Undocumented immigrants define “sanctuary city” as a shield from deportation.

Police chiefs and sheriffs define it as a Band-Aid to the larger problem of illegal immigration.

No Safe Place

Cities trying to balance American ideals with a broken federal immigration system have found themselves in Donald Trump’s political crosshairs.

But for some grieving Americans, sanctuary cities represent injustice and loss.

Cities trying to balance American ideals with a broken federal immigration system have found themselves in Donald Trump’s political crosshairs.

On a Wednesday evening in July — fifteen days after Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign by painting a picture of the United States besieged by crime and illegal immigration — shots rang out along the San Francisco pier.

Kate Steinle, 32, was walking along the city’s touristy promenade when a bullet struck her in the back. She screamed for her father, Jim, as she collapsed to the ground. He tried to save her by performing CPR until help arrived, but it was too late. Kate Steinle died in the hospital hours later.

Authorities would later find that an undocumented immigrant with a long criminal record had pulled the trigger. Police arrested and charged Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, a man with seven felony convictions to his name and who had been deported back to Mexico five times. He had even been in police custody for a separate crime just months before the shooting. But Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) never took Lopez-Sanchez into custody once he was released from jail. Instead of being deported, Lopez-Sanchez was able to stand at a crowded U.S. landmark with a gun in his hand.

Critics said that the city of San Francisco could have prevented Kate Steinle’s death. For more than three decades, it had billed itself as a safe haven for immigrants. Known to immigration advocates as a “sanctuary city,” San Francisco barred local police from helping federal authorities kick out any immigrants that came to the U.S. illegally.

The policy was largely symbolic. City officials didn’t have the power to outright stop the federal government from deporting people in their community. But in the spirit of America’s founding principles as a nation of immigrants, sanctuary cities act as a protective shield, standing in the way of federal efforts to pinpoint and deport people at random.

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Men play cards along the sidewalk of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

Before Kate Steinle’s death, the term “sanctuary city” had been hardly known outside the advocacy world. But now it was at the forefront of a bitter public debate over immigration.

In Washington, D.C., Congressional Republicans attempted to pass a pair of bills to force sanctuary cities to detain undocumented immigrants until the ICE could deport them. They threatened to take away federal funding from police departments that refused to cooperate. A handful of state legislatures were willing to do the same.

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly took the issue mainstream. For nearly the entire summer, he railed against sanctuary cities almost daily to his roughly three million nightly viewers. Even Democrats were starting to have second thoughts about whether sanctuary protections for immigrants were worth the potential costs.

Finding Refuge in Sanctuary

A patchwork of four states, 39 cities and 364 counties have adopted pro-immigrant policies inspired by the Sanctuary Movement.
Source: Immigrant Legal Resource Center
Source: Immigrant Legal Resource Center

Steinle’s death played into a central pillar of Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination — that crime and violence justify shutting down the border and deporting America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, despite statistics that show immigrants are far less likely to commit crimes than people born in United States. For Trump, Steinle’s death was all the evidence he needed to show that Americans were paying the ultimate price for illegal immigration.

Trump’s hardline position on immigration deeply resonated with conservative voters, and within a week of Steinle’s death, Trump’s poll numbers shot up to put him at the top of a crowded field of Republican candidates. Over the next year, he would capitalize on the cause by parading grieving families like the Steinles onstage at his rallies while declining to provide policy specifics.

An entire night of the Republican National Convention was dedicated to decrying the injustices the immigration system has inflicted on Americans. Sabine Durden was scheduled to speak on the first night. Backstage at the Quicken Loans Arena, she looked up and said a quiet prayer, hoping that hints of her German accent wouldn’t show through once she started talking.

Durden carefully detailed the rap sheet of the man responsible for her son Dominic’s death. Her voice was filled with disdain, bordering on disgust.

Dominic’s killer had two felony convictions, and had already been deported to Guatemala once. Yet he made it back to the U.S., where he racked up two more charges – both of which were for drunk driving. In 2012, he pulled his car out along a residential road in Moreno Valley, California, and squarely struck Dominic’s motorcycle. He had no license, no registration and no proof of insurance. Durden’s son died instantly.

