As Donald Trump begins his crackdown against refugees and immigrants in the US, Bette Browne looks at the history of a movement trying to maintain American values
THE US sanctuary movement that shields illegal immigrants, many thousands of whom are Irish, could be described at the conscience of America as it battles President Donald Trump’s efforts to bring it to heel.
But Mr Trump is not the first US president to take on the movement. In its previous incarnation, back in the 1980s, some of its leaders were imprisoned when they defied similar efforts by another Republican president, Ronald Reagan.
Where the threat then was prison, the threat now is a financial one in the form of a potential cut-off of billions of dollars in state and local funding from Washington unless mayors abandon the concept of sanctuary cities.
Details of an executive order signed by Mr Trump on Wednesday directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to look at federal funding to cities to figure out “how we can defund those streams” remain vague but it could jeopardise billions of dollars in housing, health, education, and other types of federal aid.
Some are casting the issue as a David and Goliath struggle in which plucky states and cities defending their most vulnerable communities are pitted against the might and money of the federal government.
The Trump administration, however, tends to cast the issue in terms of national security in the post-9/11 era, while his opponents counter that the new president is simply exploiting the issue to consolidate his power, having demonised immigrants and other vulnerable groups during his election.
The sanctuary movement began over 30 years ago as a religious and political campaign championed by progressive American Catholics and other religious groups, who saw it as their duty to provide a safe haven for vulnerable refugees, some fleeing death squads in US-backed conflicts in a number of Central American countries.
By declaring themselves official “sanctuaries,” such groups committed to providing shelter, material goods and legal advice to these Central American refugees faced with government policies that made obtaining asylum almost impossible.
Many who found their way to the United States were placed in detention centres and sent home, where they sometimes disappeared or were tortured or killed.
The movement originated in Mexico and Arizona and quickly gained momentum, spreading across a number of states and cities, and was particularly strong in Chicago, Philadelphia, California and Texas.
In the mid and late 1980s, a number of its leaders, many of them religious figures, were arrested and put on trial for defying federal laws.
By 1985, with more than 10,000 people reported killed in conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala, sanctuary became a national movement with some 500 member-sites across the United States taking part.
Activists developed a number of safe routes for transporting people to communities that sheltered them.
The movement was sometimes compared to the “Underground Railroad” a century earlier when a network of secret routes and safe houses were used by thousands of African-American slaves to escape from the south to free northern states and to Canada, helped by sympathetic abolitionists.
The US Immigration and Naturalization Service began to crack down on sanctuary movement members by the mid-1980s, which culminated in a series of high-profile trials on “alien smuggling” charges in Texas and Arizona.
These became known as the “sanctuary trials”, sparking a national outcry and demonstrations in many cities, especially as a number of those on trial were either priests or nuns.
In the end, most of the “sanctuary defendants” received suspended sentences or short periods of house arrests and the government eventually granted asylum status to many of the refugees involved in the trials.
By 1989, President Reagan’s term had ended and there were moves in Congress to ease immigration and naturalisation policies for those from Central America states and other countries, including Ireland.
Over the next decade Irish-American leaders like the late Senator Ted Kennedy continued to work on immigration reform.
In recent years, however, Republicans in the House of Representative blocked reform measures that would have eventually led to a path to citizenship for illegals.
It is against this background that the role of sanctuary cities in helping such illegals has once again come centre stage under the Trump presidency.
While the federal government accuses these sanctuary cities of thwarting the efforts of the immigration authorities to seize and deport illegals, the mayors have said their job is to protect their communities not to do the work of implementing and assisting federal immigration officials.
The level of “sanctuary” also varies from city to city and state to state.
While some cities and counties merely refuse detention requests against immigrants, other communities instruct their local police not to ask about immigration status, and still others issue identification cards and driver’s licences to undocumented immigrants, as well as providing other services.
Speaking at the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday, Mr Trump singled out sanctuary cities as causing “immeasurable harm” to the American people by refusing to help the federal government identify and deport undocumented residents.
It’s not yet clear if his move is targeting all illegals or those convicted of crimes.
He went on to direct the department to examine ways to limit “federal funds, except as mandated by law” to sanctuary cities, sending shockwaves through city halls and across the country.
Many mayors were defiant, however. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the Irish-speaking son of Connemara emigrants, pledged to use all city resources to protect the city’s illegal immigrants “even if that means using City Hall itself as a last resort.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was similarly defiant, while Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel vowed his city would defend its illegal immigrants, including the Irish.
“We’re going to stay a sanctuary city,” Emanuel pledged. “We welcome people, whether you’re from Poland or Pakistan, whether you’re from Ireland or India or Israel, and whether you’re from Mexico or Moldova, where my grandfather came from, you are welcome in Chicago as you pursue the American Dream.”
All of which puts the mayors and their cities on a collision course with President Trump’s version of that dream.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved