New Mexico: a long history of being a sanctuary for refugees
But Villarreal also traces northern New Mexico’s history of providing sanctuary even further. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Isleta Pueblo, south of Albuquerque, offered protection to Spanish and Indian refugees, and churches in northern New Mexico have long respected the right to asylum. “We’ve been known, historically, to welcome the stranger and offer refuge to persecuted individuals,” Villarreal asserts. “It makes sense for our history.”
Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos un Pueblo Unido, a 22-year-old statewide immigrant rights organization, agrees. “There’s something to be said about that cultural and historic proximity [to Mexico] that’s created a different space,” she says.
Diaz, whose organization helped pass the original sanctuary resolution in 1999 and was instrumental in crafting the most recent resolution, also notes the lack of a language barrier. Because so many native New Mexicans still speak Spanish — some even as their first language — Mexican and other Spanish-speaking immigrants are able to integrate themselves more easily into New Mexico than other states. “We’ve been connected to Mexico through familial ties and through history,” she adds.
Diaz also credits a longstanding distrust of the federal government from northern New Mexico communities, where residents have often balked at the government asserting its authority, especially over public lands and water policies. “The majority of people who have really pushed the envelope on these sanctuary policies are nortenos — local Hispanos — who are really tied to their community and already have a propensity to ensure the federal government is not encroaching.”
While Santa Fe and northern New Mexico have taken the lead on promoting and strengthening sanctuary policies, the state as a whole has its own history of providing refuge to persecuted groups. In 1986, Gov. Toney Anaya declared New Mexico a “state of sanctuary,” specifically for Central American refugees escaping their war-torn countries.
This declaration marked the beginning of the modern sanctuary movement that has spread from Taos to Las Cruces. In 2011, Taos County stopped honoring requests from ICE to detain undocumented immigrants with little or no criminal record. And more recently, in Albuquerque, acting University of New Mexico President Chaouki Abdallah has assured students that the university will protect community members regardless of their national origin or immigration status. A week before Santa Fe approved its new sanctuary resolution, Las Cruces residents responded en masse when ICE launched raids of local immigrant communities. Supporters immediately took to the streets protesting, first at the federal courthouse and then at a busy intersection, which they shut down for nearly an hour.
Angelica Rubio, who represents the city in New Mexico’s House of Representatives, was heartened by the strong display of support.
According to Rubio, who sponsored bills to redesignate New Mexico as a state of sanctuary (a designation that was rescinded by Gov. Anaya’s Republican successor) and to block the use of state trust lands for the construction of a border wall, allies must push back “on this narrative that the people from Mexico are different than we are, when in fact our cultures and economy and so much of our history [are] so intertwined that there’s no way a wall could end that.”
Although neither bill received a hearing on the House floor, much of this sentiment can be traced back to Nava’s plea alluding to the relatively new barriers — both political and physical — between the two countries that seem wholly foreign to many New Mexicans. Growing up, Rubio and her family frequently made trips across the border into Mexican states Chihuahua and Sonora. “Although there’s already been a wall built along the US-Mexico border, I think the wall that’s being described now is built on this rhetoric that is just inciting false fears,” she says.
Like much of the western United States, New Mexico has experienced a demographic shift over the past few decades. The increasing number of transplants, especially retirees, who have relocated to New Mexico for lifestyle reasons risks diluting the political influence of the state’s long-established Hispanic population. In Santa Fe alone, the Hispanic population dropped from around 63 percent in 1970 to 48 percent in 2010. Yet many newcomers are unified with longtime residents on immigration. “There’s a spiritual, underlying history and energy that people get drawn to Santa Fe for that reason,” Villarreal says.
Rubio sees the same trend in Las Cruces. Referring to these newcomers, she says that “a lot of the reason why they’ve moved here and made this place their home is because of the fact that we’ve had this rich culture and history. That’s what brought them here.”
More recently, the state has taken a less friendly stance toward immigration, with New Mexico’s Republican governor, Susana Martinez, taking a hard line against allowing undocumented immigrants to hold driver’s licenses. Diaz credits Martinez’s campaign with inspiring donors to help build her organization’s infrastructure and capacity to fight this new battle against the Trump administration. But while history is on the side of Diaz and her allies, the future is much less certain. Still, she is confident: “We’ve learned how to fight, we’ve learned how to win, and we will keep fighting.”
Back at the city council meeting, that positive attitude was pervasive: The cheering of the audience nearly drowned out the mayor’s announcement that the resolution had passed. Attendees took pictures and talked excitedly with one another during the 10-minute recess, flashing smiles and giving hugs.
Roberto Sanchez, originally from Chihuahua, was one of those milling around in the joyous crowd. He said he has lived in Santa Fe for nearly 20 years and has come to love his adopted home.
“This city is different,” he declared. “There are good people here. They love us and want to protect us.”
Michael Dax is the author of Grizzly West: A Failed Attempt to Reintroduce Grizzly Bears in the Mountain West. He writes about the intersection of environment and culture in the American West from his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Follow him on Twitter: @michaeljdax.