Seattle Mayor Ed Murray addressing members of the press on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 about Seattle’s role as a welcoming city and sanctuary city. • Photo by Lexi Potter

Following the election of Donald Trump, Mayor Ed Murray announced that Seattle will continue to be a “sanctuary city.” The term “sanctuary city,” which has no legal definition, usually means that local police will not cooperate with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in identifying and arresting undocumented immigrants. On top of this, the City of Seattle is trying to be a “welcoming city,” a label with no national definition. What does the term mean in Seattle? And can we push the meanings of the terms sanctuary and welcoming to include more services and protections for immigrants and refugees, both authorized and non-authorized or undocumented?

Joaquin Uy, an ethnic media and communications specialist at the Seattle Office of Immigrants and Refugee Affairs (OIRA), wrote in an email that Seattle has several laws in place that contribute to its sanctuary status for undocumented immigrants, such as:

Seattle Ordinance 121063 (2003). City of Seattle officer or employees are instructed to not ask for citizenship status of any person with several exceptions.

Seattle Resolution 30672 (2004). City of Seattle services are accessible to all regardless of citizenship status and other identities.

Seattle Resolution 31539 (2014). Organizations funded by the City of Seattle cannot take a person’s immigration status into consideration for accessing services.

King County Ordinance 17886 (2014). King County does not honor detainer requests from ICE for undocumented individuals who are arrested for low-level crimes.

But Seattle is doing more for immigrants and refugees.

“Increasingly, municipalities across the U.S. are using the term ‘welcoming city’ or ‘welcoming community’ to describe their comprehensive immigrant integration efforts,” wrote Uy.

OIRA has seen what it calls significant growth under Mayor Murray. For example, last fall, OIRA started a new citizenship campaign that provides Citizenship Workshops to give immigrants free-of-charge assistance to complete their federal naturalization application.

So far, OIRA has done two workshops, and the third will be on January 20, which coincides with Inauguration Day. OIRA will provide service for everyone who shows up as time allows. Though the event is marketed for Seattle and King County residents, Cuc Vu, director of OIRA, said they will not refuse service for those who reside outside the sanctuary and welcoming limits of Seattle.

There are several other reasons to call Seattle a welcoming city. The City of Seattle declared itself a DACA-friendly city in 2013. The recently-formed Gender Equity, Safe Communities & New Americans Committee chaired by Councilmember Lorena González has a specific focus on protecting the rights of immigrants and refugees.

Recently, Murray allocated $250,000 to aid children from immigrant and refugee families. Murray has said that some of the funding will be used to provide immigrant-rights training to Seattle Public Schools teachers, counselors, and administrators—which is badly needed, according to Alejandra Pérez, an organizer for undocumented rights.

“Right now undocumented folks are being overworked to teach Know Your Rights [workshops] to our community and we have no budget for it,” said Pérez.

Pérez, an undocumented immigrant who moved from Guatemala at 12 years old, said that she is skeptical about the City of Seattle’s claim that it’s a welcoming city. “It looks like it’s very centered on folks who are able to become citizens. It’s very exclusionary. The fact that there’s a new citizenship campaign, a new citizenship program, loans for ‘aspiring Americans’—things that undocumented folks do not have access to because we can’t follow a path to citizenship,” Perez said. Furthermore, though she is protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Act (DACA), many undocumented people are not, including her mother.

Vu said that what OIRA staff has been hearing from undocumented residents in this new political environment is that access to affordable or free legal services is their greatest need.

“If you go to a lawyer, they can charge you anywhere from $200 to $500 an hour,” Vu said. “What the City is doing is pulling together this incredible community that has decided to stand up for its immigrant and refugee neighbors. Particularly lawyers. Both immigration lawyers and non-immigration attorneys have said, ‘We will provide these services for free.’ So we’re organizing that for our event on the 20th but we also want to make that available throughout the year.”

Vu mentioned the importance of family safety planning in preparation of many families to be separated. “They need lawyers to help them craft documents that spell out guardianship, protection of property, healthcare decisions, and other things that I think many of us hadn’t thought about because never really thought we would be in this situation,” said Vu.

Pérez and Vu both said that access to legal services could also help undocumented immigrants to explore different types of visas that they previously were not eligible for.

“The only other path we have is to push for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to legal status,” said Vu.

Amidst all of this, Pérez is creating a safe haven for her own family. Equipped with her DACA, social security number, and salary from her full-time job, she is finally actualizing her family’s 10-year dream of owning a house—an upgrade from the one bedroom apartment she has been sharing with her mother and younger brother. She had signed the loan paperwork two days after Trump won the election.

To her, the house will be a form of sanctuary space. “You can’t take me out. I’m buying a house, I’m staying,” Pérez said.

OIRA is offering free legal services and information for immigrants on January 20 at McCaw Hall at Seattle Center. For more information, visit

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