The man responsible for her son’s death was a “criminal illegal alien,” Durden said. He was charged with a misdemeanor and served 35 days in jail. His blood alcohol level registered just below the legal limit, but drunk driving was not the issue Durden had come to discuss.

“I have been talking about illegal immigration since 2012, since he got killed,” Durden said, “and no one listened until Donald Trump!”

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Sabine Durden stands at the intersection where her son, Dominic, was killed in a car accident by an undocumented immigrant.

Trump would later highlight Durden’s story — along with two other parents of children who had been killed by undocumented immigrants, Mary Ann Mendoza and Jamiel Shaw — in his speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination, echoing a line from his stump speech that he repeated on the campaign trail from Santa Clara to Charlotte.

“My opponent wants sanctuary cities,” Trump bellowed to a chorus of boos. “But where was sanctuary for Kate Steinle? Where was sanctuary for the children of Mary Ann, Sabine and Jamiel?”

But that night, just as with every other time he paraded Durden and Mendoza onstage at his rallies and asked them to tell the seething crowd of their pain and search for justice, Trump left out one critical detail.

Neither mother’s tragic loss actually took place within a sanctuary city.

Faith communities started what became known as the “Sanctuary Movement” in the early 1980s. It was a symbolic extension of the medieval practice of churches providing shelter to all, regardless of their crimes. But for a handful of faith leaders in the southwestern U.S., the immigrants that they provided sanctuary to weren’t outlaws. They were refugees.

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(Left) Agung, an Indonesian man who lives in south Philadelphia, is a rising leader in the city’s new sanctuary movement. He is helping with a campaign to grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. (Right) Alejandra, in her Philadelphia home with her family, witnessed her husband seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Central America was racked by nonstop violence and civil war, and death squads forced waves of people to flee north from Guatemala and El Salvador. Appalled to see the U.S. government turn away those migrants once they reached the border rather than take them in, church leaders decided to intervene.

John Fife, pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, was one of the first to buck federal laws in favor of what he saw as a moral obligation to offer shelter to the vulnerable. He and a handful of other faith leaders started an underground network to smuggle refugees across the border to safety. The concept of “taking sanctuary” was quite literal. Central Americans, mostly families, were given shelter in the physical sanctuary of the church. At night, they would sleep between the pews.

“‘Sanctuary’ is an idea. It’s an action that people have always taken throughout history to protect the victims of human rights violations,” said John Fife, pastor of the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona. “It was a different phenomena back then.”

Their defiance set up a major battle between church and state after the U.S. government infiltrated the movement. Fife was indicted in 1985, along with 10 other church workers, on a total of 71 counts that ranged from harboring illegal aliens to conspiracy. If the charges against church leaders were meant to have a chilling effect on sanctuary efforts, they did just the opposite. More than 500 faith groups would eventually sign onto the movement.

“You can’t plan for a movement,” Fife said. “It just happened.”

The United States for centuries stood as a beacon of hope to immigrants.

A record 42.2 million people have immigrated to the U.S. and now call America home.

But not all were welcomed.

Political cartoons printed at the turn of the 20th century cast Italian immigrants as degenerates.

Job listings clearly stated that “NO IRISH NEED APPLY.”

Anti-Chinese sentiment stoked alarms of a Yellow Peril that could overpower Western values.

Policy restrictions on immigration would soon ebb and flow.

Sanctuary cities were meant to embody America’s founding principles as a nation built by immigrants

But a surge of illegal crossings along the southern U.S. border in the 1990s would reignite a fierce debate over immigration.

More than 11 million undocumented immigrants now live in the U.S.

Congress has tried and failed time and time again to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

And with the rise of Donald Trump comes an intense backlash that could have lasting political repercussions.

Early sanctuary leaders might find it ironic that law enforcement would take up the cause decades later. Activists within the church may have started the movement as an act of civil disobedience, but it would be police chiefs and sheriffs who would carry the “sanctuary city” idea forward.

After taking office, President Obama continued his Republican predecessor's approach to enforcing immigration laws, one that sent a “help us help you” message to local leaders. Small town police departments were asked to play their part by tipping off ICE whenever they came across undocumented immigrants. Federal authorities would then return the favor by formally requesting what they called a “detainer,” which allowed local authorities to jail suspects for up to 48 hours in order to allow ICE time to arrive and remove undocumented immigrants from the community.

