Less than 24 hours after issuing a statement meant to quell immigrant fears of deportation under Donald Trump’s incoming administration, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser emerged from a community meeting in Mount Pleasant to a throng of angry activists.
“I don’t feel safe.” “I’m undocumented.” “We’re facing a fascist maniac.”
Amid their shouts, demonstrators said they wanted Bowser to denounce Trump’s immigration policies in the strong terms used by leaders of other large U.S. cities.
“I appreciate the anxiety people feel, but your anger should not be addressed to your mayor,” said Bowser, a Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter during the presidential election. “Because your mayor has stood up in every case for this community, period. I have asserted firmly that we are a sanctuary city, and our policies are clear.”
The crowd, which one protester said was about 100 strong, began chanting, “Not enough.”
The extraordinary encounter was captured on video Tuesday night at Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library, in the heart of neighborhoods that for decades have absorbed waves of Central American immigrants. It was a gauge of tensions that have gripped the District since Nov. 8, when Trump claimed the presidency over the opposition of more than 9 in 10 voters in his new city.
A liberal and ethnically diverse capital that has basked for eight years in the aura of the first African American family to occupy the White House — a family whose taste in restaurants, gyms and farmers markets became a source of local gossip and pride — will have as its most famous occupant a man who decried the criminality of immigrants and railed against the conditions of inner cities.
With the departure of President Obama, the District will also lose its most powerful defender against the whims of a Republican-dominated Congress, which will find itself newly empowered to assert control over the city’s budget and legislation in a way it has seldom been able to do over the past decade.
And with two months remaining before Trump assumes office, D.C. elected officials are struggling to calibrate their stance toward this new reality. The debate mirrors those discussions across the country among Trump opponents who are divided over whether conciliation or defiance is best.
D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said the District is probably in for a rough ride under Trump, no matter what public posture it adopts toward the White House.
“We already are a target,” he said. “That’s the challenge. The District of Columbia is right here.”
In no subject has the city’s anxieties been more vividly displayed than on immigration. In a much-publicized plan for his first 100 days in office, Trump promises to strip all federal funding from “sanctuary cities,” where political leaders have decided that local law enforcement will not collaborate with federal officials to deport illegal immigrants.
Such a punishment would be severely felt in Washington, which relies on direct federal funding for 25 percent of its budget. In New York, by contrast, the figure is 9 percent. Cities other than the District also receive a certain amount of indirect federal funding that is funneled through their states.
The District “is very dependent on the federal government for large parts of its budget and its ability to govern itself,” said Luis Fraga, a political-science professor and co-director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. “What may be a symbolic issue in some communities is much more serious in Washington.”
A sense of that risk has been evident in D.C. elected officials’ measured tone when discussing the potential effects of a Trump administration.
The mayors of other “sanctuary cities” have called news conferences in the wake of the election to reassure undocumented residents, with Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York vowing that “we’re not going to take anything lying down.”
Bowser, however, issued a three-sentence statement Monday night reaffirming the District’s “sanctuary city” status in language that some activists say was tepid.
“We were like, ‘This is very lukewarm. We need more,’ ” said Claudia Barragan, describing the reaction among her fellow immigration activists.
“Our frustration came from the fact that she hadn’t come out vocally in affirming D.C. was a sanctuary city,” said Barragan, who was among the protesters at the library Tuesday night and who filmed the confrontation with Bowser. “Meanwhile, we’ve been hearing in the news from Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, from the mayors in New York and Seattle.”
Not all Latino community leaders agree. Jaime Contreras, head of the Capital Area District of 32BJ Service Employees International Union — which represents janitors, security guards and other building-maintenance workers — said the mayor’s statement had reassured his members, many of whom have undocumented friends or relatives.
“I don’t know how much more clear she can make it,” Contreras said. He acknowledged, however, that “a press conference would have been great.”
On Saturday, Bowser convened a conference call to allay D.C. residents’ persistent concerns about the election outcome. Organizers said the call had about 5,000 participants.
“We will stand in opposition, strong opposition, to any policies that threaten our values,” Bowser said, adding that in her interactions with the Trump administration she would also “continue to seek common ground on the things that would be helpful to our city, like creating more jobs, more pathways to the middle class and investments in our infrastructure.”
Bowser said her staff was evaluating the potential effects of Trump’s stated policies — including his threat to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities — but that the task was challenging because Trump has not released detailed proposals.
Bowser said she intended to request a meeting with the president-elect “at the appropriate time” to discuss District priorities. She said she wanted to discuss statehood, the importance of preserving the Affordable Care Act and improving the Metro transit system, in addition to discussing residents’ other concerns.
Immigration is not the sole issue that has prompted debate among D.C. officials about how to approach Trump. At a Tuesday breakfast meeting, council members argued over whether the city should spend the customary amount on a viewing stand in front of city hall for Trump’s inaugural parade.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said he supported cutting wasteful spending on the parade bleachers but that city officials should tread carefully.
It was, he said, “not in the city’s interest to just kind of give the middle finger to the president-elect.”
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the District’s long-serving congressional representative, acknowledged residents’ fears but said it was too early to predict what the 45th president would mean for the city.
“I regard Trump as basically a blank policy slate,” she said. “I’m not expecting anything.”