Before an audience of several hundred people crammed into a Denver-area community center in April 2017, twelve-year-old Luna Vizguerra confidently approached a podium in front of the standing-room only crowd. Through an interpreter, she spoke directly to the few council members present at the event:
“Good evening. I am the daughter of Jeanette Vizguerra. I am here to talk not so much about her sanctuary but sanctuary policy here in Denver. There are people that are afraid to use the word ‘sanctuary’ but we are talking about the effect here in Denver of having these policy changes. We want to talk about what this policy would do to protect immigrants so that they won’t be afraid of the police and what is happening with this new administration. We don’t want children to live in fear, and we want you as elected officials to take your responsibility seriously so this won’t happen” (Colorado People’s Action 2017).
Luna, the daughter of the Denver woman who gained national attention when she sought sanctuary at a local church after being denied a stay of deportation, garnered thunderous applause at the “Make Denver a True Sanctuary City” community meeting. The meeting was intended to urge elected officials to declare Denver a sanctuary city to protect the thousands of undocumented immigrants living and working in the community.
Efforts by cities, municipalities, and even colleges and universities to offer sanctuary to immigrants are not new. The Sanctuary Movement began in the 1980s when churches played a central role in providing refuge to Central Americans fleeing their homes as a result of civil strife (see https://www.jstor.org/stable/2579299?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). The movement has since spread to other countries in response to the growing number of displaced refugees and asylees throughout the world.
While religious communities have been at the forefront of such efforts, the re-emergent interest and support for sanctuary is a response to (1) the current administration’s ratcheting-up of anti- immigrant policies; and (2) continued barriers to federal immigration reform. Fearing immigrant communities are being targeted, profiled, and vilified, sanctuary advocates have taken the fight to the local level, in many cases, pushing for sanctuary status and aligning themselves with new partners, including churches.
The cities of Denver and Colorado Springs present interesting case studies of how this fight is unfolding, each challenging some of what we know about the emergence of social movement activism and political opportunity theory in particular. Political opportunity theory holds that some environments are more receptive to social movement activism and invite mobilization, whereas others are less inviting (https://www.jstor.org/stable/3598442?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents). Additionally, elite support and progressive political climates are generally theorized as being more amenable to movement activism (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2782114?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents).
Colorado Spring is considered more politically conservative than its neighbor to the north, consistently ranking as one of the most conservative cities in the country, and less racially/ethnically diverse while Denver is considered more progressive and diverse. The results of the 2016 presidential election bear this out: Denver County went for Clinton over Trump 73.7 percent to 18.9 percent (https://www.denvergov.org/electionresults#/results/20161108) whereas El Paso County went for Trump over Clinton by 56.2 percent to 33.8 percent (http://www.elpasoelections.com/2016General/Results/results.html). Denver is also well-known for being the hotbed of social activism beginning with the Crusade for Justice in the 1970s to more recent efforts to end a 2006 show-me-your-papers law while also passing a driver license bill for undocumented drivers and in-state tuition measure for immigrant students. Colorado Springs, on the other hand, was the birthplace of the libertarian Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), which prevented local and state governments from raising taxes without voter approval. Yet, despite what political opportunity theory would predict, Colorado Springs is making significant progress in becoming a sanctuary city relative to Denver.
The Colorado Springs Sanctuary Coalition (CSSC) has played a central role in mobilizing local church members, immigration advocates, and elected officials to declare Colorado Springs a sanctuary city. Furthermore, their mission is to “protect undocumented immigrants from imprisonment, the risk of removal and state violence at the hands of police and aggressive ICE agents” (http://www.thepetitionsite.com/347/877/445/we-support-sanctuary-city-for-colorado-springs/). The group’s early successes in pushing for sanctuary stems from the growing hostility directed at immigrant communities as a result of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. Given the administration’s vows to step-up deportations, members of the Colorado Springs community are making progress in mobilizing in support of sanctuary.
Chris Lasch, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Denver, has been at the forefront of pushing for Denver to be declared a sanctuary city or, what he terms, a “constitutional community,” co-authoring much of the policy that was presented at the April community meeting. Although a representative for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and the other elected officials present at the meeting vowed to support immigrant communities, keep them safe, and prevent them from being torn apart because of immigration policies, all stopped short of supporting sanctuary status. Lasch described their non-commitment as “disappointing but not surprising.”
Just last week (July 2017), however, two of the council members present at the April meeting, Robin Kniech and Paul Lopez, introduced a draft of a bill that would “codify and clarify Denver’s practices around federal immigration enforcement and interacting with ICE” (http://www.westword.com/content/printView/9274650), perhaps signaling elite support and a new political opportunity.
There are indications that smaller-scale, local activism is making a difference. This past May, Jeanette Vizguerra was issued a two-year stay and returned home to her family after community members and immigrant rights organizations rallied in support of her cause. She remains active in the sanctuary movement, speaking on behalf of undocumented immigrants living in fear of deportation and advocating for sanctuary policies. She was honored for this work by being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2017.
Currently, immigrant rights activists in Colorado Springs and Denver are working tirelessly to take advantage of open political opportunity structures. Their work is indicative of more localized efforts to bring about social change in the face of barriers to federal reform. They are also responding to the increasingly hostile environments facing undocumented immigrants, bringing about social movements in likely and seemingly unlikely places. Thus, the current political climate is compelling activists to find new opportunities and partners to resist Trump-era policies.