But there were problems. Many small town departments were already uncomfortable with the prospect of jailing immigrants on minor traffic infractions. The issue became even more fraught when honoring an “ICE detainer” request meant jailing a person without a warrant.

The dominoes started to fall after a federal judge decided the practice was likely unconstitutional in 2014. The case originated in Portland, Oregon, and a federal magistrate judge ruled that an undocumented immigrant’s rights had been violated after she was held in county jail for 19 hours past her original release date. The ruling left Clackamas County liable for damages, putting small town departments on the hook for lawsuits if immigrants decided to take legal action for being unlawfully detained.

The ruling had a large-scale ripple effect across the country. All told, there are now 364 counties and 39 cities that refuse to cooperate with ICE, according to data collected by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Police chiefs and sheriffs decided that it was no longer worth opening up their departments to lawsuits in order to simply do ICE a favor.

“This is not a bunch of left-wing radicals. These are sheriffs and police chiefs,” Fife said.

The shift was seldom sold as offering immigrants “sanctuary,” but rather, as a bid for improving public safety. Local cops couldn’t effectively do their jobs if immigrant communities refused, out of fear, to talk to them.

The result is a patchwork of sanctuary-type policies that look nothing like the original religious movement, but have evolved as a way for individual regions to cope with a sprawling and deeply broken federal immigration system. The laws are far from uniform.

For example, sanctuary policies in Washington, D.C. look nothing like those in Chicago. Most sanctuary cities in Oregon are actually counties. Entire states — Rhode Island, Connecticut and Vermont — have adopted broad laws dictating when state and local cops can act on immigration issues, though the ordinances are not easily enforced unilaterally.

Some local officials disagree that sanctuary laws are necessary, however, and take the opposite view — not cooperating with ICE actually endangers the community.

“It’s over-politicized,” said Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Maryland, who has lobbied for Congress to end all sanctuary city practices. “Elected officials and a lot of police chiefs politically won’t take a stand on illegal immigration.”

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Sheriff Charles Jenkins of Frederick County, Maryland has become an outspoken critic of sanctuary cities, saying those policies do little to build trust between police and the immigrant community.

Immigrant communities in Philadelphia were already traumatized by the workplace raids that were a hallmark of George W. Bush’s presidency. But starting in 2007, they witnessed a whole new phenomenon — immigration agents showing up at their homes.

Rev. Aldo Siahaan remembers how terrified the immigrants in his congregation were by the prospect of deportation raids reaching their doorsteps. A wave of Christian Indonesians had settled in Philadelphia after fleeing religious persecution in the Islamic-majority country. But not all who came to the U.S. were granted asylum. Failed visa applications meant federal authorities had their home address on file.

Siahaan, who moved from Indonesia in the early 1990s, now runs a church converted from an old dance club in South Philly. It seemed as if every week someone in the community had ICE agents knocking on their door. Twice, federal agents banged on Siahaan’s front door in the early hours of the morning and shoved a photo in his face, asking if he knew the person with a final order of deportation on their head.

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Rev. Aldo Siahaan leads an Indonesian congregation in south Philadelphia, where the majority the members of his church are currently undocumented.

“It was so unpredictable,” Siahaan said. “People lived in fear.”

Members stayed at home with their deadbolts locked, Siahaan said. If a visitor came to their door they’d pretend no one was home. Whenever someone did need to leave, they would crack open the front door and look from side to side to make sure the street was clear before running to their car.

As local immigration advocates lobbied for sanctuary provisions, the Obama administration proved to be the most aggressive enforcer of immigration laws in U.S. history, easily surpassing 2 million deportations by the end of the president’s first term.

Estela Hernandez, a mother of three who fled from her home and family in Mexico nearly 13 years ago, had a similar routine. She had seen firsthand the horror stories of seemingly arbitrary deportations that rip families apart. A close family member was once the victim of a car accident in Philadelphia, and though they survived the crash they were later deported, leaving behind a wife and two kids.

For years, Hernandez didn’t feel free to take her kids to school. Living in fear was not a life, but returning to Mexico wasn’t an option.

