Sanctuary city, a safer city for immigrants

Activists and immigrants in Chicago mobilized against the proposal of some council members to ask in a referendum during the March 2024 primaries about the elimination of the sanctuary city status enshrined in the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance. The referendum proposal was rejected, and in Chicago, the safety for the immigrant community offered by that status is maintained

Immigrant rights community organizers held a press conference and demonstration outside the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago in support of the sanctuary city policy. (Courtesy of ICIRR)

Immigrant rights community organizers held a press conference and demonstration outside the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago in support of the sanctuary city policy. (Courtesy of ICIRR) Crédito: Cortesía

The fear of being arrested by immigration authorities and deported out of the United States hurts immigrant communities because living under that threat makes undocumented immigrants feel unsafe to go out to work, take their children to school or go to the doctor or the market. That fear frequently prevents them from collaborating with the authorities to report crimes, testify in trials, or receive assistance. Thus, the protection of undocumented immigrants, implicit in the non-cooperation of local authorities (such as Chicago and other jurisdictions) with immigration authorities, which is precisely what the concept of sanctuary city consists of, is key to providing greater security to neighborhoods with immigrant populations.

The ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance broadly prohibits Chicago Police from asking about immigration status or making arrests solely on the suspicion that the person is undocumented. It also prohibits the police from cooperating with agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Faced with the proposal formulated in 2023 by a group of Chicago council members to ask in a referendum whether the city should be stripped of its sanctuary city status enshrined in the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance, La Raza explored the implications of this proposal and the activism for and against it to offer information, testimonies, and context on the meaning of that municipal norm for the security, welfare, and justice of Chicago’s immigrant communities. These stories were published by La Raza between October and December 2023 and are reproduced here with slight edits.


Chicago Leaders Defend Sanctuary City Status

Civic organizations reject any efforts that divide city residents and support the pro-immigrant ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance

After working as a teacher in Venezuela on a salary that left her in poverty, Ana Camacho decided to leave her country with her family and migrate to the United States in search of a better future for her loved ones. During her journey, she traveled through eight countries, crossed the dangerous Darien Gap, and waited in Mexico for a response to her asylum application made through the CBP One platform.

Three months later, immigration authorities told her she could enter the United States. “I am Venezuelan and I am grateful to the United States for giving me the opportunity to enter the country with CBP One,” said Camacho.

Camacho, a mother of three daughters, said that, like all immigrants, she seeks to achieve the American dream and wants Chicago to continue being a sanctuary city. “I entered the United States in September and, thank God, I am in Chicago, Illinois, a city that I know is a sanctuary city and I would like it to remain so. I am here supporting it to continue being the sanctuary city that helps the immigrant, that supports them in their safety.”

“I would like Chicago to continue supporting immigrants as they have done so far, that the opportunities do not end because we all have the right for the sun to shine on everyone,” added Camacho during a press conference organized in October 2023 by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

Immigrant rights defenders and African American organizations are joining forces to fight against what they consider racial division and raise their voice in support of the sanctuary city policy and the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance.

Local activists say the arrival of asylum seekers has strained relations between Chicago’s African American, Latino, and Asian communities. There is also a divided City Council regarding how the migration crisis is being handled.

Antonio Gutiérrez, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportations, said that as an undocumented person, the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance allowed him to feel safe and without fear of deportation.

Tania Unzueta, policy director of Mijente, mentioned among other things that immigrants in Chicago were once again threatened by “right-wing politicians who tried to divide our community by taking advantage of a difficult moment.”

The press conference and demonstration took place outside the Thompson Center in downtown Chicago. The event organized by ICIRR featured organizations such as Palenque LSNA, Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression (CAARPR), Center for Racial Justice in Education, Organized Communities Against Deportations, and Mijente, to name a few.

No to Division in Communities

Chicago has maintained its sanctuary city status to protect undocumented immigrants for more than three decades, but now there is a proposal seeking to eliminate this designation. 41st Ward Alderman, Anthony Napolitano, and 9th Ward Alderman, Anthony Beale, sponsor a resolution to include an advisory referendum on the March 2024 primary election ballot, asking voters if Chicago should continue being a sanctuary city.

In response to this plan, immigrant and African American leaders, during a press conference, stated that solidarity, not division, is needed at this time, emphasizing their rejection of any effort aimed at dividing communities.

