Amid renewed debate on national immigration policies, New Haven community members gathered Monday night for a heated discussion on the various definitions of sanctuary cities — municipalities that refuse to assist federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers.
The public forum, held at Gateway Community College, attracted more than 100 attendees from across the state who discussed the meaning of sanctuaries and how current policies should be updated in light of President Donald Trump’s administration. In his first two months in office, Trump has sought to crack down on illegal immigrants and restrict immigration from several Muslim-majority countries. In one executive order on Jan. 25, Trump pledged to defund cities that continue to enforce their sanctuary policies.
Monday’s event kicked off with a round of brief speeches from a panel composed of both local and state officials — such as Connecticut Republican Party Chairman Jared Romano and Tomas Reyes, the chief of staff to Mayor Toni Harp — as well as Unidad Latina en Acción activist John Lugo and Kica Matos, a director at the Center for Community Change.
In their speeches, multiple speakers recognized that the concept of a sanctuary city is only given meaning by a collection of immigrant-friendly policies that organizations such as City Hall and the New Haven Police Department have adopted for more than a decade.
Matos, a long-term local advocate for immigrant rights, spoke about the Elm City’s experience with a 2007 federal immigration raid, which resulted in the arrest of 32 Fair Haven residents, and the legislative progress that sprung up during that time. Matos highlighted the importance of the Elm City Residence Card, a system implemented in 2007 that allows residents to access public services such as public schools and libraries, regardless of immigration status.
ULA founding member Lugo said his organization is currently focused on educating the undocumented community about its constitutional rights, like remaining silent when they encounter law enforcement, and creating forms that would allow undocumented families to transfer power of attorney in the event of their arrests. He also added that activist organizations must collaborate regardless of the targets of their advocacy efforts.
“That’s a conversation that we have all the time,” Lugo said. “We cannot fight this fight alone. We have to fight together with other organizations who are also attacked by this administration.”
Reyes said in his speech that New Haven is committed to its welcoming immigrant policies, but noted that the title of sanctuary city might put a target on the Elm City, which already has a history of conflict with ICE. He added that the community should “prepare for the inevitable” because he believes New Haven might soon experience ICE raids.
On the other hand, Matos defended the importance of the sanctuary city label for New Haven, and added that the name can calm undocumented immigrants living in fear and uncertainty, especially since Trump ascended to the presidential seat. She said, for instance, that she received text messages from undocumented families the day after Trump’s election win that detailed the “abject terror” some immigrants feel toward violent deportations.
“Having officials openly saying that we are a sanctuary city means a lot to them,” Matos said. “What we do and say matter a lot to the people living in fear right now.”
Another piece of city policy that has been lauded as immigrant-inclusive is the 2006 NHPD General Order that relieved its officers from participating in federal immigration operations. According to NHPD Interim Chief Anthony Campbell ’95 DIV ’09, who spoke at the event, this separation of federal and local responsibilities builds trust between the NHPD and the undocumented population, a demographic that was a frequent target of crime and abuse prior to the 2006 general order.
Monday’s discussion included a spectrum of views on the current treatment of undocumented immigrants, some of which offered an alternative perspective on the fairness of allowing them to assimilate into society. Romano said although immigration is a difficult and emotional issue for many people, the community needs to be aware of other opinions in order to push for reforms. He offered the murder of 25-year-old Casey Chadwick, who was killed by an undocumented immigrant in Norwich in 2015, as an example cited by community members who perceive illegal immigration as unfair and harmful to society.
“What happened to Casey was real. We have to deal with perspectives and reality,” Romano said. “We need to streamline our immigration reform. But we can’t ignore that crime has been committed in this community.”
Monday’s event was cosponsored by the New England News Collaborative, WSHU and WNPR.
Correction, March 28: A previous version of this article misstated Kica Matos’ title. She is a director at the Center for Community Change, not an activist with Unidad Latina en Acción.
Correction, March 31: A previous version of this article misstated the roles of WSHU, WNPR and ULA in organizing the event. WSHU and WNPR co-sponsored the event and ULA was invited to participate.