As D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) prepares to travel to El Salvador this weekend on a trip she says will showcase her support for the city’s immigrants, she faces pressure at home from Latino activists who are calling her an unreliable ally.
In a small but noisy demonstration on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building on Monday, protesters shouted, chanted, whistled and blew air horns in the withering heat, demanding that Bowser’s administration do more to protect immigrant residents in the face of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
They said she and D.C. police should have done more to denounce or prevent the July arrests by federal agents of up to 12 immigrants living in the District, and they said that the nation’s capital does not deserve to call itself a “sanctuary city.”
It was the latest in a string of immigration-related protests directed at Bowser since President Trump’s election.
About three dozen activists delivered a letter signed by more than 20 local organizations and faith groups asking that Bowser publicly denounce raids conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and call for the release of all District residents the agency has apprehended. They also asked that Bowser expel ICE agents from the nation’s capital altogether — something no mayor has the power to do.
In addition to having a brief conversation with the mayor’s general counsel, Betsy Cavendish, the demonstrators were given a stack of fliers extolling the mayor’s programs for immigrants. A representative from Bowser’s office told organizers that the mayor was not in.
“In a city that claims to be a ‘sanctuary city’ . . . our elected officials should be standing here with us today, shoulder to shoulder,” said Gaurav Madan, an organizer with Sanctuary DMV, an immigrant rights coalition. “Their silence speaks volumes.”
“Where is Bowser?” the protesters shouted. “Where is Bowser?”
The fliers highlighted legal services and driver’s licenses available to undocumented immigrants who live in the District, as well as the city’s edict that local law enforcement agencies not ask residents about their immigration status and refrain from cooperating with ICE. “Mayor Bowser recognizes that our immigration system is broken, and federal officials have engaged in abusive tactics,” the fliers stated.
In a statement Monday night, Bowser said: “Washington, D.C., is a sanctuary city. We protect the rights and humanity of all our residents, and our DC values and our local culture are guided by a celebration of diversity and inclusivity.”
Bowser is scheduled to leave Saturday for El Salvador, where she will participate in four days of activities, including signing a sister-city agreement with San Salvador and visiting a small town where many immigrants who live in the District were born. Her aides said the trip is designed to promote the city as a welcoming place for immigrants, despite the Trump administration’s crackdown.
“Salvadorans are an important part of the community here in Washington, D.C., and we value them despite what the federal and international dialogue might be,” said John J. Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff.
But outside City Hall on Monday, activists used the trip as a punchline.
“She claims that she’s meeting with politicians in El Salvador — a country that has been unstable and dangerous for its own people for years — to the benefit of the community here,” said Danny Cendejas, a Salvadoran American organizer with the immigrant rights group La Colectiva. “But if she’s really concerned about improving life for immigrants from El Salvador that live in Washington, she should be meeting with us.”
Last month, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine asked ICE to release information about the people arrested in an operation that rattled residents of Columbia Heights, a District neighborhood that is historically high in residents with connections to Central America.
Activists on Monday echoed several concerns Racine outlined in his letter, including that agents had used racial profiling.
Details of the arrests, including the number of people detained, their identities and the charges against them, have not been made public. ICE says it does not conduct raids or target individuals indiscriminately.
Bowser has not publicly commented on the arrests. And Cavendish told activists that she was unlikely to do so — especially without knowing the reasons the individuals were taken into custody.
In her statement Monday night, Bowser said immigrants in the District and across the country “have been made to live in fear” because of the Trump administration’s efforts to limit both legal and illegal immigration.
“As a community, it is on all of us to stand up for our neighbors,” the statement said. “We must send a message loud and clear to the President and Congress that we are not a country of fear and cruelty, that we know these inhumane actions do not make us any safer, and that this is not the type of leadership, or lack thereof, that Americans want.”
Madan said activists are looking for more than political statements.
“The engagement we need from her needs to go further than that,” he said. “We need policies and practices that completely sever all ties with ICE.”