“I was afraid to leave the house,” Hernandez said. “We were always afraid the police would stop us and arrest us.”

Hernandez said everything changed after Philadelphia enacted one of the most far-reaching, pro-sanctuary laws in the country in 2014. The city’s police department wasn’t permitted to coordinate with ICE under any circumstance unless a federal warrant was served. Immigration advocates stressed that the zero-compliance policy was crucial in building community trust between law enforcement and undocumented immigrants.

“The new sanctuary cities are a really important way to live out our values,” said Peter Pedimonti, co-founder of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia. “From a faith perspective, we have the mandates to welcome the stranger and love your neighbor. Well, you can’t love your neighbor if you’re deporting them.”

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The Hernandez family at their home in Philadelphia.

Donald Trump propped up his bid for the presidency on a message that foreigners were at the root of America’s ills. Regardless of whether he could actually follow through on his plan to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border, his tough talk represented a welcome message: The U.S. was not going to tolerate any illegal immigration.

Trump’s early plan to ban all Muslims from traveling to the United States was in a similar vein. He brushed aside the practical and legal problems that accompany a religious-based test for entry to instead take the figurative stance of putting Americans first.

Trump has taken a comparable approach to sanctuary cities, vilifying and pledging to end them. But the violent crime he attributes to those laws on the campaign trail isn’t confined to immigrants any more than it is sanctuary cities. For example, Sabine Durden’s son was not killed in a sanctuary city. Moreno Valley did eventually adopt policies blocking cooperation between ICE and local police, but that was years after her son’s tragic car accident.

“It helps me with the pain and the grief. I had a choice of killing myself and not saying another word. But instead I found my voice. I’m changed. I now have a sense of accomplishment.”
– Sabine Durden

What's more, the nominee, who touts himself as the "law and order candidate," overlooks the fact that many police departments have advocated for sanctuary laws. But after Kate Steinle was shot dead along the San Francisco pier, the phrase “sanctuary cities” was co-opted and weaponized. Sanctuary cities were made to embody the injustices that fall upon Americans out of a perceived laissez-faire approach to immigration enforcement. It’s a view, judging from Trump’s candidacy, that has resonated.

Before meeting Trump, Durden tried seeking justice for her son Dominic’s death by appearing at meetings with Moms Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. She tried the traditional routes. She flew to Washington, D.C., three years earlier feeling like Superwoman, certain that the congressional committee would be so moved by her tragic story that she would become an overnight changemaker.

A grieving mother sniffling back tears, she begged members of Congress to not let any other mother endure her same tragedy. She tugged at a locket clasped around her neck and displayed it to the panel of lawmakers. Inside were the ashes of her dead son that she kept with her always.

Durden half-expected a gaggle of reporters to swarm her with questions after the hearing. But none approached her. She later scoured the Internet for news clippings written up of her testimony, and didn’t find a single article.

Her bitter disappointment was night and day to the red carpet treatment she received after the first time she met Trump.

“It helps me with the pain and the grief,” she says. “I had a choice of killing myself and not saying another word. But instead I found my voice. I’m changed. I now have a sense of accomplishment.”

Jérôme Sessini is a documentary photographer interested in the people, landscapes and the daily lives of those around his native Eastern France.

Sessini’s first foray into photojournalism came in 1998, when he covered the ongoing conflict in Kosovo. Sessini’s work has taken him all over the world, including Palestine and Iraq (from 2003 to 2008). He covered Aristide’s fall in Haiti (2004) as well as the conquest of Mogadishu by the Islamic militias and the war in Lebanon (2006).

Sessini has been published in major magazines and newspapers such as Newsweek, Stern, Paris-Match, Le Monde and the Wall Street Journal. His photography has also been exhibited at Visa Photo Festival in Perpignan, at the Rencontres d’Arles, the Bibliothèque Nationale François-Mitterrand as well as with the French Ministry of Culture.

In 2008, Sessini began “So far from God, too close from the U.S.,” a deep look at Mexico’s warring drug cartels. This ongoing project has been recognized with the F-Award and a Getty grant.

Sessini became a full member of Magnum Photos in 2016.