The proposal by both aldermen partly arises due to the high costs the city incurs from the current influx of asylum seekers to Chicago in a context of insufficient resources. For instance, the city signed a $29 million contract to establish tent camps to house newly arrived asylum seekers, while many communities feel they are not being given the resources to meet their needs. “We’re spending a lot of money every day,” Alderman Beale told the press, referring to the budget allocated for asylum seekers’ expenses, estimating it to be up to $40 million a month.

Mayor Brandon Johnson, acknowledging the sanctuary city status issue has divided the city, continues his search for sites to house migrants due to the crisis and upcoming winter months. The referendum topic was scheduled to be discussed on November 16 in the Chicago City Council’s Rules Committee.

‘Unfair and Undemocratic’

According to the 35th Ward Alderman, Carlos Ramírez Rosa, disputes over sanctuary city status have nothing to do with providing material support to immigrants, as sanctuary city status refers to non-cooperation with federal authorities to determine if individuals are legally in the country.

“Our sanctuary city policy, which is a public safety policy, has nothing to do with this humanitarian crisis,” Alderman Ramírez Rosa told the press. Over 20,000 immigrants have arrived in Chicago since August 2022, according to city officials. About 3,000 live within O’Hare International Airport, police stations, and even in tents set up in certain public parks, awaiting placement in temporary shelters.

Opponents of the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance have repeatedly told the press they seek its repeal, but many wonder what would happen if this occurs in the future: Would it only impact newly arrived migrants or also long-standing undocumented immigrants? If such an ordinance were undermined, Chicago Police and other city agencies could cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to deport immigrants, separating them from their families and communities, warned Fed Tsao, director of public policy at ICIRR. Authorities could also freely threaten or coerce individuals based on their actual or perceived immigration status, even threatening to hand them over to ICE.

“Immigrants will live terrified of any traffic stop or other encounter with the police. Crime victims will be afraid to call 911 for fear their immigration status will be investigated and reported, and they themselves could be arrested and handed over to ICE,” Tsao told La Raza.

Immigrant rights advocates oppose putting the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance or sanctuary city policy to a vote, emphasized Tsao. For Tsao, there should not be a need to vote on a matter of basic city values, decency, and respect. “Nor should we waste basic protections for immigrants due to the short-term challenge of attending to arriving immigrants. Equally important is that the people most directly affected by the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance cannot vote because they are not and in many cases cannot become U.S. citizens. Putting the ordinance to a vote and not allowing those protected by it to vote is unfair and undemocratic.”



Removing Sanctuary City Designation Would Hit All of Chicago’s Immigrant Community: Activists

Two aldermen propose that voters decide if the city should maintain a status that has protected the undocumented for decades

The City of Chicago has upheld its sanctuary city designation to protect undocumented immigrants for over three decades, but now there is a proposal seeking its removal. Aldermen Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward) and Anthony Beale (9th Ward) are sponsoring a resolution to include a referendum in the March 2024 primary election ballot, asking voters if Chicago should remain a sanctuary city.

The proposal by both aldermen partly arises due to the high costs for the city from the current flow of asylum seekers to Chicago amidst insufficient resources. The city recently signed a $29 million contract to establish tent camps for newly arrived asylum seekers. Since August 2022, Chicago has welcomed over 20,000 new immigrants, according to city officials.

These proposals emerge while a survey by M3 Strategies found that 46% of participants in Chicago favor ending the sanctuary designation, fearing community resources might be redirected to support the migrant crisis. 39% said Chicago should remain a sanctuary city, and 14% were unsure.

History of a Protective Ordinance

The ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance has roots limiting the information and cooperation city agencies and officials could provide to Immigration authorities, conditioning such actions to be within a legal process or court order context.

On March 7, 1985, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington signed Executive Order 85-1, stating no city employee or agency could inquire, investigate, or assist in investigating anyone’s citizenship or residency status unless required by statute, ordinance, federal regulation, or court decision. It also specified that no city employee or agency should disseminate information about someone’s citizenship or residency status unless required in a legal process. This order also noted that no city employee or agency should condition benefits, opportunities, or services of the City of Chicago on citizenship or residency status, except as required by law, ordinance, federal regulation, or court decision.

Later, on April 25, 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley issued Executive Order 89-6, ratifying Washington’s Order 85-1 terms. Then, in 2006, the Chicago City Council turned this executive order into an ordinance prohibiting Chicago Police from inquiring about people’s immigration status and, except in some instances, from cooperating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents.

