administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ immigration policy,” and Mayor London Breed spoke out in 2018 and 2019 against Trump’s Public Charge rule and ICE deportation raids, respectively.

The idea of a San Francisco that won’t stand for the nation’s injustices against immigrants sounds great, but what is the city really doing to protect the most vulnerable among us? What does living in a “Sanctuary City” mean for those among us who actually need it? As much as San Franciscans would like to believe that San Francisco really is a safe haven for immigrants – that all this worrying about lack of access to services, ICE terrorism, and racial violence is for people in Republican districts – the truth is much more sobering.

Rosa* is a resident of San Francisco who crossed the border with her family about a decade ago, and she still remembers vividly the abuse they faced while being detained: “They abused us, and we couldn’t say anything. It was inhumane. It was traumatic.” However, Rosa also knows how impossible it can be to make it as an immigrant in San Francisco. Rosa’s own sister found herself living in a car after trying and failing for a long time to get help paying her rent, all while pregnant and struggling with her mental health. After tragically losing her unborn child, Rosa’s sister was detained by ICE and is currently being held in San Diego, too far for Rosa to be able to visit her. The story of Rosa and her sister is just one among thousands of stories of San Franciscans who need support and protection but live in a city that won’t provide it.  

Mayor Breed speaks out against the Trump administration’s public charge rule and Section 8 restrictions for immigrants, but San Francisco isn’t doing much better to give them access to services and housing than the federal government. State and local support services like Medi-Cal, CAAP, and CalWORKS are all restricted to undocumented immigrants. Even VISA holders and asylum seekers who do technically qualify for these programs can’t apply for them without being sold out to federal immigration officials, so people can’t ask for the help they need without fear of it affecting their immigration status. 

Even with access to these services, it can be hard to stay afloat in San Francisco, especially when considering immigrants in California make on average $15,000 less than citizens. The housing crisis has hit the immigrant community just as hard as everybody else, and certain aspects of San Francisco’s response create extra barriers for immigrants. For example, the city’s policy of denying SRO families access to coordinated entry programs disproportionately impacts immigrant families, as they make up 62% of families living in SRO’s. With all of the economic barriers faced by immigrants in this country, the least San Francisco could do is ensure them equitable access to support so many of us need just to get by in this city, but apparently that’s not included in our definition of sanctuary.

As for protecting San Franciscans from deportation, the one thing the Sanctuary City ordinance is actually claimed to do, San Francisco doesn’t even put up a fight. Its name implies security, but the legislation doesn’t actively protect anybody from deportation, it just limits the ways in which the city will cooperate with ICE in investigating and detaining undocumented folks. Basically, the San Francisco Police Department won’t hand people directly over to ICE, but if ICE wants to arrest someone on the street or anywhere in the city, nothing is stopping them from doing so. Just ask Rosa’s sister. 

In fact, because local police won’t cooperate with them, ICE is often more active in making arrests in Sanctuary cities than in other places. After sweeping arrests across San Francisco and Oakland in February 2018 ICE deputy director Thomas Homan commented on San Francisco and Oakland’s Sanctuary status, saying “Because these jurisdictions prevent ICE from arresting criminal aliens in the secure confines of a jail, they also force ICE officers to make more arrests out in the community.” San Francisco isn’t protecting anyone from ICE, they just don’t want to help them do their dirty work, and even that isn’t always true. During the Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin (FIT) this August, SFPD actively cooperated with federal enforcement agents, including ICE, and helped them arrest 37 Central American immigrants under the guise of drug enforcement.  How is that resisting the Trump immigration agenda, or protecting undocumented San Franciscans?

As it turns out, San Francisco being a “Sanctuary City” doesn’t do a whole lot for the immigrants struggling every day to live in a city that’s constantly trying to price them out, or for the ones living in constant fear of ICE coming for them or their families. It does, however, seem to make a lot of people who have never known either of those struggles feel better about their immense privilege. It’s almost like that’s been the true purpose of those words all along; like the question to ask isn’t “is this city a sanctuary?” but “who is it a sanctuary for?”

*Names were changed to protect privacy