Takoma Park’s history as a sanctuary city

by Christopher Miller

With the election of President Trump and his recent executive orders to ban Muslims from the country and deport undocumented immigrants, Takoma Park has drawn a firm line in the sand: “People should know that Takoma Park remains a sanctuary city,” said Mayor Kate Stewart.

And Takoma Park has remained a sanctuary city—where immigrants and refugees alike are sheltered from being questioned about their citizenship status—since 1985.

How Takoma Park became a Sanctuary City

In the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador fled to the United States to escape civil war. But President Reagan and the federal government claimed they were “economic refugees,” ineligible for political asylum. As a result, the Immigration and Nationalization Service (INS)—precursor to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement–arrested them and deported them back to their war-torn homelands.

During the same time, a national grassroots movement, led by churches, synagogues and community organizations, started that offered sanctuary and assistance to refugees. In addition to the religious institutions, five cities—Berkeley, Cambridge, Madison, Chicago and St. Paul– passed resolutions that declared sanctuary, and protection from INS, for the refugees.

This national sanctuary movement helped lead to a series of resolutions initiated and adopted by Mayor Sam Abbott and the Takoma Park City Council.

In 1985, Takoma Park councilmember Lou D’Ovidio introduced an ordinance declaring Takoma Park an official sanctuary city. The vote unanimously passed—councilmembers D’Ovidio, Bradley, Dalmat, Iddings and Aldrighetti all approved the ordinance—and on October 28, 1985, the ordinance was adopted by Abbott and the council. Takoma Park became the sixth sanctuary city.

“They were thinking globally and acting locally,” said Nancy Abbott Young, daughter of Mayor Abbott.

But this was nothing new for Abbott and Takoma Park. Sometimes known as the People’s Republic of Takoma Park–the town blocked a major freeway scheduled to run through the town in the 1960s and declared itself a “nuclear free zone” in 1983–the city has never shied away from political activism.

The organization CASA de Maryland, a Latino and immigrants-advocacy group based in Takoma Park, was also created in 1985 to provide assistance to the Central American refugees.

“He [Abbott] was a coalition builder and a consummate strategist, but everything was done in coalition with others and it was during that era (60s, 70s, 80s) that Takoma Park transformed into the progressive community it’s known as today,” said Abbott Young.

About The Ordinance

The sanctuary ordinance has been amended numerous times since 1985, the last in 2007.

The current ordinance contains four main sections.

Section 9.04.010: No police officers of employees of the city shall help the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrest people for civil or criminal violations of the immigration and nationality laws of the United States.

Section 9.04.020: No officers or employees shall ask any person about his or her citizenship or immigration status.

Section 9.04.030: No officers or employees shall discriminate against a person on the basis of citizenship or immigration status.

Section 9.04.040: No officers or employees shall release information regarding a person’s citizenship or immigration status to any third party.

The Future of Takoma Park

With Trump’s plan to aggressively arrest and deport illegal immigrants, regardless if they have committed serious crimes and his threats to cut funding to sanctuary cities, Takoma Park finds itself in a precarious position.

“The impact of federal actions on Takoma Park as a Sanctuary City is uncertain at this point,” said City Manager Suzanne Ludlow.

But she said that because Takoma Park does not hold prisoners–once arrested they are transferred to Montgomery County— “we may not be triggering the major sanctions identified in the executive orders.”

Stewart has even discussed the idea of creating a legal defense fund for the immigrants who are questioned and later detained for violating federal immigration laws.

State lawmakers recently introduced the Trust Act in the General Assembly, which would make it harder across the state for local police to comply with the federal government to detain immigrants. The act already had a legislative hearing in the Senate and has a Feb. 28 hearing in the House.

Takoma Park though is not going to stop welcoming immigrants and refugees to their town. Shortly after Stewart and the city council passed a resolution welcoming Syrian refugees in 2015, The Takoma Park Welcoming Committee for Syrian Families was created to determine how best to accommodate Syrian families who may come to Takoma Park.

After Trump’s election, Takoma Park Mobilization was formed. The website states that “The Takoma Park Mobilization is neighbors working together to engage our community and take action to support ALL our neighbors.” The group consists of 13 smaller committees, each dealing with specific issues. One of the committees is the Immigration, Sanctuary, Muslim Working Group. The group has over 1,200 members, said Abbott Young.

Abbott Young believes that Takoma Park is the same inclusive, progressive city that it was when her father was mayor. “And perhaps most significantly, and very much in the spirit of my Dad and the City Council and activists of 1985,” she said, “the whole community has mobilized with a new generation of activists.”

She added, “The community stands strong in its ongoing support of the Sanctuary City Ordinance, and for Mayor Stewart and the City Council of 2017 as they wage the latest battle to keep justice and human rights at the very center of the identity of the incorporated City of Takoma Park, MD.”