On January 27, 2021, this ordinance was amended, removing all its exceptions. The amendment was introduced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot and co-sponsored by 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramírez Rosa.

The 2006 ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance has had several amendments over the years to improve it, said Alderman Carlos Ramírez Rosa in a past interview with La Raza. “With this approved amendment, we’re going to have the perfect policy to protect our immigrant community here in the City of Chicago.”

Chicago’s struggle to be a sanctuary and welcoming city for immigrants is long-standing, hence the concern among local leaders and the immigrant community about the advancement of Aldermen Napolitano and Beale’s initiative.

Ordinance Provides Security to Immigrant Families

25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho López told La Raza that it has been 40 years since Chicago is a sanctuary city. “It was through former Mayor Harold Washington and Rudy Lozano, in that coalition that was formed and fought hard for Chicago to be a sanctuary city…”

Sigcho López recalled that Chicago, as a sanctuary city, welcomes everyone, whether they are seeking a better future for their families or escaping violence in their countries.

Regarding Napolitano and Beale’s plan, Sigcho López does not believe it will succeed. “I see it very difficult that they can present, in the City of Chicago, a project that has support to increase deportations, to create and basically dismantle laws that have protected the immigrants, communities like ours, for already four decades.”

Chicago pro-immigrant activist Elvira Arellano told La Raza that if such a proposal is approved, it would be a setback in the fight they have had for many years: “mainly families that are undocumented or mixed families that have suffered racism, classism, xenophobia, and discrimination against our families for being undocumented.”

Arellano emphasized that if Napolitano and Beale’s plan is approved, the measure would not affect refugees or asylum seekers from any country “because basically the country, the state, is welcoming them, no matter the city they go to, they already have a permit, here the affected would be the undocumented people, those who have no protection.”

“For me, it’s very worrying what could happen if this ordinance is removed, which basically gives security to our families to be mainly here in the State of Illinois, here in the City of Chicago, where we have always been fighting for equality for all immigrants,” Arellano pointed out.

Supporters of the proposal of the two aldermen say that Democratic cities like Chicago, New York, and Washington DC are going through a migration crisis for being called sanctuary, which is why the Republican governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, is sending asylum seekers on buses to these cities.

Beale’s office referred to an article, published by him in the Chicago Sun-Times, where the alderman explains his ordinance proposal to regulate the attention to migrants and maintain non-cooperation with ICE, but does not address the issue of putting the sanctuary designation to a vote.

La Raza contacted Alderman Napolitano but did not receive a response before the edition’s closing.


Inmigrantes indocumentados, líderes comunitarios y concejales celebran la derrota de la propuesta de referendo para decidir si debe continuar el estatus de ciudad santuario de Chicago. (Cortesía ICIRR)
Crédito: Cortesía


A Vast Majority of Chicago Council Rejected the Sanctuary City Status Referendum Plan

The proposal to pose the question to voters was defeated with a 31 to 16 vote, so it will not be included on the ballot for the March 2024 primary elections

The city’s immigrant community celebrates the outcome of a vote in the City Council that rejected a proposal to ask voters their opinion on whether Chicago’s sanctuary city status should be maintained or not. Council members voted 31-16 to block any debate or vote on a proposal for a non-binding referendum in the March primaries that would ask voters on their ballot if the City of Chicago should continue to maintain its sanctuary city designation.

Aldermen Anthony Beale (9th Ward) and Raymond López (15th Ward) have been trying to include the referendum on the ballot, but without success. On Thursday, December 14, a large majority of council members voted against including that question in a special meeting of the City Council convened by the resolution’s sponsor, Alderman Beale, and Aldermen López and David Moore (Ward 17). In addition to the aforementioned, other council members who supported Alderman Beale’s referendum plan were Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward), Gregory Mitchell (7th Ward), Nicole Lee (11th Ward), Marty Quinn (13th Ward), Derrick Curtis (18th Ward), Ronnie Mosley (21st Ward), Silvana Tabares (23rd Ward), Monique Scott (24th Ward), Chris Taliaferro (29th Ward), Nicholas Sposato (38th Ward), Anthony Napolitano (41st Ward), Brendan Reilly (42nd Ward), and James Gardiner (45th Ward).

“I think it is absolutely imperative that we give voters the opportunity to have their opinion heard on this issue, especially when we are talking about spending $255 million dollars just this year to attend to 20,000 immigrants,” Alderman López told the press.

Chicago Mayor, Brandon Johnson, defended the vote as democracy in action. “Our position is to make sure we are providing solutions,” he said.

The council members who voted against the referendum were Daniel La Spata (1st Ward), Pat Dowell (3rd Ward), Lamont Robinson (4th Ward), Desmon Yancy (5th Ward), William Hall (6th Ward), Michelle Harris (8th Ward), Peter Chico (10th Ward), Julia Ramírez (12th Ward), Jeylú Gutiérrez (14th Ward), Jeanette Taylor (20th Ward), Michael Rodríguez (22th Ward), Byron Sigcho López (25th Ward), Jessica Fuentes (26th Ward), Walter Burnett (27th Ward), Jason Ervin (28th Ward), Ruth Cruz (30th Ward), Félix Cardona (31st Ward), Scott Waguespack (32nd Ward), Rossana Rodríguez Sánchez (33rd Ward), William Conway (34th Ward), Carlos Ramírez Rosa (35th Ward), Gilbert Villegas (36th Ward), Samantha Nugent (39th Ward), André Vásquez (40th Ward), Timothy Knudsen (43rd Ward), Bennett Lawson (44th Ward), Angela Clay (46th Ward), Matthew Martin (47th Ward), Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth (48th Ward), Maria Hadden (49th Ward), and Debra Silverstein (50th Ward).

Stephanie Coleman (16th Ward), Matthew O’Shea (19th Ward), and Emma Mitts (37th Ward) were absent and did not vote.

The ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance prohibits police cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities and ensures undocumented immigrants can use city services. Opponents to the referendum argued that such ordinance has nothing to do with the current migrant crisis.

Immigrant defense leaders reacted to the voting outcome with satisfaction. Viviana Barajas, organizer with Palenque LSNA, said some council members were focused on trying to provoke more racism and more hate in the communities. “I am proud that we did not let them win and that our representatives, the majority, also listened to us and battled for us so that this question did not enter the ballot,” Barajas told La Raza. According to Barajas, much more can be done for our communities by working in collective unity to support each other. “We all must be battling for us, not against us.”

Alderman Michael Rodríguez (22nd Ward) said in a press conference, after the defenders of Chicago’s sanctuary city status blocked the referendum plan, that it was voted against hate, against division, and in favor of unity and the immigrant community. “Shame on the council members who voted against the interests of our brothers and sisters, shame on the Latino council members who voted against our community, we will not forget those who were against us,” mentioned Rodríguez.

“We are gathered to celebrate that the City Council just voted to reject efforts to include a divisive and anti-immigrant question on the ballot,” said Fasika Alem, program director of the organization United African, which is part of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

“We don’t need a question on the ballot that will be used as a weapon and manipulated to sow divisions in our community,” said Alderwoman Jessie Fuentes (26th Ward), during a press conference.

‘The Fight is Not Over’

Fred Tsao, senior policy advisor of ICIRR, stated that the defeat of the referendum proposal on the sanctuary city status is a victory for immigrant communities. According to Tsao, welcoming policies like the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance protect immigrant families from deportation and have a long history across multiple mayoral administrations, dating back to Mayor Harold Washington in the 1980s. “The welcoming values reflect our history as a city of immigrants, whether from other parts of the country or from the world. Both our policies and our values deserve to be defended, and City Council members joined communities to affirm welcoming values and defend welcoming policies.”

For immigrant rights advocates and ICIRR allied organizations, the fight is not over. According to Tsao, anti-immigrant council members can still try to repeal the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance and might try to present a new one to voters in the future. “ICIRR and our members are redoubling efforts to unite and build power alongside all disinvested communities in Chicago and throughout Illinois to promote a vision of collective abundance,” Tsao told La Raza.

Tsao also said that the Chicago City Council does not have meetings scheduled during the holidays, so neither the sanctuary city question nor any other related question will appear on the March primary election ballot.

In a survey conducted by La Raza to its readers on this issue, they were asked: Do you think Chicago should maintain its sanctuary city status for the protection of the undocumented? 71% of readers said yes, 20% said no, and 9% were unsure.

The proposal was returned to the City Council Rules Committee, which was not scheduled to meet before the January 2 deadline for the City Council to add referendums to the March primary election ballot.

The production and publication of this story by La Raza have been possible in part thanks to a grant from the Chicago Community Trust through its Cross Community Impact grant program.

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