Hilda Ramirez and her son, Ivan, with organizers and supporters at a socially-distanced celebration behind a sanctuary church in Austin.
Immigrant leaders who have been locked in sanctuary — refuge like churches and schools where federal immigration enforcement historically do not enter because they are considered “sensitive locations” — secured a major victory in the national Democratic party platform. An amendment introduced by El Paso city council member Alexsandra Annello, a Sen. Bernie Sanders national delegate, reaffirms “enforcement officials’ ability to engage in the pre-Trump practice of prosecutorial discretion,” and promises protection “from [ICE] retaliating against individuals for their political speech or activity, or because of their efforts to advocate for individuals’ rights.”
Prosecutorial discretion provides federal immigration officers the authority to decline to arrest, charge, or detain immigrants who may otherwise be subject to deportation. Law enforcement officers often exercise this discretion in non-immigration cases when declining to arrest people for minor infractions like jaywalking and traffic violations.
This discretion broadly allows federal enforcement agents, like ICE officers and Border Patrol agents, to grant immigrants relief from deportation. This relief protects immigrants from returning to the violent and dangerous conditions that they fled from in the first place.
For years, under former President Barack Obama’s administration, prosecutorial discretion was used to consider specific humanitarian factors, and criminal and national security threat levels. In short, ICE was encouraged to use their discretion in order to provide humanitarian relief to immigrants by indefinitely suspending their deportation.
In January 2017, however, President Donald Trump issued an executive order as part of his administration’s zero-tolerance agenda that made all immigrants high-priority for deportation, and directed ICE to halt use of prosecutorial discretion — effectively ending federal immigration official’s ability to grant relief from deportation to any immigrant, for any reason. The order was intended to ramp up criminal prosecution of immigrants, and soon led to hundreds of immigrant children being separated from their families at the Texas-Mexico border from deportation proceedings.
Trump also directed ICE to review and re-open almost all previously closed cases that had been administratively closed, leaving every undocumented immigrant exposed for possible deportation.
In response to Trump’s oppressive order, dozens of immigrant leaders were confined to fight and seek sanctuary for years after exhausting all other forms of relief — or face deportation that could tear apart families or lead to death in their home country. Many sought sanctuary in “sensitive locations,” such as places of worship and schools that ICE agents historically do not enter, and thus cannot begin deportation proceedings. With many in sanctuary actively fighting deportation orders and facing fines up to half a million dollars, immigrant leaders have vocally called out the administration’s deadly injustice.
In 2020, immigrant leaders living in sanctuary fought for, inspired, and shaped the successful national Democratic Party platform amendment introduced by Annello to re-open the use of prosecutorial discretion.
Hilda Ramirez, an asylum-seeker who fled domestic violence in her native Guatemala in 2014, was at the frontlines of pushing this amendment. Ramirez and her 14-year-old son, Ivan, have been living in sanctuary at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin for four years. She is a leader at the Austin Sanctuary Network, a coalition of faith and non-profit organizations that serve immigrants and asylum seekers fleeing from violence or facing deportation.
For Ramirez, the inclusion of the prosecutorial discretion represents a path to liberation and survival for her and other immigrant leaders in sanctuary across the country who have exhausted all other efforts for relief from deportation.
The amendment, a broad commitment to the immigrant community, also represents hope.
“It’s like you’re in a long, dark tunnel, and far at the end you begin to see a little ray of light, and we’re heading down that tunnel following that light,” Ramirez said.
Her sentiments are shared by other leaders who helped push the amendment through the Democratic party platform, and stand to benefit from its possible prosecutorial protection.
“I am so moved that there are [Democratic leaders] who want to fight to liberate us,” said Alirio Gamez, an immigrant leader in sanctuary at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin who fled violence and threats to his life in El Salvador. While living in sanctuary, Gamez developed diabetes from compounding mental, emotional, and physical health trauma. The amendment offers a powerful commitment of change from Democrats for him and scores of others.
“It gives me so much more hope that I’ll live,” he said.
In resistance to Trump’s draconian and dangerous policies against the immigrant community, immigrant leaders like Ramirez and Gamez, in danger of deportation themselves, have helmed an effort to transform how society treats immigrants. That transformation, and the new Democratic party platform amendment, is a promise for a more humane immigration system in America.
Correction August 19, 2020: An earlier version of this article incorrectly associated sanctuary cities, which limit cooperation with federal immigration officials, with sanctuary churches, which ICE agents historically do not enter as they are designated “sensitive locations.”
Photo: Solvei Praxis