The city of Gainesville says it supports the undocumented. But what is it actually doing to protect them?
In February 2016, the city commission approved a proclamation to make Gainesville Florida’s first “welcoming city.” This proclamation was celebrated by many as Gainesville’s first step to becoming a sanctuary city, which refers to cities that don’t comply with the federal government’s immigration policies.
Something should alarm you that all is not what it seems. Welcoming America, the organization Gainesville pledged to join, defines a “welcoming city” as one that works to create “inclusive policies or practices” that make it “easier for entrepreneurs to start a business.”
10 months later, after the election of Trump, Gainesville doubled down on its “welcoming city” status by holding a candle-lighting ceremony on the steps of City Hall. But just a few weeks later, commissioner Robert Hutchinson told the Sun: “The county and city will wait for guidance from the Sheriff’s Office before considering becoming an official sanctuary city.”
Since Gainesville became a welcoming city, our public officials have emphasized their commitment to our immigrant communities through one ceremony after another. But are these efforts just an attempt market Gainesville as a progressive oasis? If this city truly is a welcoming, why has it not passed any legislation to actually help the undocumented?
For decades, advocates have effectively organized for sanctuary communities outside the traditional political sphere. The American sanctuary movement began in the 1980s with acts of noncompliance from private citizens and organizations—that is, civil disobedience.
“The county and city will wait for guidance from the Sheriff’s Office before considering becoming an official sanctuary city.”
In 1985, Guatemala and El Salvador were embroiled in bloody civil wars, and the governments in both countries were carrying out death squads against civilians. But the Reagan administration financially supported these regimes and blocked any action from the federal government to help those fleeing. In defiance of federal law, churches in the southwest created a grassroots movement to harbor refugees. Law enforcement were tasked with detaining the undocumented, like they are today. But refugees were safe in churches, the one place police would not enter.
Xenophobic policies that have isolated and effectively criminalized minorities are as American as apple pie or baseball. They have been normalized and perpetuated by every facet of our society. Japanese internment camps during World War II and Native American genocide are glossed over in schools as American exploits we should be proud of or the costs of justified wars and colonization. Immigration quotas and travel bans have been part of American foreign and domestic policy for decades, and they represent how we’ve been conditioned to identify who is “American” enough to live here.
Despite the systemic xenophobia throughout our history, the crisis we’re currently experiencing is unique. Beginning with Bill Clinton, the monthly averages for deportation have increased and surpassed those for any president going back to 1892. The Obama administration continued this at an unprecedented level and somehow managed to avoid sustained backlash from the mainstream left. Criticism of these practices became counterculture; the infrastructure necessary to deport mass numbers of people flourished. President Trump, who wishes to grow those xenophobic policies, inherited a well-oiled machine.
We must acknowledge that change won’t come from law enforcement or our government. It has to come from us.
The day-to-day hardships of undocumented individuals demands more than just a pathway to citizenship or a candle-lighting ceremony. Many activists who organize for undocumented communities also organize for fair pay, equitable education and accessible housing—Gainesville can’t say it has any of these things for the undocumented. It’s important to take this fight to state and local legislatures across the country, but we must remember that elected officials often fall short of the ideal.
Instead of passing legislation to help immigrant communities, Gainesville has leaned on its law enforcement to resist the federal government. This might make it easier for entrepreneurs to start a business, but it doesn’t make Latino communities—who are especially targeted—feel safer. The Alachua County Sheriff’s Office is still legally obligated to honor warrants and judicial orders for undocumented individuals. If Gainesville truly wants to be a welcoming city, it needs to do more than trust its law enforcement to resist the federal government.
Relying on law enforcement undermines community security and effectively deprives immigrant communities equitable protection. A 2013 study from PolicyLink, a research and action institute dedicated to social and economic equity for people of color, found that 44 percent of Latinos were less likely to cooperate with police officers if they were a victim of a violent crime. This was primarily out of fear that police would take advantage of the interaction to inquire about their immigration status or the status of people they know. In that same study it was determined that 70 percent of respondents were less likely to contact law enforcement if they were ever the victims of a crime.
We need to show the undocumented that they’re welcome in our community, and we also need to pressure all levels of our government into action. History supports the notion that real change comes from those who organize, not those who occupy the halls of power. Government, by design, protects and maintains the status quo, so a fundamental shift in our community and our values cannot come from public officials alone.
On May 1, 2017, Mayor Lauren Poe and Commissioner Ken Cornell declared the day “Immigrant Rights Day” in Gainesville, seemingly another important milestone for public officials who wanted embrace the image of a welcoming city.
But we need to remember: At the end of the day, this was just a rally. It doesn’t address the real concerns of equitable access to education or housing. It doesn’t increase access to public welfare programs. Actions and rallies like these create a powerful narrative, but we need to remember that public officials are limited by their position. We are all responsible for making this community more perfect for the undocumented. We must acknowledge that change won’t come from law enforcement or our government. It has to come from us. •