Many immigrants who lived in the United States during the George W. Bush years felt an eerie sense of deja vu during this past election season, as one presidential candidate called Mexicans “rapists” and proposed mass deportations on an unprecedented scale. Fifteen years ago, after the September 11 attacks, a wave of hate crimes swept through immigrant communities, and the Bush administration began a campaign of deportations and surveillance, especially in Muslim communities. In Seattle’s Rainier Valley in 2001 and 2002, feds raided Somali-owned stores and accused their owners of trafficking in food stamps to fund terrorism. A few months later, they dropped at least some of the cases when it turned out that store patrons were probably just making large purchases of halal meat, in observance of Islamic traditions.
Such events created a climate of fear that made Seattle less safe because immigrants were afraid to report crimes or ask for help in emergencies, according to activists—and the Seattle police chief agreed. Activists Anita Sinha and Pramila Jayapal, now a newly elected member of Congress, and then–city council member Nick Licata urged Seattle to pass a “don’t ask” ordinance that would prevent police and city officials from inquiring about anyone’s immigration status, unless they had reasons to suspect the person had committed a felony and had been deported previously. The council voted unanimously in favor in January 2003.
Thirteen years later, that ordinance is the basis on which Seattle calls itself a sanctuary city. The policy has made immigrants feel safer participating in city life—sending their kids to school or enrolling in college, going to the doctor. Now under Trump, “Immigrants…are certainly weighing how life as they know it is going to change,” says city council member Loréna González, who grew up in a community of Mexican migrant farm workers. “The challenge for the city is to try to resist those changes.”