In February 2017, just a few weeks after Donald Trump began rolling out executive orders targeting undocumented immigrants, activists in Phoenix submitted a petition to the City Council requesting that Phoenix become a sanctuary city. It was an ambitious demand: Phoenix sits in the middle of a state with some of the most draconian anti-immigrant laws in the country, at the epicenter of what was, for nearly a quarter of a century, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s brutal fiefdom. Declaring Phoenix a sanctuary city would have meant defying both law and tradition, as well as the orders of the new president. The council promptly rejected the petition in a 7–2 vote.
By July, however, the city had revised its policy. The Phoenix Police Department announced that its officers would no longer question the immigration status of many of the people they dealt with. “Driving while Latino” would no longer be an occasion for cops to pull over a car and demand its occupants’ papers. Police would no longer demand the status of crime victims and witnesses; they’d also be prohibited from cornering students on school grounds. Phoenix was on its way to becoming a sanctuary city.
What had changed during those five months? Victories are rarely simple, and the story of how Phoenix flipped course is no different: Behind it are years of organizing by immigrant groups, advocates, and activists. But it can also be traced, in part, to what Assistant City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. described in an e-mail to other officials as “One of the most reasonable groups I’ve talked with since coming here.” The group, he continued, “was very pleasant. A former high school teacher, a magazine editor, 2 attys, a massage therapist, and two Hispanic advocates who I’ve never seen before. Clearly wanting to work with us in a non adversarial way.”
Those seven activists belonged to People Power, a grassroots initiative launched in early 2017 by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU has long used litigators to advance civil rights in courts—to expand the reach of justice through landmark cases like Scopes, Korematsu, Miranda, and Obergefell. But in a fundamental transformation, the ACLU is now incorporating volunteer organizers to work in tandem with its staff attorneys. The hope, said executive director Anthony Romero, is to seed a kind of citizen-led civil-rights defense force, and to transform the ACLU into an organization with clout at the ballot box.
“We enacted a sanctuary-city law in Phoenix…as a result of People Power activism!” Romero exclaimed in a phone interview earlier this year. (It was a slight exaggeration; the victory, though an improvement, was not a full-blown embrace of sanctuary policies. But in the age of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, of mass deportations and border walls, who could fault Romero’s enthusiasm?) “We never would have accomplished that entirely on our own,” he continued. “If there is one thing I will give Donald Trump credit for, he has given birth to what may be a golden age of citizen activism the likes of which I haven’t seen in my adult life, where ordinary folks turn out in record numbers. In 20 or 30 years, this organization could have the type of citizen activism that we usually associate with groups like the NRA or AARP.”