The city I call home—Washington, DC—is a sanctuary city, a place that has affirmed that law enforcement will protect and serve all residents, regardless of immigration status and mandates at the federal level. Within days of the inauguration, our new administration announced that sanctuary cities would face the loss of federal funds if they did not help enforce existing and new federal immigration law. Public opinion may be in favor of this decision: Results from a recent Harvard-Harris Poll survey published by the Hill indicate eight out of 10 voters believe local law enforcement officials should be forced to report undocumented immigrants to U.S. immigration agents.
What I am hearing in the current rhetoric, executive orders, and directives on immigration is antithetical to the immigrant story I have witnessed for most of my adult life. It is an attack on our nation’s story of welcoming immigrants to our shores.
This escalating campaign of fear and persecution compels me to share my story, to tell you why DC and other cities have declared themselves sanctuaries, in defense of the immigrant community members who make up the very fabric of our American lives.
I have lived in Washington, DC, for most of my adult life. It is a city with a strong international presence and has always been a magnet for new immigrants. The city’s immigrants make up a significant portion of the workforce and, most importantly, contribute to the cultural and economic life of the city.
I grew up in a second generation immigrant Jewish family in San Antonio, Texas, a town with deep roots in both U.S. and Mexican culture. My paternal grandparents came through Ellis Island fleeing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s, and through twists and turns, ended up in Texas.
My maternal grandfather’s boat from the Soviet Union landed in Galveston. That’s where my grandfather met my grandmother who was born there. I learned Spanish in school because the language was valued as a part of San Antonio and Texas history. The beauty of Mexican culture was fused into the fabric of life in San Antonio. Growing up, my mother ran a gallery that always featured American and Mexican artists.
What began as my volunteer effort after college at the Latin American Youth Center (LAYC) decades ago has ended up being my life’s work. I became the President & CEO in 1987 and have had the privilege since of serving thousands of Latino and African-American low-income youth and families. As I reflect on my past, I know that it was no coincidence that I landed at LAYC shortly after college. Having grown up in San Antonio I felt very comfortable living and working in a neighborhood where Spanish was spoken and Latino store owners were a vibrant part of our neighborhood.
While visiting DC, I was taken with the mix of cultures in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood: young Americans and Latinos from many countries coming to DC to flee political persecution. The young adults who founded LAYC left their countries behind, just as my grandparents did, and they were beginning new lives in a new land. LAYC’s founders wanted to support newly arrived immigrants and build bridges between the city’s new residents and those who have lived here for many years, primarily from the African-American community.
In the decades since, about 75,000 young people and their families have walked through LAYC’s doors—currently, about 4,000 per year. Youth find supportive adults and safe spaces to participate in educational, employment, and social service programs that help them navigate a successful pathway towards adulthood. Our young people become educators, health care workers, business men and women, musicians, journalists, and more. All have a profound appreciation for the culture and society that offered them political freedom and economic opportunities, and they all make significant contributions to our neighborhood, city and country.
In my sanctuary city, our leaders are committed to protecting the bonds we have as a community, the bonds I experience every day at LAYC. We look out for each other, no matter what’s happening at the national level. The fear of immigrants directly contradicts the everyday experiences of millions of American citizens like me, who live and work side-by-side with refugees and immigrants, regardless of when they arrived.
But the administration and many members of Congress are crushing immigrant dreams and stirring a debilitating fear in hearts, homes, schools, and communities all over the nation. Here in DC, for example, teachers have noticed a decline in undocumented immigrant children attending school, an indication that these lawful students may fear ICE raids while they are in class. We have also seen a rapid increase in hate crimes and bullying in many settings. It is not difficult to link our new public discourse on immigration to the rise in anti-Semitic violence, for example, a terrible reminder of what my grandparents were facing in Eastern Europe in the early 1900’s. The administration’s attempts to broaden the definition of a criminal to include all undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of whom have no criminal record and pose no threat to national security, is an attack on a founding principle of our nation. The cruel nature of our leaders’ actions and words are literally keeping children from pursuing their futures and spawning hatred, resentment, and bullying.
Because I live and work in a sanctuary city that may be punished financially for protecting its community members, I fear for LAYC’s continued ability to support and advocate for local youth and families. Along with my other colleagues who work with immigrant youth around the country, I will continue to fight every day for the values of inclusion, kinship, and resilience represented by our nation’s immigrant story and the sanctuary cities that hold up these values even when policy makers have targeted them.
Lori Kaplan is President & CEO of the Latin American Youth Center, a nationally recognized agency serving low-income youth of all backgrounds in DC and Maryland.