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OPINION: Supporting Sanctuary City Status

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By Ashley Hill

In May 2019, the Montpelier City Council unanimously reaffirmed the Capital City’s designation as a “sanctuary city,” a policy it crafted in 2016 that states “federal government and federal agencies have no legal authority to require local enforcement of immigration policy.” Here, City Councilor Ashley Hill discusses the motivations and reasons for her support.

The history of forced migration and immigration to the United States is a story fraught with imperialism, racism, nationalism, and broken promises. We slaughtered thousands of indigenous people, spread diseases, ripped families apart, took land and resources that didn’t belong to us, and conveniently declared this land “our land” under the auspices of building a “more perfect” union where “all men are created equal.”

The practical reality is this: we are all immigrants. Unless you can confidently trace your roots back to the indigenous populations—Abenaki, Mikmaq, Penobscot— you’re an immigrant.

Over a decade ago, I moved to Italy to study abroad. I spoke no Italian and knew nothing about the culture, other than I loved spaghetti and meatballs, and that I would find the Sistine Chapel somewhere in Italy. I had no context for the hurdles and challenges presented by uprooting my entire life—and I wasn’t even fleeing war, violence, or political instability.

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Living abroad when George W. Bush won a second term opened my eyes to geopolitics in ways living in the U.S. never could. The world was watching, waiting, hoping for us to get that election right. My roommates and I all voted absentee, fearing that he would be re-elected if we failed to perform our civic duty from halfway across the world. When the media called the election for Bush, the harassment (both verbal and physical) we experienced on the streets in Florence for being American citizens rose to a level that made me excessively uncomfortable walking around the city alone.

As I reflect on my own experiences as an immigrant, the first disconnect I observed is that my friends back stateside began referring to me as an “expat,” [short for expatriate], not a new immigrant to my chosen country.

I had never heard the term before, and much to my chagrin, I had to look it up back then. I remember wondering why I was being called an expat and why my new American and non-citizen friends and colleagues back home in New England weren’t also referred to as expatriates.

I remember how unsafe and unsure I felt about leaving the house because I couldn’t predict what would happen to me as I walked down the street.

I say that fully acknowledging that my whiteness and privilege affords me a huge advantage and security that most non-citizen and new Americans will not experience in this country if we do not change course.

Nearly 15 years and a whole lot of life experience later, I sit here and write to you that it is inherent structural oppression that resulted in my friends and I being labeled as “expats” when we went to Italy, and other non-citizens and new Americans as “immigrants” when they arrive here seeking safety, security, and stability. But for the kindness of strangers, a welcoming community, and a few good friends, my time and experiences in Italy would have been drastically different and far less pleasant.

The fear mongering and hate-filled rhetoric espoused by the current president and many of his supporters builds off the false narrative that those of us fortunate enough to be born in the U.S. are somehow morally superior by birth to our fellow humans, who are only trying to experience and cultivate fundamental human dignity for themselves and their loved ones.

The crux of the national immigration debate is that those dominating the conversation have mastered the art of fear as a motivating factor. Those in power presently have mastered the ability to play on the inherently human fear of things that are different or unknown.

Our local government here in Montpelier understands the challenges and motivations presented to people across the world that led them to make the unimaginable choice to leave their homes, or have that choice made for them by escalating violence and instability in their homelands.

Our obligation as fellow humans is to welcome our new friends and neighbors with the same ease and grace that we welcome our old friends and neighbors.

Immigration status does not dictate or determine a person’s worth or value, and I am proud of our small city for taking an important step in standing up for our friends and neighbors by reaffirming our commitment to providing support and sanctuary for everyone in our community who seeks it by voting in favor once again to declare Montpelier a sanctuary city.