Gaurav Madan is an organizer with Sanctuary DMV, a secular solidarity group standing with immigrants and targeted communities in the District, Maryland and Virginia.
“What if they’re murderers?”
This was the response Betsy Cavendish, head counsel of the mayor’s office, gave our group of volunteer activists, clergy and concerned citizens last week when asked why Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) won’t intervene with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and call for the release of at least 12 District residents detained in ICE raids conducted last month.
Outside City Hall, a passionate crowd of nearly 100 people gathered to insist that recently conducted ICE raids cannot be met with silence. Inside, we were coming face to face with ICE’s propaganda.
ICE, now with significant support from the White House, has consistently told the public that immigrants are dangerous, unworthy of concern and deserving of whatever happens to them, no matter how horrific. They want us to presume the worst, not ask questions and stay silent. It is hard not to see Cavendish’s response — one of purported criminality as an excuse not to advocate for our neighbors — in this context.
As the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrant communities have intensified, our efforts to stand alongside our neighbors have brought us to the offices of many elected officials. Too often these discussions feature attempts to draw lines of criminality to distinguish who is worthy of receiving support.
Inevitably, we explain that we cannot afford to discriminate regarding who deserves dignity. The failures and flaws of the current criminal justice are well documented, as are their disproportionate impact on black and brown people. The same narrative that implies the dangerous immigrant has long been applied to criminalize communities of color for centuries, creating a system of mass incarceration, the consequences of which still plague this country. Detentions and deportations are another part of this process.
Yet, even in cases where harm has been done, treating people as disposable and refusing to engage as they are swallowed by a secretive, violent agency cannot be the answer. Our starting point must be dignity for everyone, community uplift and a refusal to be complicit in the anti-immigrant agenda of this administration.
On some level, Bowser knows this. Her statement following the rally said, “Mayor Bowser recognizes that our immigration system is broken, and federal officials have engaged in abusive tactics.” Her actions must now follow her words.
As we handed over a letter signed by more than 30 local organizations, congregations, businesses and clergy calling on the mayor to publicly demand that ICE release all detained D.C. residents and hold a community meeting to discuss the city’s sanctuary policies, Cavendish and other staff thrust flyers into our hands highlighting the city’s immigrant justice legal services. While we welcome the training, resources and legal support for immigrant communities, these don’t bring back the people snatched away from our city. Furthermore, the legal services the mayor’s office is promoting do not apply to people who have already been detained by ICE.
While the mayor has refused to intervene, several individuals who were detained in last month’s raids have already been deported. Our elected officials have a responsibility to act consistently with the spirit of a sanctuary city and advocate on behalf of all our neighbors. This means ensuring that city officials, including police, courts and jails, do not cooperate with ICE. It also means standing with communities when they come under attack. Accepting a narrative of criminality propagated by a rogue agency such as ICE is contrary to these aims. Last month, more than 100 elected officials, including some D.C. Council members, published a statement calling for the ICE agency to be abolished.
If the mayor is ready to take the next steps, there is a city willing to work alongside her office to strengthen D.C.’s sanctuary policies and practices in a way that protects us all.